So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:26-27)
One of the first touchstones of physical and spiritual fitness is discipline. It doesn’t take a Latin scholar to see that “disciple” and “discipline” come from the same Latin root discipulus, which means pupil or student. Athletes and Christians alike are most often students of someone else.
When I decided to undertake my first half-marathon, I became a discerning disciple. My greatest fear in this undertaking was running the entire 13.1 mile distance. In my early track career, I was a decent 400m and 800m man. That speed translated well into the 2-mile requirement of the Army Physical Fitness Test. I was also fairly pleased with my performances in 5000m events. 10,000m events hurt a bit and the one 10 miler I did before my decision was pretty tough. So, I felt that my biggest limiter was my lack of endurance and I chose to address that limiter in my training. (This turned out to be a mistake but I’ll discuss that in a later post.)
I became a disciple of Dave Scott and his ideas for Long, Slow Distance (LSD) running. I found a 13-week plan that focused on longer, slower runs that were designed to help build endurance so that I could finish the distance. I copied the plan into my daily calendar, grabbed my heart-rate monitor, and followed the advice of an Ironman champion. I became his disciple. He told me what distance to run and where my heart-rate should be and I did my best to run that distance at that effort. He was the teacher; I was the disciple. I wanted to have the same kind of distance success that Dave had, so I followed his advice.
My spiritual fitness has followed a parallel path. I’ve been a disciple of the desert fathers, reading and studying the Rule of St. Benedict and others. I’ve been a disciple of my denomination, reading Portals of Prayer on-and-off for years. I’m currently a disciple of The Treasury of Daily Prayer as it is expressed in the app, PrayNow for my iPad. Each of these lays out a reading for the day, probably from Scripture, and they tell me how much to read and how deeply to read into it. Each of them give a daily assignment to help me to discipline our sinful flesh to stay in touch with the God whose child I am in Jesus Christ. Each of them gives me daily advice so that I can have success in my spiritual lives.
And both of these have the same failing. Just because I copied Dave Scott’s program into my calendar did not mean I was going to finish a half-marathon; I still had to do the workouts. Likewise, just because the PrayNow app is installed on my smartphone and tablet, does not mean that I’m drawn closer to God; I still have to read the lessons. God’s Word does not yet work through osmosis. It has to be read and that takes time. The same sinful flesh leads me astray in both disciplines. It makes me lazy to do my workouts; it makes me slothful in my devotions. The former makes me soft around the middle; the latter makes me feel alone, distraught, and despondent. In each, discipline is required.
Discipline is what makes disciples in athletics and in spirituality.