“My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline, but don’t be crushed by it either. It’s the child he loves that he disciplines; the child he embraces, he also corrects. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. At the time, discipline isn’t much fun. It always feels like it’s going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it’s the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God.” – Hebrews 12:11 MSG
I am old enough to have grown up in a time when discipline often meant belts, dunce caps and wooden rulers. But I have also lived long enough to have a pre-teen son that I am now responsible for disciplining under a very different set of cultural norms. Thankfully, this essay is not about discipline in that sort of understanding. It is about the beauty of disciplining ourselves in order to achieve the freedom to grow and create.
Historically, I’ve been lousy at discipline. Everything from the silly stuff like not being able to lay off that third cookie, to the more important stuff like finding the balance between partying and going to class so as not to get kicked out of school. (Don’t ask). But I think a big part of the reason I’ve had so much trouble creating a sense of discipline in myself is because I’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons. For me, it’s been more about denial than it has been about personal growth. And generally speaking, discipline through denial is a losing proposition. I’ve begun to learn that, like most everything else in this world, love plays a huge role in making this a successful journey. You have to love yourself to discipline yourself. Otherwise it’s just masochism.
So the question then becomes: once we’ve learned how to better discipline ourselves, what are we disciplining ourselves for? That is where freedom comes in.
I have, in the last few years, been working to create a podcast. As part of that podcast I have been able to talk to a dozen or so pastors and priests about their callings. Specifically, we talk about their spiritual and religious journey, where they are on that journey, and all the people and events that helped them get to where they are. My favorite part of these conversations is hearing about how they made the decision to pursue a life that was focused on drawing closer to God. In most cases they gave up another course of study to pursue their call to ministry. In almost every case they gave up the opportunity to make a lot of money and find worldly success. And in some cases, they made the ultimate commitment to give up almost all their worldly possessions to follow that call.
In each talk I always ask the same question: when did you first hear the call? The most common response surprised me at first, but as more and more pastors had the same answer it became clearer that there was a reason for the shared experiences. Across the board, for both men and women, young and old, they almost always began hearing that call in college. I am not sure I have, as of yet, a full understanding as to why that timing is the way that it is, or whether it is just a supreme coincidence.
But, not surprisingly, I have a theory.
The first few years of college are the time for most of us when we are granted more freedom than we have ever had, and in some cases will ever have. And even for those of us that have been blessed with the discipline to manage that freedom successfully, it can be incredibly overwhelming.
And in that overwhelming state, many of us are vulnerable and open to being called in a direction, and that is when these pastors and priests were called to God.
In my case, the overwhelming nature of that freedom led me to struggle. Sophomore year in college, when most of the pastors I spoke with began to hear their call, I was beginning to develop mental health problems that I am still working my way through to this day. Specifically: OCD, anxiety and depression. I started in on all the typical compulsive behaviors: turning on and off light switches, counting, walking and stepping in different areas, trouble crossing over thresholds. The freedom I had been given was too much and caused me to turn to compulsive behaviors for comfort.
Obviously, there is a lot more to my experience than just what I’ve described here, but I think there is one interesting point of comparison between my experience and that of the pastors I have interviewed. At the time, my coping mechanisms felt like a means of survival, but they were an artificial type of “discipline”, meant to help me get through the day. In reality, they shielded me from hearing my own call. In contrast, the pastors were able to lean into that vulnerable moment and hear that call. Once they had heard it, they were then able to set the discipline around the pursuit of that calling.
Another important aspect of following that call: in almost every case, they found a mentor, a role model, or a teacher to help them create the right disciplines to order their freedom and see their calling more clearly. Those that have found their calling have also in many ways found the discipline to become disciples. Not surprisingly, both “discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root word: the Latin word “discere”; to learn. Disciples follow their leaders in order to learn how to be better at whatever it is they are studying. But to do so they must not just be committed to learning but committed to reigning in their freedoms in order to focus and learn from their teacher. In the end it comes down to balance. Balancing the freedom that life gives to create and to explore with the discipline that our teacher gives to provide the focus to learn.
As I wrote earlier, discipline can’t just be about denying oneself; it has to have a purpose. The calling gives us that purpose. And trusting that call and following it gives us the freedom which empowers us to grow and explore while allowing the discipline to focus and structure that power.
So the question becomes, who are you called to be a disciple of? Who will you look to in order to find that freedom? For those pastors, it is Jesus. For you it might be your work mentor, or a teacher you had in school, a coach or a parent.
Far too often in this day and age it is a celebrity, a politician, or sometimes even a movement full of hate. Who you choose to disciple to is one of the most important decisions you will make. There is always a choice, and there is always an opportunity to change.