Discipline for Godliness

Sometime in the early summer before entering the seventh grade, I wandered over from the baseball field and picked up a tennis racket for the first time . . . and I was hooked! It was not long before I became a ten-year-old tennis bum. My passion for the sport became so intense, I would idly hold a tennis ball and just sniff it. The pssst and the rubbery fragrance of opening a can of new tennis balls became intoxicating. The whop, whop and the lingering ring of a sweetly hit ball, especially in the quietness of early morning, was to me symphonic. My memories of this and the summer which followed are of blistering black tennis courts, hot feet, salty sweat, long drafts of delicious rubbery tepid water from an empty ball can, the short shadows of midday heading slowly toward the east, followed by the stadium "daylight" of the court's lights, and the ubiquitous eerie night bats dive-bombing our lobs.

That fall I determined to become a tennis player. I spent my hoarded savings on one of those old beautifully laminated Davis Imperial tennis rackets — a treasure which I actually took to bed with me. I was disciplined! I played every day after school (except during basketball season) and every weekend. When spring came, I biked to the courts where the local high school team practiced and longingly watched until they finally gave in and let me play with them. The next two summers I took lessons, played some tournaments, and practiced about six to eight hours a day — coming home only when they turned off the lights.

And I became good. Good enough, in fact, that as a twelve-and-a-half-year-old, one-hundred-and-ten-pound freshman I was second man on the varsity tennis team of my large 3,000-student California high school.

Not only did I play at a high level, I learned that personal discipline is the indispensable key for accomplishing anything in this life. I have since come to understand even more that it is, in fact, the mother and handmaiden of what we call genius.


Those who have watched Mike Singletary (perennial All-Pro, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and member of the Super Bowl XXV Dream Team) "play" — and have observed his wide-eyed intensity and his churning, crunching samurai hits — are usually surprised when they meet him. He is not an imposing hulk. He is barely six feet tall and weighs, maybe, 220. Whence the greatness? Discipline. Mike Singletary is as disciplined a student of the game as any who have ever played it. In his biography, Calling the Shots, he says that in watching game films he will often run a single play fifty to sixty times, and that it takes him three hours to watch half a football game, which is only twenty to thirty plays! Because he watches every player, because he mentally knows the opposition's tendency — given the down, distance, hashmark, and time remaining, because he reads the opposition's mind through their stances, he is often moving toward the ball's preplanned destination before the play develops. Mike Singletary's legendary success is testimony to his remarkably disciplined life.

We are accustomed to thinking of Ernest Hemingway as a boozy, undisciplined genius who got through a quart of whiskey a day for the last twenty years of his life but nevertheless had the muse upon him. He was indeed an alcoholic driven by complex passions. But when it came to writing, he was the quintessence of discipline! His early writing was characterized by obsessive literary perfectionism as he labored to develop his economy of style, spending hours polishing a sentence, or searching for the mot juste—the right word. It is a well-known fact that he rewrote the conclusion to his novel A Farewell to Arms seventeen times in an effort to get it right. This is characteristic of great writers. Dylan Thomas made over two hundred handwritten(!) manuscript versions of his poem "Fern Hill." Even toward the end, when Hemingway was reaping the ravages of his lifestyle, while writing at his Finca Vigia in Cuba he daily stood before an improvised desk in oversized loafers on yellow tiles from 6:30 a.m. until noon every day, carefully marking his production for the day on a chart. His average was only two pages — five hundred words. It was discipline, Ernest Hemingway's massive literary discipline, which transformed the way his fellow Americans, and people throughout the English-speaking world, expressed themselves.

Michelangelo's, da Vinci's, and Tintoretto's multitudes of sketches, the quantitative discipline of their work, prepared the way for the cosmic quality of their work. We wonder at the anatomical perfection of a da Vinci painting. But we forget that Leonardo da Vinci on one occasion drew a thousand hands. In the last century Matisse explained his own mastery, remarking that the difficulty with many who wanted to be artists is that they spend their time chasing models rather than painting them. Again the discipline factor!

In our own time Winston Churchill has been rightly proclaimed the speaker of the century, and few who have heard his eloquent speeches would disagree. Still fewer would suspect he was anything but a "natural." But the truth is, Churchill had a distracting lisp which made him the butt of many jokes and resulted in his inability to be spontaneous in public speaking. Yet he became famous for his speeches and his seemingly impromptu remarks.

