Essentialism and Self-Discipline

I’ve been pondering the idea of “Christian Essentialism” lately, and one topic that’s come to the forefront of my attention is self-discipline. In order to effectively put your energy towards one goal, you need the willpower and discipline to stay focused even when things get boring and mundane. I’ve realized that this is an area where I’ve grown very lazy, and I’ve just recently begun to see the effects in a number of areas of my life.

One specific example is in the execution of my to-do list. At the office, this isn’t usually a problem, since I’m fairly externally motivated to complete my work. I’ll feel the consequences quickly if I don’t get my work done on time and with quality. But at home, with my routine tasks and maintenance activities in particular, if I don’t feel like doing it, I’ll often just ignore the task for days (even weeks) at a time. Eventually, I feel like I have enough motivation on a Saturday morning, and I’ll surprise myself and complete a bunch of mundane tasks around the house that normally I can’t get myself to do. Then I realize that none of it is really that hard. This brings with it the understanding that I’m not actually that self-disciplined. And that’s a problem.

Impacts to Christian Disciplines

A lack of self-discipline doesn’t just affect the cleanliness of my garage or the tidiness of my sock drawer. The problem of weakness in my self-discipline muscle extends to much more important disciplines like scripture memorization, prayer, and deeper Bible study. I know I should do these things, but when I’m already struggling to keep up much more mundane things that require even less willpower and fortitude, it’s especially convicting. Just this exercise of analyzing the areas where I’m lacking self-discipline in my “faith disciplines” helps me to see what’s at stake. My prayer life and the amount of God’s word I hide in my heart could be directly affected by whether I choose to strengthen and invest in willpower, fortitude, and accountability, or just let it go and do what I feel like doing.

Feelings First Christianity

I think feelings are at the root of my problem. The culture today and much of the world around us is focused on a feelings-based lifestyle. How does this make you feel? If you don’t feel like doing it, you usually won’t. When I look at my to-do list and it says “Clean the Espresso Machine”, I often don’t feel like doing that. Back when I first got the machine, I was super motivated to keep it clean and sparkling. But now, it’s such a boring and old task that I don’t feel like it anymore. When it comes the Christian disciplines, the same thing happens. I’m reminded that I need to spend time memorizing scripture or prompted to invest my morning in prayer for my family, but somehow I don’t feel like giving myself to those things unless I just heard a really moving sermon about the topic that provides a significant dose of motivation. But eventually, I fall back into my old ways, my mind wanders, and I find my heart desiring to do something that seems more interesting and even more important. As John Piper stated in a recent podcast interview:

Our hearts will not rest until they find contentment in something. Our hearts are a desire factory, and if we think that we just fall into delight in God or satisfaction in God without any pursuit of it or conscious maintenance of that flame, we’re kidding ourselves.
– John Piper, How Do I Feed My Joy in Jesus Every Morning?

The modern solution these days is not to shore up willpower and override those feelings with self-discipline and effort, but instead an attempt to cultivate feelings that will motivate you to want to do something you should do. There are apps, tools, devices, and even productivity systems that are designed to cultivate a sense of motivation to do what must be done. Usually, these things have some sort of artificial gamification or award system that sucks you in. For a while you throw yourself into the task because it’s interesting or even fun… because you feel like doing it. But when those feelings wear off, the important “habit” you started often goes by the wayside.

The Fitbit Effect

I’ve seen this over and over with fitness trackers. I want to call it the “Fitbit effect”. When I first got my Fitbit Charge 2, I was super excited. This thing not only tells me how many steps I’m getting, but it knows when I climb stairs, it analyzes my sleep, and all the while tracks my heart rate. It even can discern what type of workout or exercise I’m doing, with a surprising level of accuracy1. When I started using the Fitbit, the novelty of the experience motivated me; I felt like going out for a stroll. I wanted to beat my friends and family and get to the top of that leaderboard. But eventually, the novelty wore off, and I had won the challenges and beaten my daily average. I lost interest in whether I was part of a challenge, or whether I hit my step goal. And exercise again became mundane and normal.

The Blessing of Habit

I am grateful that God created us with an ability to develop habits; because that’s what can make it or break it. Habits thrive when they’re fueled by consistency, which often requires significant doses of willpower and accountability. However, habits have an exasperating inverse effect, where bad ones are easy to make and hard to break, but good habits are difficult to solidify, yet so quick to dissolve into thin air. Thus I’m grateful for a reminder to invest in self-discipline. The Ask Pastor John podcast episode from earlier this week was an especially important prompt for me to throw off “feelings first Christianity” and sow the seeds of disciplines that will reap the precious spiritual fruit that only comes from consistency. Like the parable of the foolish virgins who didn’t fill their lamps, there will come a time when we urgently need the fruit of these disciplines, but it will be too late to start. Flare prayers have their purpose, but there’s an entirely different quality of fruit that results from a lifetime of consistency in scripture memory, meditation, and prayer.

The stakes are high; will you do what it takes to pursue this kind of self-discipline?

  1. I never tell my Fitbit app that I’m doing a bike ride to work, but it somehow knows. And it tracks my ride as a workout!