Should We Ditch Discipline?
Let’s talk about discipline. I’ll bet you have strong feelings about that word.
Maybe you’re a hard-charging, Type A, get-stuff-done-and-get-it-done-quickly kind of person. You wake up at 5:00 AM every morning. (More accurately, you bounce out of bed like a puppy at 5:00 AM.) You get more done before breakfast than most people do throughout the rest of the day. You’ve read 18 of the most recent books on habit formation. You’ve toyed with the idea of writing your own.
People would describe you as disciplined, and you wouldn’t object. You like winning, you like achieving, you like doing. You like discipline.
Or … maybe that’s not you. You’ve never been mistaken for a morning person. You don’t bounce out of bed; you rollllll. On many days, it feels like the day happens to you, rather than the other way around. You’d like to read more books. Or, actually, you’d like to finish more books—since you’ve started a dozen and just haven’t had the motivation to finish many of them.
You might still be responsible. You may still accomplish a lot. But the word “discipline” makes you want to groan. It’s a word filled with guilt and shame. You hate it.
I know I’ve painted a pretty artificial dichotomy here: People are more complicated than this. But still, you fall on one side of this spectrum or the other. “Discipline” makes your ears perk up or it makes your heart sink.
Which is a really big deal when we add another weighty word in front of it: “spiritual discipline.”
Now, suddenly, we’re not talking about your ability to wake up before the sun. This has to do with God. Go ahead and crank that emotional dial up to 11, because whatever you were feeling before, now it’s amplified. If you were feeling proud of your inherent discipline, get ready to feel really proud of yourself for how often you read the Bible. If you were feeling insecure before, get ready to feel really ashamed at how hard it is for you to find time to pray.
Spiritual disciplines. They’re kinda fraught, aren’t they? Is it time for us to ditch discipline altogether?
“Have To” vs. “Get To”
One of the biggest challenges with spiritual disciplines is that they feel so much like homework. It’s a bunch of “have to” and not a lot of “get to.” And sure, if we’re following Jesus, we should expect a lot of the “have to”s. That’s what it means to have a system of ethics. “Have to” is just another way of talking about what is good and noble and right.
I have to read my Bible.
I have to pray.
I have to give to the poor.
It’s not like I think Christians should all stop doing these good things. It’s just … well, am I the only one who feels like he already has a ton of things he has to do? Where’s the “get to” part of the Christian life?
Ironically, one of the disciplines that feels most like a burden and least like an invitation is Sabbath. I’m going to walk us through some of the Sabbath origin story in a moment, but let me skip to the punchline: I believe a right understanding of Sabbath is uniquely able to transform our view of “discipline” from the drudgery of “have to” to the joy of “get to.”
Sabbath teaches us what grace-filled practice looks like.
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back a bit, first. Way back, actually. In fact (you have good treads on those shoes?), let’s go all the way back to the beginning.
The First Spiritual Discipline Practice … Ever
The Bible is, at its most basic, a very big story. And on page 1 of chapter 1 of book 1, God is at work. He’s doing. He’s creating and cultivating. Creating—that is, making good things. Cultivating—that is, making things good.
For three straight days, God creates—light, darkness, outer space, the skies, the oceans, the earth. Then, on days 4–6, he cultivates, making the good … even better. He fills up the sky and the ocean and the earth. Go read Genesis 1. Or Psalm 104. Or, even better, take a long walk through the woods. The beauty of the world? That was God’s idea.
Now, the next-to-last thing he creates is his very best work—people. You and me and your third-grade teacher and your noisy neighbor. Because we’re made in God’s image, we’re meant to work the way God does—creating and cultivating for the good of others. This, too, is pretty nifty stuff. We might think our work is helpful. We might think our work is annoying. Rarely do we pause to remember, Our work reflects the way God works in the world. When we work, we’re acting out the image God has put in us.
But watch this: On Day 7, God stopped. He rested. And—I love this—when God stopped, he actually created one last thing. Sabbath.
And there it is. The very first spiritual practice. Ever. It’s just … “Stop. Take a beat. Put your feet up. Rest.” In a world full of “have to”s, that’s actually a pretty wonderful invitation. You can take a break.
Part of what makes this so mind-boggling, though, is that God told us to take a break like him. Now, he certainly didn’t need to take a day off because he had run out of steam. But he wanted us to know how important Sabbath was. So even though he wasn’t run down, he set the example anyway. One day off each week, everybody, he says. Trust me, you’re gonna love this.
And, in theory, I really do. Sabbath is an invitation to stop all of our good work and enjoy all of God’s good work—just like God does. Stop and enjoy. Pretty cool stuff.
