Do you ever have conversations in your head with yourself? We all do. Imagine for a minute you are having that conversation: the one where you failed at discipline and you are scolding yourself for once again not keeping that commitment/avoiding that temptation/meeting that challenge/whatever the topic is at the moment. It’s ok, we all have those at times, don’t we?
Discipline matters. In fact, discipline and disciple come from the same root. A person can be extremely disciplined — like an Olympic athlete — and yet not be a disciple of Jesus. But can one really be a disciple of Jesus and not embrace discipline? I’m not talking about guilt-ridden, legalistic discipline, nor am I talking about discipline motivated by comparison with others. Discipline for the believer flows out of grace, not guilt. Our motivation for grace comes from the wonder, the gratitude, and the joy of living for our Lord with all our hearts because of the gospel. It was Paul, who teaches us so much about grace, who set the example of disciplining himself like an athlete (I Corinthians 9:27). Dallas Willard sets this up well when he reminds us that “grace is opposed to earning; it is not opposed to effort.”
This discipline applies first and foremost to our spiritual lives, as Paul reminded Timothy to discipline himself for the purpose of godliness (I Tim. 4:7). But even as the gospel applies to all our life–spiritual, emotional, vocational, relational, financial, and physical–it’s hard to be disciplined in our spiritual lives and let ourselves go totally in other areas. Is there not a fundamental problem when a person seems disciplined in his daily devotions and yet is wildly irresponsible with spending money?
A question for me all my life regards growing in discipline. In recent days I’ve found a very helpful way of thinking about discipline from a different perspective. I came across a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning author named Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. Then I watched a TED talk on the book from a new habit I’ve started–riding my exercise bike 10-20 minutes when I finish my daily devotions while watching a TED talk or other video.
Duhigg talks about the HABIT LOOP:
It seems researchers have found a consistent pattern in people who practice both good and bad habits. Something cues us to a particular routine, followed by some kind of reward. One researcher found about 40% of our daily lives are controlled by habits. It’s why you can get in your car and drive to work, arrive, and ask yourself whether you closed the garage door, or can’t seem to remember much about the drive. It’s such a habit you don’t track every second.
What if you replaced one bad habit with a good one? What if instead of treating yourself to a cookie or other unhealthy snack in the afternoon, which you probably only eat out of habit, you began to bring to work your most favorite piece of fruit to enjoy then? Let’s say you are a young man who as a habit comes home and plays video games for an hour. First, WHY? Okay, sorry, it could be watching Sports Center or the Weather Channel, or wasting an hour on social media, or grabbing a bag of chips. What if you put a cue that reminded you first to do something productive, like homework, or going for a jog, or reading for 30 minutes. Then, reward yourself with a focused, shortened time watching a screen, and eating something that’s not processed to the nines.
Let’s say you want to start exercising. Before going to bed, place your workout clothes where you can’t miss them. That’s a cue. Planning ahead with a new cue is a start. Have your water bottle filled up and in the fridge. And then exercise. Find (ahead of time!) a youtube video with bodyweight exercises and get after right there in the living room. Duhigg even mentions giving yourself a reward that seems counterintuitive, like a small piece of chocolate. Studies show over time your mind will start cueing you that candy is not the reward, but long term health is.
Most of us have habits that are good for us. We brush our teeth (I hope!) without so much as a thought. But we also have bad habits. You don’t really abolish a bad habit; you replace it with a good one. Duhigg and others argue to make the change, you keep the cue and a reward, but change the routine.
Personal testimony: here are two I’ve done for my own health long term. One is the biking with a TED video, which I started again today because I’ve had some health stuff keeping me on the sidelines for a week. But it’s already become such a habit I couldn’t wait to get back on the bike this AM. A second is eating 5-7 (7 is the goal) servings of healthy fruits and vegetables a day. Don’t judge me, low carb people. Each of us is unique, and after a lot of experimenting this seems to be both more effective for me at controlling weight, staying satiated, and lets me not hate what I eat (which is not sustainable). And I feel good!
I encourage you to watch the TED talk (below), and if you can, get the book. The video below ties together rats, Starbucks, and marshmellows in an interesting way. But what I really want to ask you to do is to find one annoying habit that keeps you from growing in an area you care about, and replace it with a habit that moves you forward as a follower of Jesus.