Discipline is the Price of Freedom

discipline

I came across this excerpt from D. Elton Trueblood’s 1970 book The New Man for Our Time on the topic of spiritual discipline. It caught my attention as I continue to give attention to the disciplines of grace necessary for us to grow in the spiritual life, drawing upon the influence of writers like Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, as well as other spiritual writers of much earlier eras and today.

When we begin to ask what the conditions of inner renewal are, we receive essentially the same answers from nearly all of those whom we have most reason to respect. One major answer is the emphasis upon discipline. In the conduct of one’s own life it is soon obvious, as many have learned the hard way, that empty freedom is a snare and a delusion. In following what comes naturally or easily, life simply ends in confusion, and in consequent disaster. Without the discipline of time, we spoil the next day the night before, and without the discipline of prayer, we are likely to end by having practically no experience of the divine-human encounter. However compassionate we may be with others, we dare not be soft or indulgent with ourselves. Excellence comes at a price, and one of the major prices is that of inner control.

We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matter is the character of our binding. The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously and to live abstemiously denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life with the dictum: Discipline is the price of freedom.

[From D. Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).]

It Needs to Get Inside of You: Eugene Peterson on the Spiritual Disciplines

peterson-square1One of my favorite authors is Eugene Peterson. Peterson is best known as the author behind the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. As a pastor, his works on pastoral ministry for our contemporary era, such as Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral IntegrityFive Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Under the Unpredictable Plant, are unparalleled. In the midst of my ongoing exploration about spiritual practices for pursuing the deep life with God, I unexpectedly came across these reflections on the idea of spiritual disciplines that I wanted to share. This is taken from an interview with Image. Peterson gets it right here, I believe, because he cautions against over-ownership of our efforts in growth, even though he acknowledges the importance of spiritual practices in our transformation into Christlikeness.

Image: This may be an audacious question, but what spiritual disciplines do you observe?

Eugene Peterson: I read scripture slowly. I pray. I worship….

A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doing something. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.

I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.

Unhurry Your Life: a review of John Mark Comer’s ‘The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry’

JMC The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Waterbrook, 2019)

I still remember the time I read a line that changed my life: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”[1] I was a pastor in urban Milwaukee, working with college students. I was reluctantly leading student leaders through a study of John Ortberg’s popular book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Zondervan, 2002). I say reluctantly because I had—and probably still have—a natural aversion to anything that seems widely popular. You can call it a failing, because it probably is, but it’s there all the same.

When I read that phrase, I realized two things. First, Ortberg’s work was so attractive because we all can relate to the way he talks about spiritual growth in our everyday lives: we want it, but it sometimes seems so out of reach. Second, Ortberg had a mentor of great depth in Dallas Willard, author of many weighty books on spiritual growth such as The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life with God, who spoke that powerful line about hurry into Ortberg’s life. In fact, John Ortberg would go on to sometimes describe his ministry and The Life You’ve Always Wanted as “Dallas for Dummies,” which appropriately helps us understand how challenging some of Willard’s writing can be, but probably undersells the significance of Ortberg’s work.

After encountering Willard’s advice to Ortberg about ruthlessly eliminating hurry, I immediately began to consider what that would mean for me at that time as a husband, a father of three young children, and a college pastor burning the candle at both ends. I made some changes then, and a good part of it was based on what I read by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster while new in my faith and during my own college years. One thing I figured out was that I would need to continually learn and re-learn what it means to live at a slower pace than the world around me in order to walk with God and minister out of the overflow of my own life with God.

eliminate hurry.001Fast-forward to this past year, when I posted that same quote from Willard on Twitter and a friend reached out to ask me if I had read John Mark Comer’s recent book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World.  Truth be told, I had not heard of the book, but was familiar with Comer, author and pastor for teaching and vision at Bridgetown Church in Portland. I picked the book up and discovered what was already obvious from the title, that Comer was influenced by Ortberg toward a deeper encounter with writers like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others.

Comer’s book is divided into three parts: part 1 – the problem; part 2 – the solution; and part 3 – four practices for unhurrying your life. There is also a small interlude between parts 2 and 3 about what spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices—Comer calls them “the habits of Jesus” (106)—are and why this is important to eliminating hurry. The third part offers an exploration of four practices to help us enter into life with God in the midst of a harried culture: silence and solitude, sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Throughout the book, Comer astutely combines wide-ranging research on the challenges to eliminating hurry with a depth of insight about how to bring spiritual practices meaningfully into connection with our life.

I confess that when I first began reading the book, I wondered whether it would really be worth it. After all, I’ve read nearly everything Willard and Foster have written, and I’ve read Ortberg’s book The Life You’ve Always Wanted more times than I wanted to with student leaders over the years. However, as time went on, I discovered something very helpful within Comer’s book. He had taken that familiar materials and placed it so close to the changing culture we live in that the practical suggestions and application were rich and profound. For example, Comer connects classic works on spiritual disciplines with deep works on Old Testament biblical studies to talk about sabbath both as rest and worship, as well as sabbath as resistance.  I also imagine you will enjoy Comer’s list of twenty suggestions for bringing the practice of ‘slowing’ into our lives in a fresh and meaningful way. We all need someone to make old things feel new and Comer does an outstanding job of that with this book.

While I would hate to say, “Hurry up and read this book!”, let me encourage you to take advantage of our present moment to give thoughtful engagement with John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry.


[1] This comes from chapter 5, “An Unhurried Life: The Practice of ‘Slowing’”, in The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), but also can be found in Ortberg’s article “Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry,” Leadership Journal, July 4, 2002, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2002/july-online-only/cln20704.html.

