In the modern world where it is politically correct to be ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’, it is no surprise that people easily lose sight of, or consciously dismiss, the importance of having discipline when it comes to nurturing their faith. From prayer and sacramental worship to service and fellowship, it is easier than ever to become lax in the practice of our faith and lose our way.
I am confident about this because I am naturally undisciplined; I yearn for freedom and spontaneity more than most people, I’m sure. As a relatively emotional and intuitive person, I understand all too well the temptation to reject discipline in favor of a more ‘inspired’, natural and unstructured approach to spiritual life. But I know firsthand that this temptation is a dangerous one, and it is a large part of the lukewarm attitude that is so pervasive in our society when it comes to faith.
No pursuit in life, from business and personal finance to exercise and marriage, will succeed if people don’t learn to do things even when they don’t feel like it. Most of our athletic, academic and business success in life came about precisely because we embraced the need to forego immediate gratification for something more important at a later date. Almost none of us would deny this.
And yet, when it comes to our faith, so many of us ignore the lessons we’ve learned in more ‘practical’ matters, and we convince ourselves that our success can be left to spontaneous responses to our feelings. We go to Mass only when we feel like it or when it fits into our schedule (and then we evaluate the ‘experience’ by how the sermon or music made us ‘feel’). We pray only when we feel motivated or when we are in need. We reach out to friends when it’s convenient and when we’ve taken care of our own needs. And then we wonder why we are not deepening our faith.
I know this because I’ve been there and painfully find myself there again and again in my life (though hopefully, with God’s help, that is changing). It amazes me how easily I talk myself out of spending time in silent prayer, convincing myself that I need to stay busy with work, or that I deserve more time for entertainment. And how often I quietly dread starting a Rosary, only to find myself moved by unexpected peace and clarity as I reach the third decade.
It seems that I am finally, slowly embracing the discipline of going to a weekday Mass or reaching out to a difficult friend or reading The Bible, even when I don’t feel like it. And you know what? I’m learning that it is precisely the times when I don’t feel like doing those things that I need them the most!
Of course, discipline alone is not a panacea. For every hundred people out there who reject structure and discipline in matters of faith, there is that one person in the community who attends Mass dutifully, says the Rosary every day, and volunteers at the homeless shelter every week, but seemingly without taking the time to feel God’s presence in their lives or radiate any sense of warmth and love. And ‘spiritual’ people gladly point to these exceptions to justify their own lack of discipline. But that is no more valid than using the rare case of an exercise fanatic who dies young of a heart attack to justify lethargy and over-eating.
The fact is, in everything we do, discipline is required for success. And because no area of our lives is more important than our love for God, it is truly insane for followers of Christ to reject the daily and weekly discipline of prayer, sacraments, service and fellowship. But then again, we live in an insane world where inspired, self-styled spirituality has somehow come to trump adherence to Truth. Which means that following Christ will require us to be as countercultural as ever, something we cannot allow ourselves to deny. May He give us the humility, courage, strength and, yes, discipline, to be joyfully countercultural.