Actually, Churchill wrote everything out and practiced it! He even choreographed the pauses and pretended fumblings for the right phrase. The margins of his manuscripts carried notes anticipating the "cheers," "hear, hears," "prolonged cheering," and even "standing ovation." This done, he practiced endlessly in front of mirrors, fashioning his retorts and facial expressions. F. E. Smith said, "Winston has spent the best years of his life writing impromptu speeches." A natural? Perhaps. A naturally disciplined hard-working man!

And so it goes, whatever the area of life.

Thomas Edison came up with the incandescent light after a thousand failures.

Jascha Heifitz, the greatest violinist of this century, began playing the violin at the age of three and early began to practice four hours a day until his death at age seventy-five — when he had long been the greatest in the world — some 102,000 hours of practice. He no doubt gave his own "Hear, hear!" to Paderewski's response to a woman's fawning remarks about his genius: "Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge."

We will never get anywhere in life without discipline, be it in the arts, business, athletics, or academics. This is doubly so in spiritual matters. In other areas we may be able to claim some innate advantage. An athlete may be born with a strong body, a musician with perfect pitch, or an artist with an eye for perspective. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage. In reality, we are all equally disadvantaged. None of us naturally seeks after God, none is inherently righteous, none instinctively does good (cf. Romans 3:9-18). Therefore, as children of grace, our spiritual discipline is every-thing — everything!

I repeat . . . discipline is everything!


This being so, the statement from Paul to Timothy regarding spiritual discipline in 1 Timothy 4:7 — "train yourself to be godly" — takes on not only transcending importance, but personal urgency. There are other passages which teach discipline, but this is the great classic text of Scripture. The word "train" comes from the word gumnos, which means "naked" and is the word from which we derive our English word gymnasium. In traditional Greek athletic contests, the participants competed without clothing, so as not to be encumbered. Therefore, the word "train" originally carried the literal meaning, "to exercise naked." By New Testament times it referred to exercise and training in general. But even then it was, and is, a word with the smell of the gym in it — the sweat of a good workout. "Gymnasticize (exercise, work out, train) yourself for the purpose of godliness" conveys the feel of what Paul is saying.


In a word, he is calling for some spiritual sweat! Just as the athletes discarded everything and competed gumnos — free from everything that could possibly burden them — so we must get rid of every encumbrance, every association, habit, and tendency which impedes godliness. If we are to excel, we must strip ourselves to a lean, spiritual nakedness. The writer of Hebrews explains it like this: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1). Men, we will never get anywhere spiritually without a conscious divestment of the things that are holding us back. What things are weighing you down? The call to discipline demands that you throw it off. Are you man enough?

The call to train ourselves for godliness also suggests directing all of our energy toward godliness. Paul pictures this elsewhere: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. . . . Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave" (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). Intense, energetic sweat! We should singularly note that a sentence later in the context of Paul's command to "train yourself to be godly," he comments on the command and the intervening words, saying "for this we labor and strive." "Labor" means "strenuous toil," and "strive" is the Greek word from which we get "agonize." Toil and agony are called for if one is to be godly.

When one seriously trains, he willingly undergoes hours of discipline and even pain so as to win the prize — running 10,000 miles to run 100 yards at one's best. The successful Christian life is a sweaty affair!

No manliness no maturity! No discipline no discipleship! No sweat no sainthood!


Understanding this, we now get down to the reasons for this book, which are two.

First, in today's world and Church, disciplined Christian lives are the exception, not the rule. This goes for men, women, and the professional clergy. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying this has always been the case. It has not! As to why this is so, several common-sense reasons could be tendered, such as poor teaching or individual sloth. But underlying much of the conscious rejection of spiritual discipline is the fear of legalism. For many, spiritual discipline means putting oneself back under the Law with a series of Draconian rules which no one can live up to — and which spawn frustration and spiritual death.

But nothing could be farther from the truth if you understand what discipline and legalism are. The difference is one of motivation: legalism is self-centered; discipline is God-centered. The legalistic heart says, "I will do this thing to gain merit with God." The disciplined heart says, "I will do this thing because I love God and want to please Him." There is an infinite difference between the motivation of legalism and discipline! Paul knew this implicitly and fought the legalists bare-knuckled all the way across Asia Minor, never giving an inch. And now he shouts to us, "Train [discipline] yourself to be godly"! If we confuse legalism and discipline, we do so to our soul's peril.

