Discipline and Desire (LENT)
In the season of Lent, we often talk about discipline. But what comes to your mind when I say “discipline”? What thoughts, images or feelings appear? People flagellating themselves and beating their bodies as a form of self-discipline? Or maybe the image of a strait-laced person who follows a strict schedule whereby they exercise for one hour, eat for 30 minutes, pray for 45 minutes, relax for 6 minutes, etc. That is slightly exaggerated, of course, but you get the idea. A few weeks ago, Carrie our worship leader approached me to ask about what I’d be preaching on regarding discipline this Sunday. As you well know, this is the Chinese New Year celebration weekend and today is considered the third day. So Carrie joked and asked if I’ll be preaching about discipline and self-control over our eating of bak kwa. 🙂
As many of you know, there are many kinds of cookies and snacks that we exchange between households during CNY. And if you haven’t had any, please go to our pantry to help yourselves to some. One of the most famous snacks people like gifting each other is bak kwa. It’s a bbq pork snack that people have to queue for ages during the CNY season in order to buy it at some of the most famous shops. So as Carrie was asking me that question, I could sense her deep concern over whether there would be a curtailing of bak kwa intake. I assured her that my sermon will have nothing to do with the curtailing of bak kwa.
We have a lot of images, thoughts, stereotypes and incomplete understandings of the word “discipline” and since discipline is often associated with Lent, Miak and I decided as we begin the season of Lent, it would be good for us to explore what discipline actually is and how it can help our spiritual lives..
As I was reading about Spiritual Disciplines for Lent, I came across this book:
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us
by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
In this book, she brings up a really good point that challenged my mind and heart regarding my motivation for discipline in my life. I used to think that discipline was mainly about curbing desires and behaviour. Discipline had a more negative feel in my mind. But I realized the relationship between discipline and desire is more profound than that. If we dig deeper, the primary reason why discipline is important in our lives is because it not only curbs unhealthy fixations, it can help our good and healthy desires come to life! There has been centuries of connection between discipline and desire. “From the beginning, the church linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships and experiences that gave people space in their lives to “keep company” with Jesus..…I believe the root of all desire stems from our innate need to open our lives to God in worship.” (Calhoun)
Is that the root of your desire? Do you sense the need to open your life to God in worship? Is that why you are here?
I think Paul explains the relationship between desire and discipline in a beautiful way in his letter to the Romans.
Romans 12:1-3 (NLT)
And so, dear brothers and sisters,[a] I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.[b] 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
3 Because of the privilege and authority[c] God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.[d]4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.
1) THE DEFINITION OF TRANSFORMATION
A. THE WORD… 1. The Greek word is metamorphoo (met-am-or-fo’-o) a. Lit., “to change into another form” (Vine’s)
metamorphoó: to transform
Original Word: μεταμορφόω
Part of Speech: Verb
Phonetic Spelling: (met-am-or-fo’-o)
Definition: I transform, transfigure.
b. From which comes the word “metamorphosis” Used to describe a change of form (e.g., when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly) When I first chose this passage, I didn’t realize that the word for “transformed” in verse 2 is the same word that is used for the word “transfigured” in the transfiguration of Christ that is recorded in Mark 9:2-9. And that was what Miak was preaching on last week – our transfiguration to Christ-likeness through the power of the Holy Spirit. So the transformation that is supposed to be happening in us is the same dramatic kind of change that Jesus experienced at the transfiguration.
2) Be Transformed / Let God transform you
Romans 12:2 “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
The second thing I want you to notice about this word is that Paul uses the passive voice.
a. Indicating that “transformation” is something we allow to be done to us
b. Not something we can do by our own power alone
c. Rather, we submit to God’s power and by God’s grace and the moving of the Holy Spirit…
1) We are “changed into another form”
2) We become a “new creation” – cf. 2Co 5:17
3) RENEWING THE MIND…
Let God transform you BY the renewing of your mind / changing the way you think.
The process of transformation happens as we allow God to change the way we think.
Unless there is a renewing of our minds, any change in our lives will be superficial and temporal.
From our study of this passage, we realize that discipline does not start from policing external behaviors. “Don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t gamble, don’t eat bak kwa…” It’s firstly about the discipline or renewal of our minds — what we allow into our minds on a regular basis. Do we regularly allow negativity, defeatist attitudes, skeptical mindsets, or the thinking that we already know it all to rule our minds? Are our minds beset with scarcity, selfishness, a continual uneasiness of having not enough? Not enough money, not enough time, not enough love? Perhaps an uneasiness of not being good enough? “Surely God sees me as not good enough because ______ (I am too sinful, I am not worthy).”
And what is the mind that God wants us to have? How does God want to renew your thinking and mine? God wants us to have the mind of Christ – humble, loving, compassionate, open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. A mind that desires intimacy with God – to know God and be known by God our parent. It Is only then that we will truly experience abundance, hope, gratitude and joy.
Spiritual disciplines open us to God and the process allows God to renew our minds.
Discipline operates on two sides of a coin. There are disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence – things we choose to do more of and things we choose to do less of.. There are inward disciplines – those practised in the privacy of our intimate walk with Jesus — and outward disciplines – what we do to connect with one another and interface with the world. But there is a close connection between discipline and desire. All this can sound quite abstract so let me show you a list to give you a better idea. Let me give you some examples from the book of how certain disciplines can be tied to our desire for more of God.
