The Secret to Self-Discipline

LeBron James is the most dominant player in the NBA today, and some argue he’s the best player ever. He’s earned the moniker “King James.” His dominance, however, doesn’t result from his elite, God-given athletic talent alone. He keeps his body in peak condition through an extremely disciplined and rigorous workout and diet regimen.

Nearly every day of every year, James subjects himself to grueling physical exercise and stringently-controlled nutrition and hydration routines. In fact, he spends $1.5 million a year continually subjecting himself to things the vast majority of us continually avoid. Why?

Because he prizes NBA championship trophies, a growing list of personal achievements, accolades, and records (already a mile long), and all the benefits that come with those trophies and success. King James exercises tremendous self-discipline and endures a great deal of unpleasantness for the sake of what gives him joy.

James knows the secret to self-discipline (consciously or unconsciously), a secret that applies to all of us: joy. The secret is not that each rigorous exercise of self-denial gives us joy. The secret lies in the prize — what we're willing to endure self-denial to have.

Power in the Prize

In the Bible, this is not a secret. Paul knows exactly why Lebron James spends more than a million dollars on his body:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 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 Corinthians 9:24–27)

Here’s the point: elite athletes don’t live disciplined lives because they think disciplined lives are virtuous. They aren’t stoics; they’re hedonists — pleasure-seekers. They live disciplined lives and endure all kinds of self-denial because they want the pleasures of the prize. They believe the pleasures of the “wreath” (or medals, trophies, rings, and records) are superior pleasures to the pleasures of self-indulgence.

The Imperishable Prize

Notice that Paul doesn’t call their pursuit of reward wrong. Far from it. Paul shamelessly states that the pursuit of a reward also fuels his self-discipline and should fuel ours. The only difference — and it’s a big one — is that the reward he pursued was an “imperishable” wreath, which he describes here:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

Gaining Christ through the gospel — gaining all of God and all his promises to his cross-reconciled children for all eternity and losing all sin and all death and all hell and all their accompanying miseries — was the reward that gave Paul his laser-like focus and fueled his self-discipline.

The power for self-discipline does not come from admiring self-discipline. It does not come from wishing we were more self-disciplined. It does not come from making new resolves, plans and schedules for self-discipline (though these help when the fundamental motivation is right). It certainly does not come from loathing our lack of self-discipline and resolving (again) to do better — and this time we mean it. The power for self-discipline comes from the prize — whatever we really want, the reward we believe will yield us the greatest pleasure.

Why Am I Not More Disciplined?

How many times have you made some resolve, let it fall by the wayside, and wondered why you’re not more disciplined? I’ve done it more times than I care to admit. What’s our problem?

Well, first let’s acknowledge that we’re complex beings and numerous factors can play into our capacities for self-discipline. Our genetics, conditioning, past trauma, various kinds of mental health struggles, and many other issues all affect us to differing degrees. And God understands how they affect each of us. He knows we don’t all have the same capacities for self-discipline and doesn’t hold us all to the same expectations. Jesus’s principle applies here: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). So, we must be careful when assessing ourselves in comparison to others, and very careful and gracious when judging others.

But these factors don’t change the fundamental fuel that powers the capacities we do have for self-discipline and self-denial: the joy of a reward set before us (Hebrews 12:2).

When Will Power Seems to Fail

We often chalk up our discipline failures to a lack of will power. We look at a LeBron James and think if we just had some of his iron will, we could stick with it. But will power is not our problem — at least not in the way we usually think. When we abort some resolve, it’s actually our will power that’s overriding it.

Our will always obeys our wants — our real wants, not our fantasy wants. And our real wants are based on our real beliefs, not our fantasy beliefs.

So, when we can’t sustain some new self-discipline regimen, it’s very likely that our resolve was based on a fantasy reward. What typically happens is we imagine what experiencing the benefits of attaining some goal might feel like — perhaps a fit body, or reading the Bible in a year, or some kind of career advancement, or the fruit of more intercessory prayer, or a financial savings goal, or a new boldness in evangelism. What we imagine appears desirable to us. We feel a burst of inspiration, so we make a resolve. We think (or want to think) our inspiration stems from a new conviction that the reward we imagine will make us happy.

But once we experience the unpleasantness of self-denial, the inspiration evaporates and the goal no longer seems worth it, so we give it up. What happened? We liked the imagination of the reward, but the reward itself wasn’t real enough to fuel our discipline — we didn’t really believe in it. It was a fantasy. And when the fantasy was dispelled, we realized we wanted another reward more and our will followed.

It wasn’t a lack of will power; it was a lack of reward power.

Eyes on the Prize

That’s why Paul said, “I do not run aimlessly” (1 Corinthians 9:26). Like LeBron James or the ancient Olympians, Paul “ran” with his eyes on the prize he really wanted — the prize he believed would yield him the most happiness.

That is the key to self-discipline: our real belief that the pleasures of a reward will be worth the denial of lesser pleasures. And that’s what nourishes the spiritual fruit of self-control in our lives (Galatians 5:23): wanting the rewards the Spirit offers us more than the rewards sin or the world offer us.

This is really good news to self-discipline stumblers like us! If we’re not pursuing the kingdom of God first (Matthew 6:33), if the surpassing worth of knowing Christ isn’t causing us to count all else as rubbish (Philippians 3:8), the Spirit’s remedy to our problem is not more white-knuckled, duty-motivated efforts to be more disciplined. Rather, the Spirit is inviting us into greater delight. He wants us to explore and examine the imperishable reward God longs to give us with all his heart and soul — to plead that the eyes of our heart will be enlightened to see it (Ephesians 1:17) — knowing that the more we seek to see, the more he’ll reveal and help us believe. And the more that happens, the more we’ll view self-discipline, not as a drudgery to be avoided, but as a means to the joy we really want.

When athletes lose motivation, their coaches and trainers exhort them to get their eyes on the prize. That’s Paul’s exhortation to us when he says, "So run that you may obtain it" (1 Corinthians 9:24). For sustained self-discipline for the glory of God is always fueled by intense desire for more joy in God.