Is Self-Discipline Overrated?

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.

0 thoughts on “Is Self-Discipline Overrated?

  1. william blanton

    Dear Karen:

    Perhaps one of the more difficult things to learn about Mental Attitude Dynamics (One of Roberts Greatest Books) is the functions between the Mind and the Heart.. All doctrine that is merely academically understood (Knosis), remains within the Nous, or mind, and is not transferred to the very target of it’s intent, the heart, and therefore becoming EpiKnosis and useable in the life; Doctrine believed. Furthermore, and perhaps the most misunderstood function of the soul is the relationship between the heart and the emotions.

    The heart is designed by God to be the “right man” of the soul, and the emotions are designed to be the responder, or “right woman” of the soul, and should be active “in response to” circumstances and not as the commander of the soul.

    And as well, we should be reminded that human free will co-exists with the will of God and as clearly stated in scriptures “As a man sows, so shall he reap” and furthermore “as a man thinkth in his HEART so is he” These are fundamental laws that can not be gotten around no matter how we try to logically wisk them away. The successful life – as is referenced in the study of the book of Ephesians about the 140th hour or so – Robert states this, and is often very painful to many:

    “We are the product of our own decisions, good or bad the Christian life can not have contradiction or be in absence of clearly defined terms” There is so much more to this, however, I lack the time . . .perhaps a review of the book mentioned might help.

    See you . . .

  2. william blanton

    Dear Karen,

    As an addendum to the last post, it seemed necessary to bring something that has been of concern needing to be discussed. I recall one of your comments of late you mentioned that “liver” was all that “you got . . . don’t ask me why” and this seemed a rather odd statement at the time, however, after reading some more of your comments the root of the problem seems clear. We will start with this very bold statement and hoping to be of use.

    “This I re-call to mind, therefore, I am confident”

    What is Jeremiah saying? He is saying that buy re-call of Doctrine resident in his soul (Epiknosis) he is confident. It seems as though you are trying to somehow find guidance from a system that simply is not the Lords method; speaking to you somehow in your mind, or, hearing the voice of God in your mind and then making decisions, therefore, actions in your life; presumably you’re writing. In remembrance of the Hebrew study (1982 I think) Robert said something that change everything in my spiritual life, for the reason that I’d been doing the same thing that you are doing right now; trying to somehow “turn my will over to the Lord” and through prayers for guidance . . . trying to somehow listen to “what comes back” This is not how God speaks to His Priests during the Church age, he speaks through His word and God the Holy Spirit then cycles it back as “THIS I RE-CALL TO MIND, THEREFORE I HAVE CONFIDENCE”

    During the Hebrews study while walking through a park and asking God for direction and then trying to listen, Robert said this; at first I wouldn’t believe it because I was to far committed to listening to the
    God that was in my head that was somehow directing me to do thus and so, when what I should have been doing was believing the things that I had already learned and acting “From a position of strength” instead of the “Position of weakness” from the lack of confidence in Metabolized Doctrine in my soul. Robert said this: “There are people running around thinking that they are hearing the voice of God when in fact they should be using the Doctrine that has been metabolized in their soul. God does not speak to you through dreams, voices, or any other system of communication other than his word. THE WORD OF GOD IS ALIVE AND POWERFUL, NOT THE VOICE OF GOD IN MY HEAD”

    This at first is going to be challenging, let me assure you, but through persistence and some practical doctrinal applications it will be a blessing to you as it was to me.In closing, I would to make a statement and to ask a simple question in following that should have its intended purpose, and it is this:

    Statement: Robert Thieme was perhaps the one of the Greatest Bible instructors this would has ever known and this simply is true.

    Question: Do you think that he was somehow sitting in His office with some sort of mental “Oigi Board” and asking God to direct his instructions to the Church.

    Answer: Most certainly not . . .He did what he always said was what God Honors the most. He worked very, very, very hard and ground it out day after day . . .is that not true? and what does the Lord say to His Priests? “Well done my good and FAITHFUL SERVANT” not ‘Well done my good and non-decisional zombie that can not make a decision for Himself buy believing my word”

    Remember what is a part of the “Life style of Wisdom” is Good decisions from a position of Strength and then acting or these decisions with the one thing that is the most precious asset that you and I both have . . . . …Faith. Acting on Faith and making good decision that line up with “The word of God that is alive and Powerful” not “the voice of God in my head” “and” knowing that “He Himself has said and will not change His mind: I will never leave you, most certainly not, I will never forsake you, therefore you may boldly say the Lord IS MY HELPER . . . .

    I love you Family Member and this simply is the case, and furthermore, there is a principle in life that will forever keep a man in darkness and that principle is contempt prior to investigation; therefore, review some of the books that has been mentioned, and the Hebrews study as well.

    1. karenhancock

      While I agree with most of what you say here, William, and it is true and sound doctrine, I don’t think it’s applicable to my situation and what I’m trying to communicate. I also disagree with your position that we do not hear God as a voice in our heads, because the word says we can receive a personal rhema through the Holy Spirit. We are told to go to Him for guidance and He will give it. That when we walk along the way He will go behind us and tell us the way to go.

      For example, Isa 30:20-21 Although the Lord has given you bread of privation and water of oppression, He, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher. Your ears will hear a word behind you, “This is the way, walk in it,” whenever you turn to the right or to the left.

      Yes, the basis for that is doctrine learned in Bible class, but sometimes we face situations where several opposing doctrines may be applied and we have to go to Him for guidance as to which we should apply. If He has not already brought to mind the appropriate doctrine, which He also sometimes does. And then there are situations where a choice between several options must be made and there is no official “doctrine” that applies to them.

      I have enough to say on this matter that I would rather do it as a full blog post and will save the rest for that. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Dorothy

    Thanks to you and William Blanton for comments concerning “self discipline”, as I have been on a “pitty party”, feeling neglected and left out.

    I have had the Colonel’s, MENTAL ATTITUDE DYNAMICS in my arsenal of his books for years, but had not read it until last night, after reading this blog. I needed that nudge from fellow believers….I must not be conformed to the ways of this world, but, I must be transformed by the renewing of my mind, that I may prove what is that good, and acceptable and perfect will of God….after all, we have the mind of Christ. I must be quick to rebound and keep moving.

    In His Matchless Grace,


    1. karenhancock

      Very cool that you were moved to read Mental Attitude Dynamics. I’ve read it a gazillion times, and every time seem to get something new. Or, I’ll read some principle that I’ve obviously noted before because I highlighted it and yet it feels like something brand new! I think the Colonel once said that when we listen we only hear about 25% of what’s said, then only understand about 5% of that and retain something like 1% of what we understand. Which is why we have to be so relentless in the daily intake of the Word.

  4. Pingback: Does God Speak to Us Personally? « Writing from the Edge 2

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