Before we talk about the problems caused by the lack of personal discipline, we should first clearly define what personal discipline is thought to be, and what is really is.
A. General idea of personal discipline
Most people think that personal discipline is the ability to say "no" to our vices and weaknesses. For example, we try to quit smoking and can't so we say, "I lack personal discipline to quit." We overeat, overspend, overdo anything and we chalk it up to lack of personal discipline. So we think personal discipline is this inward ability to resist what is bad for us emotionally, physically and spiritually. To a certain degree this is true but self-discipline is so much more than will power.
B. Biblical idea of personal discipline
In the Bible we have a clear and complete idea of the nature of discipline, both as a virtue possessed and a character trait developed in another.
In the gospel of Mark 5:1-20, the gospel writer describes a man who was totally out of control, one who had lost complete control of self.
Vs. 1 – They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.
The country of the Gerasenes was on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee across from Jesus’ adult home of Capernaum. The Sea of Galilee is not very large, and from one hilltop you can view the neighboring cities and shores.
Vs. 2-3a – 2 When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him, 3 and he had his dwelling among the tombs.
That a man would live among the tombs made him the worst of outcasts. To touch the dead or their graves made you unclean, to live among them was unthinkable.
Vs. 3b-4 – And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; 4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him.
He was insanely strong, untamable, much like a wild beast.
Vs. 5 – Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.
He was suicidal, in great anguish and living without hope. This man was an example of one who had completely lost the ability to control self and was like a dangerous animal.
Vs. 6-10 – 6 Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; 7 and shouting with a loud voice, he said, "What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!" 8 For He had been saying to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" 9 And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Legion; for we are many." 10 And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country.
Having no self-control doesn't mean that there is no control, it simply means that neither God nor our best selves are in control. In the case of this man Jesus' appearance makes plain that the devil’s evil spirits are in full control, and trying to destroy this person with madness.
Vs. 11-14 – 11 Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain. 12 The demons implored Him, saying, "Send us into the swine so that we may enter them." 13 Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea. 14 Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened.
Mark describes how the legion of evil spirits, trying to avoid judgment for a time, ask to be sent into the pigs. Jesus permits this, knowing the certainty and outcome of their judgment, and immediately the pigs are destroyed. The country of the Gerasenes was populated by Gentiles which explains the presence of pigs, and it is thought that Jesus uses these to show that the evil spirits were real. The point of these verses however, is that the spirits recognize and immediately submit to Jesus.
Vs. 15-20 – 15 They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the "legion"; and they became frightened. 16 Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine. 17 And they began to implore Him to leave their region. 18 As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. 19 And He did not let him, but He said to him, "Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you." 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
The important point for us to notice in this section is the part where it says that the demon possessed man was in "...his right mind." That expression is the Bible’s way of saying "self discipline." The expression came from two words which meant to save the mind, or to become sound minded.
Now in Mark's account this man's mind was totally lost and out of control. He was naked, living in a cemetery, suicidal, dangerous, crying out like an animal and demon possessed.
He comes to Jesus, and with simply a word the Lord brings the man back to a right mind, a mind controlled, and we see evidence of this: he was dressed, he no longer was prowling about the tombs but seated near Jesus. He was no longer violent, dangerous or incoherent because he appealed to Jesus to return with Him and the Apostles. He received and followed instructions to return home and witness what Jesus had done.
We know he did do this because later in Mark 7:31 Jesus returns to the area and great crowds await Him, and He heals a deaf and dumb man. These people came because of the witness of the demoniac.
In this account Jesus takes a totally out of control man and miraculously restores him to a "right mind' or what we call "self discipline"/"self-control." Obviously, not all lack self-discipline to this degree, and Jesus does not restore all self-discipline miraculously, but in His word we can learn about the providential way God can help us regain the measure of self-discipline we lack or have lost for whatever reason.
Developing Self-Discipline / A Right Mind
So let's review before we go on: self-discipline is not simply self-control, it is a matter of possessing a right mind. The idea is that right actions spring from a right mind. If our minds/hearts are right, the type of actions we desire will follow. Another way of explaining this idea is this:
- Self-discipline as simply self-control is reactionary. Something happens, you react. It is hit and miss, up and down.
- Self-discipline as having a right mind is proactive. You make the good you want happen along with avoiding the bad.
How then, in a non-miraculous way, do we cultivate a "right mind"?
No one is born with self-discipline or a right mind. Education from an early age is the single greatest contributing factor that determines the level of self-discipline we have as adults. This is good news because if self-discipline is learned, it can be acquired throughout one's entire life. Of course it's just easier to learn when taught from an early age. What then must we learn?
A. The True Reality
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
- Titus 2:11-14
Paul, the Apostle, summarizes the Christian worldview and encourages his readers to frame their experience, their lives and their perception of the world through this reality. In doing so they will have a "right mind," or the control of self to act in accordance with this reality. For example, knowing this reality will help one not to indulge in reckless pleasure or useless activities that threaten one's soul.
