The Sweetness of Discipline

“Everyone’s disciplined for what they love,” states Dr. Dan Allender in today’s podcast episode.

The quest for becoming “more disciplined” prompts questions about motivation. Is it fueled by a higher purpose or overshadowed by shame and guilt? Does discipline revolve around self-control or simply a desire for control? What are the costs of being disciplined – and what goodness results from it?

In their discussion, Dan and Rachael dive into these questions and more. They explore the complexities of discipline, the significance of small disciplined actions, and the sustaining power of delight and beauty.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, I was talking with a dear friend who is quite athletic, goes to a health club regularly, and he just mentioned how good this point of the year is, and I’m like, really? It’s freezing cold and flu is… covid is… this is? I would never have said this is the best time of the year. And I said, how come? And he said, because all the wannabes who want a different body and future have left the club. Apparently, as he would claim around 40 some percent of the folks who come to a club in January are new and they burn out within about six weeks and start attending less and less and less. So the club turns back to those who are disciplined and regulars. So what we’re going to talk about is your history of discipline. How’s that feel?

Rachael: That feels good. I just have some thoughts about your friend, but let’s go with where we’re going because I feel more, what I’m thinking is like, yeah, it’s such a setup that we’re in in our culture that in the middle of winter is when you can totally adjust in the season where you’re actually meant to be wintering is where you are going to radically adjust your rhythms and rituals. So it’s more like, yeah, but I’m curious what happens in the spring and summer when people’s lives open up in a different way. I digress. Continue.

Dan: No, you are an amazingly disciplined person. I think particularly of your history of, I think the sport is one of the cruelest of all, long distance running, going around a golf course again and again and again and again from my standpoint for a week every day. So as we open up this conversation of discipline, let’s just say it’s not one that I think most people will initially go, oh, I’m so glad they’re addressing that. It’s more like, oh, I know I should blah, blah. And you get a feel for that, particularly in the book of Hebrews where chapter 12 verse 11, it 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.” So at least the writer of Hebrews is pretty clear. We don’t enter this topic and go, wow. Yeah, that’s what I want to talk about. Do you find that to be true?

Rachael: Yeah, I do. I do find that to be true. I’m even thinking about my, well, we just got back from a big swim meet with our kiddos and they’re really getting into the sport of swim and they swim every day and swim has all these intricate movements that you really have to train your body like a flip turn and even the start and diving in a way that propels your body every stroke, figuring out how to do it well, coordinating your breaths and learning your pacing. It’s been fun for me as someone who spent many years running long distance and talking with them about it is in the daily, in some ways, the faithfulness in the small that allows you, when you talk to even professional athletes, even baseball players, they would say, yeah, you practice swinging, you practice swinging, you practice swinging. Swinging is one of the hardest things. Hitting is one of the hardest things in baseball, but really you have to get out of your head and into your body and just actually feel it. It’s like you have to actually, and you practice a sport religiously daily so that when you’re at the performance mode, it is more like breathing than it is something you’re having to, and it is very strategic. But I think the flip side of that for me is I ran in part because I had severe anxiety and it was a way that I could tend to that because of the endorphins and I had a natural talent for it. And there was something that felt relieving to me about running long distances, but all that discipline, if it wasn’t rooted in a kind of motivation for something more, at the end of the day, I didn’t care if I won. At one point I wanted to go to the Olympics, but I quit running in college because I didn’t care if I was a national champion and in fact I knew I wasn’t going to be one. And so in some ways my motivation started to get exposed and it actually wasn’t a sustainable discipline for me. And so I think there’s a really good conversation to have because I do think one of the ways we think about discipline in our culture is a kind of mastery over your body, a mastery over whatever the thing is. And I think we’ve got to find a middle ground, which I know even like you and Becky in this season of your life, finding the ways to tend to your bodies has required that middle ground. You can’t just beat your body into submission as we all are aging, getting older. You have to have a different motivation. So when I think about the writer of Hebrews, I’m thinking, yes, a discipline unto what?

