By David Hegg
As virtues go, discipline has always been understood as necessary to success. In the sporting world, we often hear that those at the top work the hardest, study the most game film, stay after practice to practice even more, and generally are said to have a “high work rate.”
But in recent years the idea of discipline as its own reward has fallen on hard times. Unless it is tied to immediate, anticipated success, discipline is seen by us as unnecessary. In fact, more and more the concept of pleasure is associated with the abandonment of restraint. And while vacations are needed times of rest and retreat from the “oughts” of our complex lives, I wonder if we are slowly but steadily retraining ourselves to see discipline as a necessary evil rather than the essential virtue in our search for freedom.
Years ago I was privileged to sit in the audience as a world-renowned concert pianist — Mr. Sam Rotman — played a passionate program of classical piano music. A graduate of the storied Julliard School, Mr. Rotman noted that he practiced his music for 10 hours every day. Not nine hours and 45 minutes, but a full 10 hours. As I listened and watched his fingers flying over thousands of notes, my attention was drawn to his face. With eyes closed, and facial expressions running from smiles to surprise to sadness and unfettered joy, he perfectly reflected the mood of the music. In fact, he was living the music he was playing, and doing so with passion. I was struck with the realization that here was a man who was not tied to the notes; rather, the notes were under his command. He was able to play with the greatest freedom because he had first demanded of himself the greatest discipline.
That great discipline allows for great freedom is a truth that we desperately need to reclaim in our day. I can remember asking why, in junior high school, I needed to learn algebra. The answer was “because some day you’ll need to think logically.” Of course, I couldn’t understand the logic in that! What junior high boy does? But what the educational experts understood was that the discipline of algebra was necessary to train the brain to think, and thinking brains had the potential to someday become creative, problem-solving, society-enhancing brains. The discipline then was understood to be necessary to freedom later on, freedom to think sequentially, logically and creatively. And while it would pain my teacher to know that I couldn’t solve for x if my life depended on it today, the discipline of mathematics was a necessary element in my learning to analyze arguments and other things involved in my teaching, writing and preaching.
In our desire to find freedom, we would do well to honor the place of discipline. By this I mean the understanding that rigor must precede reward, consistent diligence and focus must lay the foundation for accomplishment.
Too often today we are a society of short-cuts, looking for a way to the top that doesn’t require the agony of the climb. But it is the agony, the practice, the planning, the sweat and the daily grind that actually build the character necessary to see the journey as its own reward. The determination to be the best, combined with the discipline necessary to pay the price, is as much a value to our society as any victory or accomplishment.
People of discipline make better workers, better spouses, better neighbors. They aren’t afraid of hard work, of struggle, of labor, of pain. They recognize that the easy path isn’t usually the best path, and that the practice of daily discipline builds character and usually ushers in accomplishment. They draw strength to do the right thing from the deep springs of discipline in their lives and believe that recognition doesn’t ultimately matter as much as consistency and honor.
Ultimately, discipline is a value that acts in the present in view of a better future. Physical exercise is a discipline aimed at future health, just as a disciplined financial plan looks forward to having enough for the unknown days ahead.
In the same way, moral discipline now anticipates the day when the accounts will be settled before the court of Heaven. Unfortunately, as great as personal resolve and discipline are in this life, no amount can satisfy that court. The currency of human effort isn’t accepted there. Only the discipline of faith, trusting only in the willing, disciplined mission and message of Jesus Christ, will be found to satisfy Heaven’s demands.
In the end, his discipline, not ours, is the stuff of ultimate, eternal freedom.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.