Hard Things: Discipline or Obligation?

Discipline

I do a lot of things every day that I don’t really want to do.  In fact, many of them are things that I really don’t want to do: get out of bed, go to the gym, reply to emails, and many of the other things that keep me healthy and productive.  Unless you’re independently wealthy, laying in bed, and eating ice cream right now, you would say the same thing about your life.  We all know that the easy road never leads anywhere worth going.  Our willingness to do hard things is directly related to the significance of our lives.

We call all of this self-discipline – the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it, according to the nice people at dictionary.com.  It’s a good and biblical thing.  Paul urges Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)  Even in the spiritual life, Paul commends self-discipline, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”  In other words, the spiritual secret to spending time with God in the morning is called an alarm clock!

But I’m learning that there’s a huge difference between discipline and obligation.  Both require us to do things we really don’t want to do.  But they have very different outcomes.  Discipline leaves us better off, more fully alive, growing, and with a satisfied soul.  Obligation leaves us exhausted, frustrated with ourselves for giving in once again, and with a depleted soul.  Discipline takes us where we want to go, even if the road is hard, while obligation takes us away from where we want to go.  

A lot of our success and happiness in life depends on our ability to decide if each new request for our time, each new opportunity, and each new activity is an obligation to be avoided or something we should discipline ourselves to pursue.  If it takes discipline, it’s worth doing but if it’s an obligation, it’s worth avoiding.  I’ve started using three filters to help me tell the difference:

Filter #1: Desire

I know this is a strange starting point when we’re talking about things we don’t want to do but it’s essential to probe that lack of desire a little bit more.  If it’s an obligation, the more you press, the more that lack of desire is confirmed, “I really don’t want to do this.”  But if it’s an opportunity that calls for discipline that lack of desire starts to morph into, “I don’t want to do this but I want to have done this.”  For example, going to the gym.  I would rather sleep in but an hour from now, I’ll be glad I got out of bed and worked out.  If you’ll be glad you did it later today, it’s worth doing.  But if the opposite is true, it’s worth skipping!

Filter #2:  Benefit

There’s really two questions when it comes to benefit.

One, is anybody going to get any benefit from me doing this?  Notice, you might not get any benefit but someone else might benefit greatly.  Or you could be the sole beneficiary or some combination.  But the point is someone, somewhere is benefiting.  If that’s the case, it might be a time to dig deep and summon a little self-discipline.  On the other hand, if nobody gets anything out of you doing something, why in the world would you feel obligated?

The second question is a little trickier because it requires a cost/benefit analysis.  Yes, your friend might be touched that you flew across the country for her bachelorette party but is that worth $1,7000, an exhausting weekend, and missing church?  If she’s a really good friend, the answer could be yes!  But it’s also possible the answer is no – and that’s okay!  Not every benefit is worth the cost.  Discipline gives us the freedom to say no whereas obligation condemns us to a lifetime of resentful yeses.

Filter #3:  Prompting

This is where we drag the Holy Spirit into the conversation.  What’s He saying?  Is He leading you to do something that may not make much sense to anyone but will honor God and be a mark of obedience?  Then listen!  Be disciplined and go for it.  If, on the other hand, He’s leading you to say no, then go with Him in that as well.  We don’t just grow our faith by saying the difficult yes, often times we grow it by saying a difficult no.  In some ways, this last filter is the only one that matters.  Just be aware that the voice of God probably sounds very different from the voice of the person asking you for something.

I want to say yes to everything that God brings into my life, even if it’s hard.  I want to pursue life with a vigor that can only come from God.  But I’m realizing that requires me to say no to things I would be doing purely out of obligation.  So, I’m trying to filter all of life through a framework that says. “Disipline, yes.  Obligation, no.”

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