Dan: And he tells us

Rachael: Or she

Dan: A harvest, indeed, a harvest of righteousness. And for many people, I think that is a phrase that passes so quickly that it’s like, oh, whatever. But if you step back and to go the nature of righteousness. So yeah, this is a conversation about discipline, but it’s more important that you, the listener here, why did you join the club? Why are you doing deep knee bends, et cetera? Discipline has to be for a larger purpose or the particularity of that moment of suffering doesn’t have a sufficient base for continuation on just mastery and control. It is not a sufficient, shall we say, and to suffer the means. So I go back to that phrase, harvest of righteousness and the category of righteousness we think of, I think unfortunately in the matter of right or wrong or just/unjust, and that gets closer, but actually the notion of righteousness is the restoration of how we were meant to be the restoration of the earth, first. There is a sense in which righteousness has to do with something Edenic. So you don’t master Eden, you participate in glory, you participate in honor and delight. And so when we begin to talk about discipline, does your eating, does your drinking, does your exercise, does your time in scripture, is it driven by a sense of necessity built on, I should, which is another word for the word guilt. If so, guilt can take you a lot further than maybe a lot of other emotions, but it will never take you to the finish line of that phrase, a harvest of righteousness. So where does that take you?

Rachael: Yeah. Well it’s interesting because even just thinking about discipline in this season of life, for me, so much of my life, of course, because of the context within which I come from, and discipline was such an individualized focus. So even a lot of things you just named were all things you should be disciplined in this. And honestly, if you’re not, you’re lazy or you’re not faithful or the list goes on. And obviously we work in trauma, so even there, we would hope you would take the full conversation we’ve been in over many episodes and seasons as a cradle for this conversation. But I certainly had seasons where my discipline was coming, because I am a very disciplined person, coming really out of my trauma as much as anything as a way to stay sane, as a way to feel some sense of control in the midst of chaos or even in the midst of the chaos of my body to feel like I could be good in God’s eyes. So still a very individual focus under this threat of if you aren’t, you’ll be outside of the love of God and you’ll fail. And I think thankfully I’m in a season where I have… sleep deprived because I have an 18-month-old and two teenagers who are very active in sports and just in that sweet spot of middle school where you are really coming into these things that you love doing and want to give them those opportunities, and I don’t know how to be disciplined in this season without the surrender to community, which I think is helping me get closer to a sense of righteousness and getting closer to so many of the things I could be disciplined about have just fallen off the table. Because when you’re in a little bit of survival mode, you’re like, what’s the point of this? Is this actually leading to a flourishing of life for my family, for myself, for my larger community? But I absolutely think at such a time as this, not only in my personal life, just in the little microcosm of my family, but how we’re called to live and love in the world and what we’re up against. When I think about how I want to participate in bringing about the true kingdom of God, the shalom oriented kingdom of God in the here and now, there’s no way we can sustain the labor of doing justice and loving mercy and practicing humility and standing up against the power, the death dealing powers of this world without a sense of discipline in the face of hardship, in the face of, and so please hear me. I’m not saying, oh, those right now who are like, I think about the Palestinians right now, people who are under a kind of threat I have never known in my lifetime who are under a kind of death and annihilation and starvation and displacement and all kinds of ideological whirlpools. I’m not saying to people in the midst of severe trauma, where’s your discipline? I’m talking, I think, to those of us who have a capacity to make a lot of choice right now and what we do with our time and our resources and how we are present with the people around us. So I’ve been thinking a lot about discipline and the things that for a long season motivated me. Fear, shame being cut off from love aren’t actually motivating to me. But what is becoming more motivating to me is seeing where Jesus is moving and bringing life and where there’s a need to join the movement of the spirit. I know if I’m not faithful in the small things, I’m not going to sustain a network. The minute it gets hard, the minute it’s going to cost me something. There’s such a temptation to go. And I think in some ways that’s the microcosm of going, that’s the word picture of starting at the gym. The minute it actually starts to cost you something, it’s like, oh, our motivations get really exposed because if they’re not for a greater good for ourselves and others, so a form of righteousness, why would we stay with our hand at the plow?

Dan: Yeah. So let me divert quite, maybe significantly yet, I think it’s connected. So what’s the discipline for you sitting for, I don’t know, six to eight hours at a swim meet?