All Real Faith Involves Discipline: Albert E. Day on cooperation with God

sunshine-dust-motes

I encountered these provocative words from Albert Edward Day in Discipline and Discovery. While perhaps in some ways using exaggeration to make his point, Day strikes home the importance of cooperating with God in the process of spiritual growth.

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the worlding pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe ‘turning it all over to Jesus.’ Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for god is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.’ People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperations, is a heartbreak spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not life his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

In all Christian literature there is no writer who had a clearer conviction concerning the salvation provided only in Christ than has Paul. His self-despair ended in that marvelous, ageless insight, ‘I thank God, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’ ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he cried in an ecstasy of gladness, ‘and am persuaded that he is able.’ Paul was a salvationist, in the noblest sense.

But Paul was also a disciplinarian. ‘I beat my body to keep it in subjection.’ ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.’ ‘So fight I, not as one who beateth the air.’ ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon earth.’ ‘Laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily beset us.’ ‘No man that warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.’ These are not he words of a man who scorned discipline!

On might multiply such statements as these from Paul—all of them the almost spontaneous evidence of the disciplines which he, trusting in Christ, imposed upon himself in his eager effort to give Christ that co-operation without which not even Christ can save a soul and make a saint.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

The Weekend Wanderer: 9 March 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

Lent fast word cloud“What to Give Up for Lent 2019? Consider Twitter’s Top 100 Ideas” – Once again, you can follow in real time what Twitter users say they are giving up for Lent, which this year begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6.  As in past years, food is the most popular category for abstention, followed by technology and ‘vices’ like smoking and drinking alcohol. After analyzing the first 1,500 tweets—both serious and sarcastic—OpenBible.info’s Stephen Smith noted that ‘perennial favorites’ such as social networking, alcohol, and Twitter lead the list so far.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 11.57.21 AM“In Praise of Boredom” – With reference to Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, James K. A. Smith engages with the dehumanizing aspects of distraction and the importance of boredom for our recovery. “But how to overcome distraction? How to break through the bedazzling glare of our screens, the latest threat to parade as an angel of light? The problem isn’t simply that the technologies of distraction prevent us from making or appreciating art. This isn’t simply a competition for attention. The concern is more egregious: our distraction demeans us.”

 

iphone keyboard“Repenting in the age of iPhones and instant gratification” – Lent helps us learn repentance in our lives at multiple levels. Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on what this mean in the smart phone, social media culture. “The work of naming our wrongdoing to ourselves and to God is unlikely to bring immediate gratification. Nor will it engender the sort of external and public validation we may crave from our frequent forays into Twitter, Snapchat or FaceBook. The Creator of all will not be giving a ‘thumbs up’ to our expressions of remorse. The Divine Majesty is probably not going to ‘follow’ our episodic utterances of regret on Instagram. No, repentance is an I-Thou exercise.”

 

Welcoming the Stranger“A Migrant Invasion?”Noah Toly, Professor of Urban Studies at Wheaton College, reviews the revised edition of Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang’s Welcoming the Stranger. Both Matt and Jenny were part of our Mission Fest at Eastbrook a couple of years ago, and this updated edition of the book is even more timely given our current debates. Toly offers a fine review of the book with helpful reflections on why Soerens and Yang’s work is “more than a counterpoint to anti-immigrant uproar, it is an antidote to the propagandistic way of being in the world.”

 

hands folded“Integrating Justice Into our Spiritual Disciplines”Kevin Garcia opens a discussion about gaps in classical spiritual formation related to justice, reflecting on ways that he has attempted to integrate the pursuit of justice within his spiritual formation rhythms. “Everyday there are several rhythms that shape our beliefs. What podcast do we play the most? What books do we read? What channel do we go to for our news? Who do we follow on Twitter? I began thinking more deeply about this recently as our church joined in a fast to start the new year. During this time, I immersed myself in some works considered classics on spiritual disciplines.”

 

Pope Pius XII“Vatican to open secret archives on World War II-era and Pope Pius” – “Pope Francis has announced that the Vatican next year will open its secret archives containing World War II-era documents from the controversial papacy of Pope Pius XII. The archives cover the years 1939-1958 and consist of several hundred thousand letters, cables and speeches. Critics of Pius say he did not do enough to publicly combat the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. Supporters say he worked diligently behind the scenes to save Jews from the Holocaust.”

 

Macrina“This Church Mother Comforted the Grieving with Scientific Thinking” – “In AD 379, Basil the Great, one of the men who contributed to the Nicene Creed, died. Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa were two of the three Cappadocian Fathers­—men responsible for major theological decisions made in the early life of the Christian church. What is less well known is that they also had an older sister, Macrina. She was deeply precious to them for her love, her insight, and her wisdom; they even called her ‘Teacher.'”

 

gary saul morson“The greatest of all novels” –  At The New Criterion, Gary Saul Morson reflects on how Leo Tolstoy explores the complexities – not the simplicity – of human existence in his masterpiece, War and Peace. “All purported social sciences held that, as with Newtonian astronomy, the complexity of observed phenomena was explicable by a few simple laws. But with society and individual psyches, Tolstoy insisted, the very opposite is the case: ‘the deeper we delve in search of these [fundamental] causes,’ Tolstoy observes, ‘the more of them we find.’ Things do not simplify, they ramify.”

 

Music: “Forgive Us” from At the Foot of the Cross, volume 2, featuring Julie Miller, David Mullen, and Gene Eugene.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]