But it doesn’t take long before we figure out a way to gum things up.
Am I Doing This Right?
Let’s jump ahead a few years. Okay, a few thousand years. We’re in the first century now. And the Jewish people—they’re the ones following this book, the Bible—have actually really latched on to the practice of Sabbath. This seems promising.
Except they’ve done what we all tend to do with spiritual practices. They’ve exchanged a “get to” for a “have to.” By the time of Jesus, the handful of Sabbath rules had grown into a whole system of rules called the melachot—the 39 categories of work, all of which were off-limits on Sabbath.
Plowing, sewing, cleaning, writing, lighting a fire.
And these rules got very specific, too. For instance, you could walk 3,049 feet on the Sabbath. Not a foot more. To prevent yourself from writing, you weren’t even allowed to touch a writing implement. It was against the rules to kill a fly or a mosquito, but it was okay to kill a wasp.
It was hard to keep all these rules straight. Even harder to get them all right. Sound familiar? It’s “discipline” all over again. Some people did it really well (and they were proud of themselves for it). Other folks really didn’t (and they felt ashamed for falling short).
Sabbath had become a “have to,” a burden. It became easier than ever to miss the invitation, joining God in his rest. It became easier and easier to focus on getting it right.
And then, one day, an obscure religious teacher (that’s Jesus, but you probably guessed that already) from a town that isn’t particularly important (that’s Nazareth) starts performing miracles. He’s making people whole again—I mean, literally. Making blind people see. Making sick people healthy. Telling paralyzed people to stand up and walk. And he was doing it, as often as not, on the Sabbath.
It’s funny—when people read the stories about Jesus, they often ask, “Where did Jesus claim to be God?” And I don’t hear people talk about Sabbath that much. But think about it: Here comes a guy who starts insisting that he is in charge of the Sabbath.
Like he made it or something.
Like he was personally there on Day 7, looking around at the cosmos, saying, “That’s good! Now, let’s stop and enjoy.”
In a world full of religious people asking themselves, “Am I doing this right?” in comes Jesus with a much different question, “Would you like to be made right?” For Jesus, Sabbath was an invitation to wholeness. In fact, it always had been.
An Ancient Answer to a Modern Problem
Okay, so … why exactly haven’t we taken Jesus up on this invitation, again?
Part of it is just the time we’re living in. If you think back to when you were a kid, things probably moved slower. For me, that was the ‘90s. Not exactly the stone age, but a different time. A lot of restaurants were closed on Sundays. Home computers weren’t a thing yet (let alone iPhones). So to work through the weekend, you’d have to actually go to work.
Now, were we all stopping our work to enjoy God’s good work? Maybe not. (OK, OK, almost definitely not.) But there was a kind of infrastructure that made Sabbath imaginable. These days? Not so much. It’s easier than ever to do more, every day of the week. Work more. Buy more. Watch more. Be more.
The good news is, the iPhone didn’t invent this problem. It has always been a challenge to stop and enjoy. Here’s why that’s good news: Because if our problem were new, we might need a new solution. But if our problem is ancient, maybe the solution is, too.
As ancient, say, as the beginning of the world.
Practice, Practice, Grace-Filled Practice
Sabbath is the first practice we find in the Bible. And it just may be the best practice for hurried, harried, twenty-first American Christians. In Sabbath, we hear God inviting us to practice a life of presence and joy. Instead of hearing an exasperated teacher saying, “Have you gotten it right yet?” we hear a gentle Father saying, “Would you like to be made right?”
But it begins with practice.
Practice reminds us that as we’re walking with Jesus, none of us are high achievers. We’re all just practicing. Even the greatest saint, after 70 years of faithfulness, is still just practicing.
Practice means we’ve all got something we can be doing. Steph Curry and my 8-year-old daughter both have basketball skills to work on. They certainly don’t practice the same way. But they both practice. They learn by doing.
Practice also means that we’re often doing it very poorly. But as G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” That’s as true of Sabbath as it is of anything. We start a Sabbath practice. We muddle through for a while. We fall off the pace. We begin again. And we try to remind ourselves that we’re walking with Jesus—at his pace, and in his grace.
Give yourself some grace, too. Remember, as much as you can, that you’re being invited into something beautiful. It won’t just happen: there’s an RSVP on this Sabbath Invitation. So yes, you’ve got to do something. But what are you doing? Receiving. Slowing. Enjoying.
Is that an obligation? If it is, it’s an obligation I want.
Is that a discipline? If it is, it’s the most counter-cultural discipline I can imagine.
It’s practice. It’s joy. It’s presence. It’s the good life.
And it can begin this weekend.