Rachael: Oh, I mean, in some ways that’s what’s so beautiful about this season. The discipline is actually leaning into delight and presence and celebration of my kids and their hard work and what it means for them to have witnesses to their hard work and to feel supported in that. Also, the discipline of Michael and I tagging out to go walk with Evie up and down the hallway a thousand times because she wants to move. And so it is just being there. So it is some might say a self-sacrificial act and in some ways it is, but also I love sports, so it’s not actually hard to be a spectator of little humans being in their bodies in ways that not everyone has the privilege to be. So I do think delight and beauty and goodness have to be a part of our discipline.

Dan: Well, let me start with a premise, and the premise is this, everyone’s disciplined for what they love.

Rachael: Yes, that’s a great way to say that.

Dan: Yeah, and it’s lovely. That’s not a fault. It’s a matter of will you look at the already present discipline. So I think our natural, when we hear the word discipline, we just have that awareness of it’s going to cost. I’m not good at it. I have failed a thousand, a hundred thousand times verses being able to say, where am I disciplined and what am I to learn in that process of owning that I’m really good at sitting in an auditorium watching my step-son swim, I look at that and I go, I would rather be put on a rack that would be torture for me to do that. And I do do that. I go to sports events for my grandchildren and I have to discipline myself to stay in the game, not look at my phone, to shout, but in a way that does not offend the other team. There’s a lot of things that need to be done, but can we start with you are already disciplined. What areas do you consistently, with great clarity, and with consequences that ultimately feel fairly good and what are you to learn about that? And delight is really meant to be something of the experience of seeing a harvest of righteousness. So if you enjoy exercise, if you’re enjoying it, I do think there needs to be a step into a level of, can I press myself a little bit further, but also not press myself into a realm where it becomes arduous, suffering, pain for nothing other than, again, back to that notion of mastery. I don’t think any of us can grow in discipline without this edge of seeing a little bit further and yet not so far that it takes away the experience of both honor and delight. Does that ring true?

Rachael: Certainly, certainly. And it rings true with the disciplines that we naturally think of when we think about discipline that have to do with our own personal development and also how then we love and participate in our families, in our communities and in the larger world. So I absolutely think that feels true.

Dan: Yeah. So one of the things that many people find regarding the nature of discipline is to the degree that you individualize it and it is not shared with someone, it becomes more and more onerous and more and more isolating. So that question of discipline really can be a context in which you see with even greater clarity, your need for help if you’re, again, there are reasons why my knees and such I can’t run, but when I did run, it was so delightful to be with Becky or another runner because that intersection of we are to some degree suffering, but we’re also engaging in delight. And you put words to that earlier that in some ways discipline that leads to control is different. That discipline that sets you up for a larger community and a call for a kind of engagement that involves really the cry of help.

Rachael: What’s so interesting, even as you’re talking, I’m like, you know what? Even though I ran competitively for 12 years, I have never been able to keep a discipline of running on my own in the 20 years since I quit cold turkey in the middle of college. I think I always needed a team, a coach, and a common collective mission that we were all working toward. And it’s just like as you’re saying that, I’m like, oh, that’s really interesting. There just wasn’t a motivation. I’ve never been motivated enough to run consistently without a reason and a group.