The second reason for this book is that men are so much less spiritually inclined and spiritually disciplined than women. A recent study conducted in the United Methodist Church reveals that 85 percent of the subscribers to that denomination's premier devotional booklet, The Upper Room, are women. Moreover, the same statistics hold true for their other devotional booklet, Alive Now, which has a 75 percent female readership. This is corroborated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of books purchased in Christian bookstores are bought by women. Women simply read more Christian literature!

It is also true that far more women are concerned about the spiritual welfare of their mates than vice versa. The magazine Today's Christian Woman has found that articles focusing on the spiritual development of husbands have garnered the highest readership. All this is sustained by hard statistics. A Gallup Poll conducted in June 1990 revealed that 71 percent of the women surveyed believed religion can answer today's problems, while only 55 percent of the men agreed. The typical church service has 59 percent females versus 41 percent male attenders. Furthermore, married women who attend church without their husbands outnumber by four to one the men attending without their wives.

Why? Certainly the pervasive American male credo of self-sufficiency and individualism contributes. Some of this may also be due to the male avoidance of anything relational (which, of course, Christianity is!). But we do not concede that women are simply more spiritual by nature. The parade of great saints (male and female) down through the centuries, as well as spiritually exemplary men in some of our churches today, clearly refutes this idea. But the fact remains that men today need far more help in building spiritual discipline than women.

Men, what I am going to say in this book comes straight from the heart and my long study of God's Word — man to man. In writing this I have imagined my own grown sons sitting across the table, coffee cups in hand, as I try to impart to them what I think about the essential disciplines of godliness. This book is eminently user-friendly. The Church in America needs real men, and we are the men!


We cannot overemphasize the importance of this call to spiritual discipline. Listen to Paul again from 1 Timothy 4:7, 8: "Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come."

Whether or not we have disciplined ourselves will make a huge difference in this life. We are all members of one another, and we are each either elevated or depressed by the inner lives of one another. Some of us affect others like a joyous tide, lifting them upward, but some of us are like undertows to the Body of Christ. If you are married, the presence or lack of spiritual discipline can serve to sanctify or damn your children and grandchildren. Spiritual discipline, therefore, holds huge promise for this present life.

As for "the life to come," spiritual discipline builds the enduring architecture of one's soul on the foundation of Christ — gold, silver, and precious stones which will survive the fires of judgment and remain a monument to Christ for eternity (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Some may minimize the importance of spiritual discipline now, but no one will then! "[G]odliness has value for all things"! The disciplined Christian gives and gets the best of both worlds — the world now and the world to come.

The word discipline may raise the feeling of stultifying constraint in some minds — suggesting a claustrophobic, restricted life. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The obsessive, almost manic discipline of Mike Singletary liberates him to play like a wild man on the football field. Hemingway's angst over the right word freed him to leave a mark on the English language second only to Shakespeare. The billion sketches of the Renaissance greats set Michelangelo free to create the skies of the Sistine Chapel. Churchill's painstaking preparation freed him to give great "impromptu" speeches and brilliant ripostes. The disciplined drudgery of the musical greats released their genius. And, brothers in Christ, spiritual discipline frees us from the gravity of this present age and allows us to soar with the saints and angels.

Do we have the sweat in us? Will we enter the gymnasium of divine discipline? Will we strip away the things that hold us back? Will we discipline ourselves through the power of the Holy Spirit?

I invite you into God's Gym in the following chapters — to some sanctifying sweat — to some pain and great gain.

God is looking for a few good men!

»Leader's Guide

Food for Thought

What is spiritual discipline, and why is it so important? What usually gets in our way (see Romans 3:9-18)? What can a lack of spiritual discipline do to your life?

Reflect on 1 Timothy 4:7, 8 ("train yourself to be godly"). What is the literal meaning of "train" here? Practically, step by step, what does this mean you should do?

What does Hebrews 12:1 say about this? What things are holding you back in your walk with God? Why are you hanging on to them?

Is there a cost to spiritual discipline? Check out 1 Corinthians 9:25-27. What could greater discipline cost you? Are you prepared to pay the price? Why or why not?

"No manliness no maturity! No discipline no discipleship! No sweat no sainthood!" True or not true? How do you feel, deep inside, about this challenge?

How does spiritual discipline differ from legalism? Which do you most often practice? Is a change needed? If so, how can you bring this about?


What did God speak to you about most specifically, most powerfully in this chapter? Talk to Him about it right now!

Think About It!

Can we really become disciplined men of God — a spiritual Mike Singletary or Winston Churchill? Aren't we just setting ourselves up for defeat? Answer this in your own words, without using evangelical clichés.

—Disciplines of a Godly Man