People who give up control of self to allow something else to control them have usually not known the true reality or have abandoned it for some other reality which permits them to cede control of themselves to another person or thing.
B. The True Self
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.
- Romans 12:3
Paul speaks of gifts that God gives to each Christian for service in the church. He also tells us that we need to measure ourselves honestly in light of what God has done for us; no more, no less. He says that we should be "sober minded"/"right minded" when looking at ourselves. The demoniac made no sense to anyone, including himself, until he faced Jesus and confessed that he was in slavery to a legion of devils. No need to explain how or why, Jesus knew, he simply had to confess the truth about self. There is no self-control without self-honesty and self-knowledge. How can you gain control of self if you refuse to acknowledge what it is that now controls you, or where you lack control or a "right mind"?
C. The True Consequences
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
- I Corinthians 6:9-10
Sometimes we are deceived by others into thinking we can violate the true reality and survive spiritually and eternally. Sometimes we deceive ourselves, or we allow what controls us to deceive us into thinking that we can violate the true reality and not suffer the eternal consequences. Because final judgement is delayed, we permit ourselves to be deluded by the momentary pleasure of sin, but in doing so we are not in our right mind. To be in our right mind and thus gain control of self we must keep before us the true rewards and consequences of our actions. This will help us keep all things in their proper and right perspective, and allow a right mind to dictate a proper action.
D. The True Lord
For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
- I Corinthians 2:16
I suppose the biggest problem we face in this exercise of self-control is the word self. The whole idea of having a sound mind, of being of a right mind, is to give over rulership of self to Christ. In the world, the self-help gurus want to get everyone to take charge of their own lives. Self-control through absolute rulership of self by self. Of course this may help with your smoking or eating problems for awhile but it is not a long term solution, and will be disastrous to your soul.
In the true reality our task is to cede control of self to Christ, just like the demoniac did, and allow Him to restore us to a right mind. What I've just explained - the knowledge of the true reality, the true self and the true consequences, is usually what brings us to the knowledge of the only one who can truly be in control of us. When we know these things (by being taught them) we realize that even we cannot be in control of self. This is the great breakthrough in the area of self-discipline or "right mindedness" as the Bible calls it. The great breakthrough is when we give up trying to master self (even for good) and strive to make Jesus the master or the controller of self.
How to Make Jesus the Controller of Self
The last part of this chapter is practical. Just how do we improve self control by ceding control to Jesus? Three things to actually do:
1. Pray. Ask Him to do so! Evangelicals often make the prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts or to take control, and this is a legitimate request - but not in place of repentance and baptism. Sins are forgiven at baptism (Acts 2:38) not through prayer for Lordship. Jesus said that we should, "seek, ask, knock" Matthew 7:7. People always see this in material terms, asking Jesus for things we need, and this is legitimate, but it also works for intangibles like a request for the Lord to control self and produce a right mind. Pray for this, believing that He hears and answers, and this will become the first step in displacing self and sin as rulers in your life, and making Jesus the king of your soul.
2. Submit. As the Lord takes over there will surely be changes that will happen in your life because of this. You will have to submit to His discipline if you want to cultivate what you call "self-discipline." Sometimes the submission is self-imposed as when you read His word and understand what you must do and simply do it in submission to Him (II Timothy 3:16). Sometimes the submission is imposed by Him through a set of circumstances, restraints or suffering you must endure in order to be perfected (Hebrews 12:4-6). Either way, His sovereignty over you will be felt soon enough, and you will know that you are no longer "in control" and this will become the source of not only your peace but your spiritual power over everything else that once controlled you. I call this freedom through slavery, or mastery through abdication, or self-control through the control of self by Christ.
3. Minister. I go back to our demoniac in Mark 5:20 where Mark writes of him after he left Jesus, "And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled." He didn't let the demons back in. After he called out (prayed) to Jesus and Jesus entered in. After Jesus refused his urgent request to come with Him to which he submitted in obedience without grumbling. What did he do? He went and ministered to his own people. How? Preaching and teaching? No, he had no training, no knowledge. He went and witnessed concerning himself and how Jesus had taken control of him and given him a right mind and how this had changed him. This ministry solidified and perpetuated Christ's position as master.
Without ministry we slip back into our old mode of "self-control" and eventually all the demons make their way back in and the last is worse than the first. Ministry, not perfect self-control, is the way to keep Jesus as Lord of our souls and maintain a "right mind."
So for one who struggles with self-control issues, it's not about what you take into your body or your mind; it's not what your bodies do or don't do. It's about:
- The true reality you ascribe to
- The true self you acknowledge
- The true consequences you're willing to accept
- The true Lord over you
A change begins with a change of who is Lord over you and is completed when your submission to Him is constant and your ministry in His name is on-going.