Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Godliness Through Discipline"

One of the great little booklets I have in my arsenal of nouthetic counseling resources is entitled "Godliness Through Discipline", written by Jay Adams in 1972. A consolidated treatise taken largely from his more complete work, "The Christian Counselor's Manual", Adams exegetes the underlying meaning of Christ's command in Luke 9:23 ("Take up your Cross and follow me"), as well as the deliberate, ongoing practice of "Putting off" the old self and "putting on" godliness discussed by Paul.

One unfair criticism leveled against biblical counseling is that it is essentially behaviorist in practice. This is not true. If I truly want to change a behavior that is displeasing to God (read: sin), I will also want to change the heart attitude behind it. To truly put it to death, I need to begin to see my sin the way God does - and thus to hate it. You cannot isolate the heart attitude from the habitual behavior - you need to work on changing both in tandem (in the power of the Holy Spirit). To give an example, suppose you have a drinking problem. You may hate it, and memorize all the verses in the Bible about the dangers of drunkenness. You may confess it as sin and have everyone on your prayer chain praying for you. However, until you stop going to the liquor store and buying it, you will still struggle with drinking. You need to "cut off" the source of your temptation as well as seek God to renew your mind regarding the sin.

This sounds so obvious as to be common sense. And yet....nowadays we have so many more distractions vying for our time and attention than existed back in 1972 that discipline in our prayer life (not to mention Scripture study) is something we all need to practice. Many of these diversions, while not exactly sin in and of themselves, can actually serve as stumbling blocks to well-meaning Christians. Probably one of the biggest in our day is the Internet - I can't tell you how many young ladies I have counseled who are "too depressed" to do their homework, open their Bibles, or listen to particular sermons I send them - yet I see them playing Farmville on Facebook all day. Facebook can be a great way to evangelize unsaved friends and relatives (as well as network with other Christian writers, if you're like me); but if you are not highly disciplined it can become a huge time-suck.

Another seemingly-innocent source of distraction are the ubiquitous "Christian message boards". These forums promote themselves as a means of "fellowship" and "growth", but more often than not they give rise to endless, foolish debates and arguments. They are, by and large, breeding grounds for really, really bad theology. Finally, true spiritual growth and fellowship can only take place within a local, Bible-believing church in the company of other saints. (Read: in real life).

One of my counselees, a young lady with no church home and virtually no discipleship, recently took it upon herself to start an online "support" community and now spends all her time interacting with strangers online. The best thing she (and others who have developed the same bad habit) could do would be to get off the internet and start reading the Bible. Some of the best, most edifying sermons I have heard have been online; likewise, we are blessed to live in a day and age where Bible commentaries by Matthew Henry and transcripts by Spurgeon are just a few clicks away. Still, a mature believer knows when to say "when". No sanctified screen-sucking will replace devotional time with Christ.

A final and obvious way in which we 21st-century believers need to "put on" discipline might be the hours spent in front of the TV. As British pastor Kevin Williams has said, "Where you spend most of your time reveals where your heart is". I admit this one has not been a struggle for me, as I do not watch TV (or even have cable), but with hundreds of television stations available to most people, it can be a genuine temptation. Do we spend a fraction of the time in God's Word as we do in front of the screen?

See a suberb, fictional story that drives home the points I've made above, Marsha West's "The Serpent and the Slacker".

The key to changing habits (including those of poor time management) is consistency. The "cross" referred to in Luke 9:23 is the daily practice of dying to self - saying "no" to self-centered desires and whims (in favor of God's desires). Adams writes:

"Discipline...is something that the Christian church lacks in our time. It is high time that we all recognize that God requires us to discipline ourselves by constant practice in obeying His revealed will and thus exercise (train) ourselves toward godliness. Practically speaking, what does this involve? In Luke 9:23, Jesus commands His disciples: "Take up your cross daily," denying the self. He does not mean denying yourself something. There is no idea of doing penance in this. "For Lent I'll stop chewing gum," says the penitent. That is exactly not what is in view. Rather, Jesus insisted that Christians must deny the self within them. By the self, He meant the old desires, the old ways, the old practices, the old habit patterns that were acquired before conversion. They became so much a part of day-by-day practice that they became second nature. We were born sinners, but it took practice to develop our particular styles of sinning, the old life was disciplined toward ungodliness. That is why Paul says that the believer must daily deny (literally say "no" to) the self. Daily denial of the self indicates the presence of a day-by-day battle inside of the Christian." -- Jay Adams, "Godliness Through Discipline", P&R Publishing,
1972. P. 7.


On a different note, yesterday I signed, sealed and delivered a publishing contract with a top publisher of books for the biblical counseling market! (They also have many theology and devotional titles). More updates on this exciting news later....I am still overwhelmed by this recent development (especially as I was able to attract a traditional publisher without the help of an agent). I was very nearly ready to go the self-publishing route, but thankfully, now will not have to. Pre-publication work on my manuscript, "Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders" (title may very likely be changed) will begin after the summer. Needless to say, I am very pleased and grateful that God will allow me to use my studies and writing ability to serve Him in this way.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Excellent post, Marie.

Many, many Christians I know spend and inordinate amount of time on Facebook, but another time sucker i see with young people are all the various games, whether on computer, internet, or their Blackberry, they are always playing games. One young man told me about how little time he has to read anything edifying or instructional and yet he would also tell me hour many hours he spends with on-line games. I tried to point out the problem, but he said he needs the games to relax and, besides, he meets so many people gaming!

Congratulations on the book! I'll be looking forward to it.

Marie said...

Thanks, Glenn! Your research on psychology was invaluable to me, and pointed me to many of the books I ended up using as sources in those chapters.

Re: the young man who's a gamer: I bet his next line would have been to tell you how many opportunities he has had to share the Gospel through gaming! (Rolling eyes here).