There have been some years that I’ve gained 20 lbs. Other years I have lost as much as 30 lbs. This isn’t some Jedi mind trick. It’s a lack of discipline.
Every time I’ve been truly motivated to lose weight, I can follow the Weight Watchers eating plan or fire up my MyFitnessPal app and I lose weight. In just the last three weeks I have lost 14 lbs without much ado. That was after reaching the highest weight of my life: 282 lbs.
Each day I take out my MyFitnessPal app and diligently input my breakfast calories and then again at lunch. Usually I do the same for an afternoon snack. Restaurants can be a bit hard, but I’m normally able to find something that fits my 1900 calorie allowance for the day. After I’ve done the same for dinner I can begin calculating how many calories I can have for my evening snack. I love chips. A lot. So I get my little digital scale out and pour exactly enough chips to equal the calories I have left for the day.
And then I wake up in the morning and get on the scale. Most days it is down a bit from the day before. That’s my motivation to do that whole process again the next day.
This is only remarkable at all because the numbers are so straightforwardly easy to assess. 1900 calories. 1.8 ounces of chips. 2.4 lbs lost for the week.
For someone like me that is really helpful. I really hate discipline. I suppose everyone hates it some. But I really hate carefully tracking calories or cleaning all that junk out of the trunk of the car or carefully planning out my day’s tasks. If it wasn’t for the consistent success on the scale, I would probably just quit. And then I’d start to get fat again.
I consistently hear my students relent that they just haven’t had the devotional time that they really wanted to have this week. “I really wanted to give the Creator of the Universe some of my attention this week, but my chemistry professor keeps assigning these labs.” That’s what they say, or at least that is how it sounds. But the reality is that with or without the chemistry labs they still had plenty of occasions to goof off in the student center or watch another 7 episodes on Netflix. Their problem and my problem is the same: discipline is hard.
Spiritual discipline may even be harder to keep faithfully precisely because it isn’t easy to assess. How do I know when I have prayed enough? How little Bible do I need to read each day? I know it’s OK if I don’t make it to church every Sunday, but how often do I have to miss to know if I’m going off track?
What if we had clear objectives that we needed to meet for our spiritual lives? Like the calorie counting app, what if our spiritual commitments were quantified with regular and achievable goals? This isn’t rocket science, it’s mundane and life-changing discipline. Though there is nothing fun about my calorie counting exercises, they cause me to lose weight. And if we will just keep the basic disciplines of the spiritual life then we will grow closer to Jesus and live and be more like him. So how do we do it?
The concept is often called a Rule of Life. It’s based on the ancient practice of a monastic rule, which was always a communal document. But a Rule of Life is usually specific to particular person. Here are a couple great examples:
When he was a seminarian, Pope John XXIII committed to:
Fifteen minutes of silent prayer upon rising in the morning
Fifteen minutes of spiritual reading
Before bed, a general examination of conscience followed by confession; then identifying issues for the next morning’s prayer
Arranging the hours of the day to make this rule possible; seeing aside specific time for prayer, study, recreation, and sleep
Making a habit of turning the mind to God in prayer
While leading the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. had developed a rule for those that participated in the protests:
Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory.
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
Seek to perform regular service for others and the world.
Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
Follow the directions of the movement and the captains of the demonstration.
(Both Rules quoted in Soul Feast, 147-48)
Making these simple commitments serve as a guiding structure for a person’s spiritual life. The biggest difference in weight loss effort came when I began following the simple calorie counting disciplines that were provided by the MyFitnessPal app. It told me when I was doing well and when I was making an eating mistake. Similarly, the Rule of Life helps a person to know when they’ve gone astray so that they can set priorities again.
As I consider this practice I’m often reminded of the great discipline shown by Daniel and his famous companions when exiled to Babylon (See Daniel chapters 1, 3, and 6). They resisted eating lavish food, prayed three times each day, and resisted idols. They did all these things even when the cost was very high to them. The result was that they gained favor with the Babylonian rulers, but more importantly, with God. Their discipline had made them men of God.
My personal experience with prayer is not much different than my experience with weight loss. I may be able to do OK for a short while after I have let my discipline lax. I don’t gorge on pizza the first night day that I stop counting calories. I just take a bit bigger portions or toss in an extra cookie. But it doesn’t stay there for long. Just as my pants grow tighter and my temptations give way to indulgences, the days that I skip prayer or scripture reading overtake those that I keep them faithfully and my temper begins to overcome patience.
The key to spiritual growth is the same as bodily health: a disciplined regimen of the same small decisions that make a life that begins to reflect the care taken in the small moments. I think a Rule of Life can be a good way to make that measurable and create a context for accountability.
Do you have a set of disciplines that you keep regularly? Are they written down somewhere or could they be? Does anyone else (a friend or community group) know what you’ve committed to? How has your discipline helped you grow in faith?
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