For example, your desire may be to quiet your heart and rest in God alone. So you may decide to practise centering prayer as your spiritual discipline. Or your desire may be to turn the destructive way you use words into authentic, loving and healing speech. And your discipline may be to pause before you speak and control your tongue. Or you may desire to take your spiritual journey with a community of trusted friends, and your discipline is to be committed to a cell group. Or you may desire to reflect the helping, caring and sharing love of God in the world and your chosen discipline is service.
So disicplines are there to help us make a desire come to life. They are not just about curbing desires… perhaps some unhealthy desires, yes. But spiritual disciplines are primarily there to support our positive desires that come from having a renewed mind and help these desires come to life. For example, the past few days have been a time of feasting and family reunions, and I was having a hard time writing this sermon. Recently, I also started playing this game called Wooden Block Challenge and I like how it challenges my brain to look for different possibilities. But it’s a distraction when you’re trying to write a sermon. I decided to apply what I was learning about the connection between discipline and desire. Instead of telling myself, “Stop being distracted. Go write your sermon!” I asked myself “what do you desire from this?” I told God I wanted this sermon to be something God could use to help us all learn something and be challenged by the Holy Spirit to become more like Christ. So when I clarified that desire, it helped me to focus and to spend time on this sermon even though it was in the midst of holidaying and festivities.
And this is a more powerful and positive kind of motivation that I believe would be more life-changing and sustainable for us in the long run. So what desires do you have for your life? What do you want more of? As God changes your mindset, what do you desire more of?
I chose one discipline that I would like to focus on, and I wanted to share the process with you to give you an idea where to start. Perhaps this is one discipline that you might find helpful in your life as well.
1) Discipline of Slowing
We are in a constant state of hurry, rush and busyness, tending to the urgent things in our lives, work and ministry. We often rush from the past to the future. The present moment becomes a crack between what we did and what we have to do. We certainly don’t become better people when we rush. Slowing is a way to counter our culture’s mandate to constantly be on the go, constantly be moving on to the next thing. It is a way we honor our limits and pay attention to God and others in the present moment. Through slowing, we intentionally develop margins in our lives that leave us open to the present moment.
Some reflection questions that Calhoun provide:
- Are you addicted to hurry, rush and adrenaline? Explain.
- How do you feel about being stuck behind people or cars that move slowly?
- What is it like for you to choose to do things slowly?
- When do you rely on adrenaline or caffeine to get through a tough part of your day?
- What is it like for you to eat slowly rather than mindlessly scarfing down your food?
- How have deadlines, timelines and bottom lines affected the pace of your life? What sort of power have you given to these imaginary lines? What options do you have?
- Before beginning a meeting, allow time for people to become present. Say something like “I want to give you a moment of silence to leave behind what you are coming from. I want us to be present to each other in our discussion together. If meeting with Christians, invite them to offer this present moment to the Lord and invite the group to be totally present to the moment, to each other and to the Lord.
- People who are rushed often feel anxious about their lives. So when you wake up, before your head leaves the pillow, offer God three central concerns of the day. Ask God to care for these things as you go about your daily tasks. When your worries creep in, return to the moment when you handed God your concerns.
- Ask God to make you present to the moment. When people ask, “So how are you?” refrain from a litany about how busy you are. This simply reinforces that a revved-up existence is what matters. Counter gut reactions that arise from feeling threatened or insecure by breathing slowly and deeply. Breathe in Christ’s presence. Breathe out your anxiety and fear.
- Read slowly. Read for transformation rather than information. When a word stands out, stop. Let the word roll around in your heart. Meditate on what you have read.
These are just a few spiritual exercises we can choose to engage in as God does the transforming process within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Disciplines done for the wong reasons actually sabotage transformation and numb us toward God and the truth.” So if you’re practising these spiritual disciplines to prove what a good Christian you are, stop. Ask yourself, are these spiritual disciplines opening me to God and am I allowing God to renew my mind?
“The word discipleship and the word discipline are the same word, which has always fascinated me. Once you have made the choice to say, “Yes, I want to follow Jesus,” the question is, “What disciplines will help me remain faithful to that choice?” If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have to live a disciplined life.
By discipline, I do not mean control.
But in the spiritual life, the word discipline means “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.”
Henri Nouwen, From Solitude to Community to Ministry
“The first love says: ‘You are loved long before other people can love you or you can love others. You are accepted long before you can accept others or receive their acceptance. You are safe long before you can offer or receive safety.’ Home is the place where that first love dwells and speaks gently to us. It requires discipline to come home and listen, especially when our fears are so noisy that they keep driving us outside of ourselves. But when we grasp the truth that we already have a home, we may at last have the strength to unmask the illusions created by our fears and continue to return again and again and again.”
Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns
Discipline is not about regulating our behaviour. Discipline is about getting us to come back home again and again to God so that our minds can be challenged and renewed, as we are slowly being transformed into the likeness of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Are we creating space in which God can act? Are we paying attention to what God is doing in and around us? Are we disciplined in coming home again and again to listen to what the Holy Spirit may be whispering in our hearts? May this Lent season be one where we practise true discipline.