Among the many character qualities we need to master, I believe self-discipline is among the most difficult. Recently, I asked several people how they are doing. They gave common responses, such as, “I haven’t started my paper that is due soon” or, “I should have read that book by now”. As we near the end of the semester, midterms and assignments are a frequent topic of conversation. It seems that often, people want the product of discipline without paying the price. We want to be in shape, but we want to eat what we want and we don’t want to go to the gym. We want to know God, but we don’t want to spend time in prayer or reading the Word.
The writer of Hebrews says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). What is the vision you have for your life by the end of this semester? What is the vision you have for your career in five to ten years? That harvest will not be reality unless you are willing to invest time and energy into that reality.
Honestly, self-discipline is not easy for anyone, including myself. I have found that I must create an environment that is beneficial and forward-thinking if I am to produce the right outcomes. If I anticipate working out in the morning, I have to put my gym clothes on first thing when I get up, so that I don’t back away from my goal. If I anticipate writing, I need to go to a place where I am not easily distracted. Our environment has a significant impact on creating good habits of self-discipline.
A 1971 study found that over 15% of U.S. soldiers stationed in Vietnam were heroin addicts, but within a year of returning home, only 5% were still addicted. Nine out of ten soldiers kicked their addiction overnight simply by being in a different environment than the one in which they initially established the habit. If they were addicted to heroin before going to Vietnam, their chances of relapse were significantly higher. 90% of heroin users become re-addicted after rehab because they return to their environment. A person can try as hard as they want to be self-disciplined, but if they continue to put themselves in an environment that does not encourage better behavior, they will not change. Along the same lines, if a person stays friends with people who set a poor examples of self-discipline, that too will hinder positive change.
There are a few truths I have found helpful. First, the hardest person to lead is yourself. If you can’t conquer you, you will always struggle with the vision, plan, and direction that God has called you to pursue. Second, talent will only grow with focused discipline. I have known so many wonderful people who have great intentions, but who have not realized their full talent because their intentions were not married to discipline. Third, pick one area to work on, rather than trying to improve everything at once. The saying goes, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, meaning that a person can’t see the big picture because they are so focused on one small area. But in this case, it is better to just focus on one tree at a time. Start small, and after a season of conquering one tree, you will soon see a beautiful forest of great habits developed in your life.
Lord, the area of self-discipline is one that we struggle with so much. Procrastination sets in, leading us to listen to our non-productive inner voice. Midterms are upon us, along with a cold fall season. It is easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged. I pray for strength and a tenacious spirit to arise among your people. Amen.