The Disciplined Life: so Rare, so Valuable


I’m confident you have heard the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Jimmy Doolittle flew those bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, taking risks you would not believe. He led our country’s retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor. He played a major role in the Allied victory over the Axis, eventually becoming a General. His autobiography is titled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Doolittle and his wife Joe (that’s how they spelled her name) had two sons, Jim and John, both of whom served in the Second World War.

The general wrote about his younger son:

John was in his plebe year at West Point and the upperclassmen were harassing him no end…. While the value of demeaning first-year cadets is debatable, I was sure “Peanut” could survive whatever they dreamed up. (p. 284)

Later, General Doolittle analyzes his own strengths and weaknesses and makes a fascinating observation:

(I) have finally come to realize what a good thing the plebe year at West Point is. The principle is that a man must learn to accept discipline before he can dish it out. I have never been properly disciplined. Would have gotten along better with my superiors if I had. (p. 339)

“I have never been properly disciplined.” What an admission. It takes a mature person to say that.

To put it another way, he had never learned to say no to himself. That is the essence of self-discipline.

He was not exaggerating. Doolittle was a man with a thousand strengths, but his few weaknesses kept creeping up and blindsiding him. Numerous times, even after he became a national hero, the officers in charge of his current assignment would ground him because of crazy stunts like buzzing airfields upside down and flying under bridges and endangering his passengers.

Prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), the actual place and time were the biggest secrets on the planet. Everyone was sworn to silence. Doolittle tells of a general who shot his mouth off in a bar, talking freely about the invasion, speculating on when and where, even though he personally had not been briefed.

General Eisenhower had no patience with such foolishness.

The next day, that general was on a plane back to the States and had been demoted to a colonel.

He learned self-discipline the hard way.

What lack of discipline looks like.

Doolittle observed that had he ever been properly disciplined, he would have related to his superiors better.

That’s one way you can tell the lack of discipline–how one relates to the authority over him.

Those who teach these things say that in checking out prospective ministers for your church staff, a pastor will want to look into the relationship of that individual with his father. If he is improperly related to his father, look for trouble with you his supervisor.

Lack of discipline shows up in so many ways:

In sloppy workmanship.

–In a rebellious, rule-breaking attitude.

–In an immature resentment of authority.

–In being unable to say ‘no’ to oneself.

The story of Eli and his sons Hophni and Phinehas from I Samuel 2 illustrates the kind of lawless behavior which results from a lack of discipline.

Now, Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel (referring to their sinful behavior as priests in the Tabernacle). …. And he said to them, ‘Why do you do such things, the evil things that I hear from all these people? No, my sons, for the report is not good that I hear the Lord’s people circulating. If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him. But if a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?’ But they would not listen to the voice of their father (and God decided they deserved the death penalty).

We read that and think, “Eli, you are the high priest! These sons are accountable to you. You can fire them, demote them, and send them home. Instead, all you can say is ‘what I hear is not good’ and ‘God will judge you’? Is that it?”

In a sense, the sons paid dearly for the father’s failure to discipline them from an early age.

Whose job is it to teach discipline?

Answer: The parents, teachers, coaches, scoutmasters, choir leaders, pastors, grandparents, and bosses.

Growing up, anyone we looked to for guidance did us a great injustice if they did not hold us accountable for our work and make an honest effort to teach us self-discipline.

In the absence of being taught discipline in childhood, we are obligated to become our own teacher, to put ourselves through the paces, to learn to say ‘no’ when tempted to take the easy way out, and to say ‘yes, you will stay and do your job’ when to quit and go home looks so attractive.

It’s not called “self-discipline” without reason.

The Bible puts a high prize on this kind of discipline.

So many Proverbs come to mind here….

A wise son accepts his father’s discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. (Pr. 13:1)

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who roles his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Pr. 16:32) The hardest person to conquer is often ourselves.

Understanding is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the discipline of fools is folly. (Pr. 16:22) Some people cannot be disciplined.

A friend points out that Blessed are the meek (Matthew 5:5) is making the same point. The Greek praus (meek, gentle) refers to those who are so strong they control themselves. The word is the opposite of uncontrolled, self-indulgent, or self-assertive. Jesus called Himself meek in Matthew 11:29, and Scripture calls Moses the meekest man on the earth (Numbers 12:3).

The word praus was used of tamed animals. They were mighty in strength, but were able to do wonderful feats because that strength was controlled and focused.

Paul told young Timothy, With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth (II Timothy 2:25).

The fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22-23, involves nine Christlike qualities, with the ninth being “self-control.” The believer who cannot control his impulses still has miles to go before attaining maturity and effectiveness in the Kingdom.

The most perfect picture of the strength-under-control which is the ultimate self-discipline is our Lord on the cross. Peter said, While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously (I Peter 2:23).

So, what does discipline look like?

–Discipline looks like Jesus on the cross. For the joy set before Him, (He) endured the cross, despising the shame…. Consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:2-3). Discipline stays with the hard job because the payoff is worth it.

–Discipline looks like Jesus when arrested. Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place…. Do you think I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:51-53) Discipline does not retaliate, but keeps its focus and its cool.

–Discipline looks like Jesus on trial. Like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth (Isaiah 53:7). On trial, (King Herod) questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing (Luke 23:9). Discipline controls its tongue. (Check out James 3)

Pity the church with an undisciplined pastor.

The undisciplined pastor will get some things right, but not consistently. He will often produce great sermons for which he did the requisite study and preparation, but he will also be lazy for long periods and rerun old sermons.

The congregation with such a pastor will never know whether to count on the pastor or not. His word, given quickly, cannot be depended on. He will initiate programs but not follow through, make commitments which he does not keep, and have good intentions which come to little.

The undisciplined pastor will set goals and forget them, begin disciplines for self-improvement and church health and grow tired of them, and become a poster child for overeating, underexercising, and chronic excuse-making.

The well-disciplined pastor is a winner.

He reminds us of the praiseworthy woman of Proverbs 31. She sees a field and buys it. She plants a vineyard. Her lamp does not go out by night. She is not afraid of cold weather for she has prepared warm clothing for the family. She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

The disciplined spiritual leader is able to lead the people of God because he has conquered himself.

He does not retaliate when accused, but stays the course. He is able to love the attackers.

He does not carry grudges or harbor resentments when offended or mistreated. He is able to forgive and go forward.

He uses his time wisely, takes care of his health, and leaves no part of his ministry unattended.

My friend Pastor Mike Miller is the very essence of a disciplined man of the Lord. Mike worked as a jet pilot in industry before coming to Christ, and was thus forced to learn early on the value of self-discipline and the dangers of its lack. Holding two doctorates, Mike is a great student.  He keeps up with important books in his field. When he stands to preach, the congregation never doubts that it will receive a well-studied and thoroughly thought-out message.

As one who has wasted more than a little time over my life, I look with great appreciation at the great way this pastor–any pastor!–invests his life.

Maybe pastors need a plebe year.

Let’s use our imagination here….

Let’s suppose the first year of seminary we are plebes. The upper classmen (and women) yell at them, harass them, and act like self-righteous church-members demanding their rights. They call them all hours of the night, demanding they get out of bed and meet a family in the ICU at the hospital. They catch the seminary student just before worship and criticize him, threaten him with the loss of his job unless certain adjustments are made, and see that his mind is on anything but worship.

The idea is to prepare them for life in church leadership.

Thankfully, it’s not all that way. Often a pastor can go, oh, a full month without a church member making unfair demands or a deacon threatening him with unemployment.

In the short run, it’s painful. In the long run, it’s what we signed on for.

When our Lord was sending out the disciples, He cautioned them on the mistreatment they could expect. Then He added, A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher and the slave as his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!”(Matthew 10:24-25)

We go into the ministry expecting this, and sooner or later, most of us get it. What we do not expect, what comes as a surprise, is the source of the mistreatment: the worst harassment comes from within the church body.

Godly pastors with proven track records sometimes tell me their deacons are pressuring them to obey their list of requirements or resign. When the pastor resists and takes a strong stand for the Lord, often he pays a big price.

A question I put to non-pastors: How would you like to have to stand up next Sunday, look out at the congregation knowing some people sitting there despise you, and yet you open the Word and preach the Gospel? Could you go on loving them and ministering to them as though none of this happened, even though at the moment, you know they are plotting to end your ministry in this church and to severely cripple it for years?

Welcome to the ministry.

To the pastors (a large term including all ministers, staffers, denominational servants, and missionaries) who are laboring on faithfully under such harassment, I have a word for you from God’s Word: God is not unjust so as to forget your work, and the love that you have shown toward His name, in having ministered to the saints and in still ministering. (Hebrews 6:10)

Be faithful, friend.  Give it your best.  True, they don’t deserve it.  But you and I are all about grace, not “just desserts.”