Dan: Yeah. Well, and again, as a Peloton rider, it is so silly, but the idea that there is this community, I can’t see them, they’re on a screen, it’s a counterfeit at some level or a very distant ancillary, yet it still has that same impact. And to me, this is why it goes back to a harvest of righteousness. This isn’t just about you dieting or running or spending more time in scripture. It’s how is this inviting you to be more alive in the sweet gift of restoring the earth, restoring righteousness in the world that you’re in. And when it becomes nothing more than the physicality of I want to lose X amount of weight, or I want to read the Bible in one year, again, I don’t want to undermine goals, but to be able to say the goal of reading the Bible in a year is a very ancillary goal, to be captured by something of the glory and the wonder of how scripture invites us into the heart of God–that’s a different discipline. And so no one has to, in one sense, discipline me to arrive at the dinner table with anticipation, but learning how to cook, there’s a discipline there that I am finding harder to stay consistent with. And yet, as Becky said, we are in the dying age and I want you to be able to survive if I pass before you and you’re going to have to learn to make many more meals than you currently do. I have three or four that are, I want you to try this recipe. And I’m like, no, no, no, no. Can’t we just buy it? And the answer is, sure, you could. But part of the discipline is enter into the slow, long, arduous process of developing an ability to eventually create beauty and goodness that will feed not only you, but hopefully whoever you invite to your table if I’m not here. So that’s where I want to come back to. Do we really have discipline for beauty, discipline for glory, goodness, righteousness, the restoration of the way things were meant to be, whether that is thought about in collective categories with regard to racism, whether that’s in collective categories with regard to the effects of the disparity between the extremely rich and the poor. These are categories of discipline that go well beyond whether you got up early and chose to take a long walk. But it also includes that because really the brilliant remark that you made at the beginning of, if you’re not faithful in the small, it’s almost guaranteed as the weight increases, so will something of the suffering. And so will you let yourself be trained in the small and not disparage the small, not view it as, look 10 pushups, which because of my shoulder injury, I can’t do, but I can kneel and do 10 sort of half pushups. 10 is better than nothing, five is better than nothing. Will we be faithful in the small? One of the things that I do for Martin Luther King Jr Day is I always begin by reading the letter from the Birmingham jail. And I read it a couple times during the year, but particularly that morning. And it’s part of the discipline of stepping into realities that’s easy to let myself escape. And so where we begin to ask, what is the small but opens the door to the difficult that you want to step into to taste something of a greater delight and a greater glory in that harvest of righteousness. So where do you see the small taking you to the large?

Rachael: I was just thinking about that. Well, one thought I had before I answer that is just, I also think it’s just good to remember in all of these conversations that we have been gifted the Spirit of God that is advocating for us and illuminating for us and empowering us and encouraging us. And this is one of those realms where I find myself just desperate for a sense of God with me in these places that I want to be faithful and I want to steward what I have well, which I do think takes incredible discipline. But in this particular season, being faithful in the small, again, is a season of a lot of ritual of a toddler and her daily, multiple minute by minute, hour by hour rituals of eating and sleeping and playing, and the discipline to not resort to anger or cortisol flooding. I mean, you and I were just in a conversation earlier today where she’s present with us and climbing on her helping tower and then getting up on the counter and then opening her toothpaste and trying to eat the fluoride toothpaste. And so I do feel like I’m in a season where I’m just, again, sleep deprived and pushed up against all of my edges. So in some ways, paradoxically disciplined for me is to not give over to the exhaustion, to the panic, to the fear, and to that sense of, yeah, I am a fighter to the fight so that I can get a moment of soothing that doesn’t actually lead to the goodness I’m meant for or my family is meant for. But discipline also looks like saying, okay, we have to discern together what is our capacity as a family? What is our capacity as a married couple? What’s our capacity? What’s a toddler’s capacity? What’s our teenager’s capacity, and how do we be good stewards? So discipline is not always just doing the thing at all costs. Sometimes it’s cultivating a deeper wisdom for the long game. I think many of us miss that. That part of also being faithful and the small is discerning with wisdom where we’re actually spending resources. We’re not even meant to be spending.

Dan: Well, what comes to mind is a conversation I had with two dear friends, Mike and Myra, and we were having lunch with them, and at one point describing the beginning of the year, Mike looked at me and he said, what’s your discipline with regard to, and again, it came faster than I’m about to say it, but I’m expecting the category because we were talking about scripture. He was going to ask about, and it would be appropriate question, how do you approach scripture? How do you read? Do you read daily? But my anticipation was shocked when he said, what’s your discipline in creating margins? And I went, what? What do you mean? And he goes, essentially what he went and said was, can you hear the tone change? And well, I guess. What? He said, you’re not good at margins. Margins cost you, in one sense, there’s pain for you in creating a margin. I’m better if I start eight o’clock, whatever I do next, nine o’clock, and I’ll have a margin at the end of the day. But in between, no, that’s just not efficient. It’s not practical. It doesn’t give pleasure. So here’s one of the strange realms about discipline is will you be willing to suffer to gain greater pleasure? What do you need to lose in order to, in one sense, see this restoration? And for me, having an actual margin, like 15 minutes to just get up from one appointment and take a walk metabolize to ponder, to not go on to another task. So an appointment ends, go look at email in that five minute period of time, get that done, get another appointment. And he said, your ability to be disciplined, as most people would actually refer to it, it’s pretty high, but not from the standpoint of letting yourself center into even momentary Sabbath. And then he just said something along the lines of, have you ever read any books on Sabbath? Nonetheless, yes, I have written and read. But that became, I think for me, part of what’s prompting this conversation, a harvest of righteousness is only going to come by creating discipline. Discipline is not just going to be suffering, though it will include it, but does it have the direction that allows your heart to taste something of, oh, this was the way it’s meant to be. Not guilt, not shame, not demand, not pressure, not perfection, not control, but sweetness. And I think that has altered something of how I’m thinking about discipline in countless other areas. Thoughts?

