(…continued) Lisa started playing piano in the first grade. Her eagerness soon turned to boredom and frustration with the daily practice of dull routines. Yet, her mother insisted on and enforced the daily discipline of 45 minutes of practice. By the time she was 20 years old, Lisa had become an excellent pianist. She still had to continue the discipline, and there were still many days that she did not feel like practicing. But she kept at it, now seeing the benefits of the discipline, as she was receiving a great deal of pleasure from her skill. She can now play just about anything she wants to play and music has become her career. She now has the freedom to do whatever she wants to do at the piano.
Discipline, you see, is not the opposite of freedom. It is in many things, a prerequisite, a necessary first step to freedom. Lisa’s hard work and discipline has won for her a freedom at the piano that most people do not have. They may know where all the keys are and can read music, but they are not free to play like Lisa because their eyes and fingers and mind have not been trained by the discipline of daily practice. They have not paid the price in time and commitment. Lisa has the freedom to make wonderful music anytime, anywhere, because of her previous discipline. Freedom is not the opposite of discipline. It is its final reward. This kind of freedom is not something you can simply claim. It is bought with the high price of long, disciplined commitment of time and energy. Lisa’s freedom at the piano came after rigid rules, made and enforced first by her mother, and then taken on by herself, but now she is free. It is such discipline that earns freedom.
In C. S. Lewis’s classic book The Screwtape Letters, he said that the negative connotations that have grown up around the word ‘discipline’ is one of the devil’s “really solid triumphs of the last 100 years.” Discipline is not the primary aspect of our relationship with God, but it is a part of life in this world, and therefore it is a part of the Christian life. The devil has confused us in this, leading us down two wrong paths. The first mistake is to say that the Gospel is earned by our disciplined life. The second mistake is to say that God’s love is freely given and therefore it doesn’t matter how we live or what we do.
God’s grace is indeed freely given, but then why would we not want to obediently set aside time to be with him in prayer and worship, even if that means disciplining ourselves? It is incredible that the Gospel should be so misunderstood as to hinder and prevent this devotion, when the Gospel should instead awaken in us the desire for it. God works in us through his word and he invites our prayers. If that is what is needed for us to grow as Christians, we should be more than willing to discipline ourselves to clear the time for that. We think nothing of it when we see someone practicing hour after hour to hit a golf ball. That is what it takes to improve one’s golf game. Is it too much to suppose that following Christ is at least as challenging as playing golf or learning the piano?
There is an old prayer that says, “Lord, help us to obey, for in perfect obedience is perfect freedom.” It is a part of God’s freely given love that he commands what we need most. We need to spend time in prayer and in God’s word, not for his sake, but for ours. Knowing God’s word can give us peace of mind, strength, comfort, wisdom, understanding, patience, and all the ‘fruits of the spirit.’ A strong spiritual foundation, earned by taking the time to pay attention to what God has given us, results in the freedom that comes with knowing the Bible and how to use it, thus knowing where to turn for help and comfort when needed. When you are practiced in prayer, your prayers in time of most desperate need will not seem like grasping at a flimsy straw, but will be a natural part of your ongoing conversation with God. Coming to him in prayer in times of need will then be like going to an old friend. And the knowledge that comes with knowing God’s word gives one the wisdom to better understand and endure life’s tragic and confusing times with strength and hope.
Weekly worship may not always be uplifting, Scripture reading may not always be meaningful, and you may not always be able to keep your mind on your prayers. But bit by bit a foundation is being built by those disciplines, and the result is the freedom to live lives of faith, courage, confidence, and hope.
Proverbs 1:7 — The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Proverbs 5:22-23 — The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.
Psalm 119:44-45 — I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer