Unlocking Spiritual Freedom Through Self Discipline
This past summer, I tasked myself with finding joy within self-discipline. After a tough spring semester juggling work and my relationship with God, I realized how great a tool discipline could be in propelling my relationship with God. I realized that I would need to withstand a whole lot of the pruning Jesus referred to in the gospel of John. 1 By the end of the summer, I had one question looming over me: how could self-control, and the sacrifice often associated with it, be the key that I needed to unlock spiritual freedom?
In the parable of the vine, Jesus describes our relationship with the father—the gardener—as branches he prunes to produce more fruit. This process of pruning, known within horticulture as the trimming of superfluous branches, can be biblically understood as a process of refinement in order that we may continue to grow and actively live out the gospel in our own lives. This is the same pruning process that God puts us through as we train ourselves to live in righteousness. As Christians, we see self-control both as a fruit of the Holy Spirit 2 and as a powerful component of the Holy Spirit that God has given us. 3 The Bible is decorated with many accounts of God’s calling His chosen to obedience through discipline.
In the story of David we see a man who both failed and succeeded in exercising self-control throughout his life. He spared the life of Saul, 4 but infamously failed to continue this obedience in his murder of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba. 5 When I look at the story of David, I do not necessarily see a man who was perfect in his works of obedience, but a man who continuously sought to obey God to the best of his abilities. David perfected the act of perseverance that allows us to freely seek and grow in relationship with God.
The goal is to persevere each time so that we humbly remember and recognize the redemptive power of God’s grace in our lives.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he wrote:
“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” 6
Here Paul describes a pursuit of Jesus that can inspire us to earnestly follow Jesus. Now how do we successfully pursue God? We pursue him with the same Holy Spirit that Paul writes about in his Letter to the Romans.
Even with the power that Jesus gives us in Holy Spirit, His Grace allows us to turn our focus away from how well we can immediately follow Him, and instead He gives us strength to continuously follow Him. This process of perseverance and pruning builds our character and gives us the hope we need to continue seeking Him, “Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” 7
I consider the love of God as the driving force for my refinement. The author of Hebrews writes:
“‘have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son?’ It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastens everyone He accepts as His son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.’ 8
So in addition to looking ahead towards the prize of eternal life with Jesus I continuously see this process of self-discipline as a tool for spiritual maturity. As my zeal and my love of God have grown, so have my methods for self-discipline. I couple my frustrations with prayer and accountability, and I pursue renewal through continuous study of scripture. When Jesus fought temptations in the desert for 40 days, He found His strength in the word of God. 9
Paul develops, in his letter to the Ephesians, the concept of putting on “the new self.” He writes, “and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” 10 With time, the perseverance borne from self-discipline changes the way we think. Seeing the pruning process as evidence of God’s love and as a means for character building allows me to take on a perspective that goes beyond the initial difficulty of practicing self discipline.
Training ourselves in the art of spiritual self-discipline requires us to see beyond the now, it also produces a freedom to experience the fruits of the Holy Spirit in spite of the difficulties we face as Christians. When we remember the power of the Holy Spirit and the dominion we have over sin, 11 which allow us to resist the culture of instant gratification, we trim away at the superfluous branches that grow in our lives. Training myself to see beyond my natural inclinations is tough, but it gives me freedom to remember that I’m empowered through the Holy Spirit and Jesus’s love for me. Pursuing spiritual discipline produces a more unapologetic lifestyle of evangelism and authenticity in the way I live out my faith. Understanding this unconditional love and understanding discipline as a tool for character building allow me to think more critically and therefore more freely, because I know Jesus died on the cross in order for me to be able to do that. My heart continues to trust more and more in God everyday—so when times get tough, my faith allows me to freely enjoy love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.