Rachael: Well honestly, I’m just taking a moment to be really grateful for Mike’s words to you. What a sweet gift of someone seeing you really well and bringing invitation. And again, it’s not to get into it here, but I think you’ve shared enough on the podcast why a discipline of creating margins is threatening and scary and costly in its own right. And I think that that’s what I would say is any of these categories that we talk about with regard to pursuing the humanity and the creation we’re meant to be a part of are always coming from our in-storied, deeply embodied and storied places. And I think it’s where I find myself looking to those, speaking of margins, in the margins to witness and watch what does their sense of… like how’s discipline connected to resilience and what keeps people staying in the mess of life and the beauty of life when so much has been taken or so much seems out of reach. I dunno, there’s just something, I find myself really grateful for this conversation, because full disclosure, I am the person many times over who has been inspired to join the gym in January. Again, as a metaphor, right? Both literally and metaphorically. I have joined the gym in January and maybe made it to the middle of March or the end of February, but certainly lost all sense of motivation. And I’m not just talking about with exercise. There are plenty of ways in which I know I’m called to grow, where, yeah, I look for different motivations than delight than love, because I do think love is also meant to be one of our greatest motivators of discipline, what it means to love well. So I find myself just grateful for your own disclosure and generosity of your own disclosure.

Dan: Well, and again, after the conversation, one of the comments Becky made was, are you now going to insert in your schedule, breaks? If so, it just becomes another to-do list. I’m like, give me a freaking break.

Rachael: You know what this is reminding me of is your, I think it was earlier this summer when you said that Becky had challenged you to basically do something leisurely. You couldn’t read a book that was for scholarship or for work. It had to be, and you were going to report back to us. But I dunno if we ever followed up on that. I’m just saying this feels very similar.

Dan: Okay. Certain patterns just do not, and again, I think that’s absolutely true. The issue of repetition here, of stepping in, trying, failing, forgetting, going back, and then being reminded again, and to not hate that, to not despise that discipline is in certain areas going to be far harder. As I said, I don’t need to be disciplined to arrive at a meal on time and with great anticipation, but the reality of learning how to prepare or shifting the category, like going back to, because it’s essentially winter right now. I’m not doing a whole lot of kids’ sports stuff, but it’s a good reminder for me. There’s a discipline I need to bring as I attend one of my granddaughter’s soccer matches. And it’s important for her, it’s important for my son and daughter-in-law that I’m there and there with a harvest of righteousness, not just doing the right thing, clicking it off, but actually participating. And a lot of participation for me, when I think about the discipline is to learn the game. To me, soccer is just, and especially, they’re better than the amoeba section of five to eight.

Rachael: Oh, it’s the best.

Dan: No, it’s the worst.

Rachael: It’s the best. When they just run around and chase each other, the ball, and then hit the, oh, it’s the best. It’s the best

Dan: Torture, absolute torture. At least they’re passing. At least they seem to be doing something. But the discipline to say, if I’m there, can I be asking my son or my daughter-in-law, what’s this play? How are they teach me the game? So there is a sense in which, as we go back to the word disciple/discipline, the best that we know etymologically, especially with those words, is that it goes back to a Latin word that seems to connect with the word student. So the notion of no matter where and how good and how competent you are regarding any particular task, are you a student? Do you approach the process of doing what you’re doing as a learner? Wanting to, in one sense, be captured even more growing, more tasting something of the goodness in that? If so, then you’ve got the core of what it means to grow in discipline. And that is to be captured by the wonder of whatever task you have engaged so that there is this sense in which you’re not merely being transformed, but you’re able to bring a taste of the renewed, the restored earth to those that you’re with. May we grow in discipline.

Rachael: Amen.