This exploration of self-discipline I’ve undertaken lately is a work in progress. I used to think understanding is straightforward — that you suddenly understand, all confusion is removed, you’ve finally found THE answer, and can apply with ease and confidence.
It’s more like going over and over and over a subject, grasping a new bit of it, trying to apply it, seeing that it doesn’t quite work, going over it some more, dropping it altogether, coming back for another Eureka! moment only to fall flat on your face and conclude that you have no idea what it’s about and never will… then getting hold of a new tidbit that shifts the whole picture again… There is much doublemindedness and blundering about.
So it would probably be better not to make such things the subject of blog posts until you’ve finished with all the blundering and have some solid conclusions. Or at least have some idea that the conclusions you’ve come to seem to be working out as correct. But that would mean I’d write a blog post only about every two years, so I’ll stick with this.
So what is the difference between the self-control produced by the Spirit and the self-control produced by the flesh? Because there are definitely two categories. My dilemma springs out of the fact that if it’s supernatural, if it’s a fruit of the Spirit and the Spirit produces it, then I must not do anything to produce it. Like trying to be “self-disciplined.” On the other hand, we’re commanded to do things that do require forcing oneself to do things one may not desire to do…
Like sit in Bible class, be quiet and pay attention to the pastor as he teaches, for one.
So… which is it? Or is it both?
And what exactly do I mean by self-control anyway? In my last post on this subject I mentioned the blog post by Aaron Swartz about being more productive, from which I followed a link to an article on “Why Self-Discipline is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within.” It’s written by Alfie Kohn, who is an educator, something of an academic and a liberal. A fair amount of what he had to say I disagreed with, but some of what he brought out was quite illuminating.
First was a picture of what human self-discipline looks like — and how it can be a system of bondage. This is not helped by the fact that our culture lauds self-control and treats it as invariably wonderful. Self-control is good and admirable and virtuous, whereas impulsivity is not. This dichotomy is communicated especiallyclearly in schools . Good students are well-mannered, do their work right away and pay attention and are thus admired; bad students throw spit balls, distract everyone with their antics and drive the teacher batty, and are problems that need to be solved.
Part of Kohn’s intent in his article was to challenge this unquestioned value system and to do so he used the findings of research psychologist Jack Block. Block defined “ego control” as
“the extent to which impulses and feelings are expressed or suppressed. ‘Those who are undercontrolled are impulsive and distractible; those who are overcontrolled are compulsive and joyless…’ It’s not just that self-control isn’t always good; it’s that a lack of self-control isn’t always bad because it may ‘provide the basis for spontaneity, flexibility, expressions of interpersonal warmth, openness to experienced and creative recognitions.'”
I think that was the first time I ever read something in support of “lack of self-control,” but again, I saw the truth in that statement as soon as I read it. I experience those impulses — to give someone a hug, to go look in a book, to call someone, to do something other than what I’d planned — and often they turn out to be the guidance of the Spirit. So clearly there is an element of self-control that has to do with the flesh trying to control things, and that’s not the kind we want, though that is the kind that most people in this world have (being unbelievers; or believers not operating under the power of the Spirit) and laud.
“Overcontrollers tend to be complete abstainers from drug use, but they are less well-adjusted than individuals who have lower ego control and may have experimented briefly with drugs, [while] a tendency toward overcontrol puts young women (but not young men) at risk for development of depression.”
He goes on to illustrate the point with the example of a student who always gets her work done right away. Superficially this seems laudable, but inside, what is her motivation? He points out that it may be the reason she isn’t doing the things she’d prefer to do over homework is because the intense discomfort that comes from having an unfinished task hanging over her drives her to do it. “She wants — or more accurately, needs — to get the assignment out of the way in order to stave off anxiety.”
A clear, clear picture of the sin nature producing what appears to be self-discipline but in reality is just the knee-jerk function of a slave hopping to. Until she gets the work done the master inside her is going to flog her with guilt and anxiety. I can totally relate to this illustration.
Kohn suggests that in many cases self-discipline may actually be a sign not of health but of vulnerability, reflecting the “fear of being overwhelmed by external forces or by one’s own desires that must be suppressed through continual effort.” This is the poor person who is relying upon self and not upon the power of the Spirit and the word…
Then he said this, and it blew me away:
“In his classic work, Neurotic Styles, David Shapiro described how someone might function as ‘his own overseer, issuing commands, directives, reminders, warnings, and admonitions concerning not only what is to be done and what is not to be done, but also what is to be wanted, felt and even thought.”
We can do this with God’s plan for our lives, again, not in the power of the Spirit but solely through the function of our flesh. It’s yet another example of legalism. From reading the Bible we see all these things we should do and be and want, and how easy to just take it upon ourselves to see that we carry out those demands. Of course, the end is going to be failure, because we’re fallen and it’s not going to work. And even if it appears to work externally, inside there is no peace, no joy, no capacity to love…
He goes on to point out that an extremely disciplined person often sees everything as a means to an endand can’t “feel comfortable with any activity that lacks an aim or purpose beyond its own pleasure and usually do not recognize the possibility of finding life satisfying without a continuous sense of purpose and effort.”
Here, of course, we stray into some of the stuff I take issue with. I’m not sure anyone is truly comfortable living a life without purpose, and that’s one of the wonderful things a relationship with God gives us. But all these descriptions I’m setting down refer to the function of man in the flesh. And the flesh can base all its worth and satisfaction on achieving stuff. (One of Solomon’s eight experiments, written about in Ecclesiastes; and not one of those experiments produced the desired result of happiness) The purpose in the above quote refers to a purpose you can see, not something you must take on faith. The control freak has to see the purpose in what he’s doing or it’s not any good. “I’ve wasted the whole day dinking around with cards,” she wails, “and didn’t get anything accomplished! I’m a BAD girl.”
A few years ago when he was standing in for Pastor Bob who was ill, Pastor John Farley taught this:
“Guilt can arise from perfectionism. This is an unbelievable insult to God: I’m going to live by my standards and everything that’s good or bad is going to be decreed from the court of my soul. If I said I did a good job, I did. If I said I did a rotten job, I did. I don’t care what God says, it’s rotten. Everything is you and your standards. You’re living in the old man, letting the old man say what’s good and bad. Instead of saying, “I know I’m rotten. I’m going to let God change me. I’m going to live in His freedom and let Him be the arbiter of what’s good and bad, let Him take me away from that old man and let me live the way He wants me to live and… I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT IS!!! There is no standard, no expectation about your future destiny in Jesus Christ. You haven’t gotten there yet!”
And with that, I’ll leave off with this for now. There’s more, but once again my post has grown way too long.