I have a daily routine. You probably do, too. Most everyone does, and most of our days follow that same basic pattern. I’ve found there to be a great deal of comfort in that – that sense of regularity and normalcy. Beyond everything else that has happened in the world over the last 18 months, this has been one of the difficult parts for almost everyone. It’s that we have all been forced to adjust our day to day lives, and some of us have been in the same relative pattern for several years.
So routines, even new ones, are comfortable. Not only comfortable, but also beneficial. They are beneficial from a practical standpoint, for routines allow you to rightly prioritize and work on what is most important. But they are also beneficial from a spiritual standpoint. Indeed, one of the primary ways we grow spiritually is through the establishment of healthy and regular patterns of reading the Bible, prayer, and worshiping alongside the people of God. These habitual acts have been classically called the spiritual disciplines, and integrating them is part of what it means to live as a Christian. We are meant to be disciplined people.
But what we might call a disciplined life others might call life in a rut. Doing the same thing? Over and over again? Day after day? For some, that’s the definition of spinning your wheels and living on a treadmill. It’s pointless, meaningless, and just plain boring. So what is the difference between a life of discipline and life in a rut? At least these three things:
1. A life of discipline is forward motion.
It’s ironic that some look at these regular patterns and see a static kind of life because the whole purpose of living in a disciplined way is change. It’s about recognizing that when we become Christians, we are transformed in heart and soul. God, by His grace, takes out our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh – hearts that are bent toward sin. But though our hearts might be made new, there is still much work to be done in the way we think, behave, and even feel. This is what a life of discipline is about – it’s about embracing the transformation into Christ’s likeness that the Holy Spirit is working towards in us. It’s about daily renewing our minds to focus on the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of ourselves. It’s about taking up our crosses daily to follow Jesus in order that we might find our true lives in Him:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
It is, in other words, about moving forward, not staying the same. If, then, you find that through your regular routine you are not moving forward in holiness, in compassion, in love, in generosity and a host of other characteristics, then it’s possible what you might look at as a disciplined life is really just life in a rut.
2. A life of discipline has a focus.
Life in a rut is really about wandering. True enough, you might wander in the same fashion day after day, but there is no real, clear focus and goal in mind. When you are living in a rut, you are really just living – passing the time in the same way tomorrow as you do today. Conversely, a disciplined life has a very clear aim and a very clear focus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2).
In the end, life in a rut is about me. It’s about my comfort, my priorities, and my preferences, and woe to the person who interrupts a daily schedule with that kind of focus. But a disciplined life is about throwing off anything that hinders and focusing our eyes clearly on Jesus. Our gaze is fixed on Him and Him alone as we walk – not wander – through our days.
3. A life of discipline is fueled by grace.
That statement might sound a little strange because when we think of discipline, we think of effort. Of gritting our teeth. Of choosing to do something that is not natural or comfortable for us to do. Now there’s no doubt that a life of discipline takes effort. Great effort, even. But the fuel for that effort is grace:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… (Titus 2:11-13).
We try hard not to be accepted but because we are accepted. We work not to be justified but because we are justified. All of our effort is fueled by the grace of Jesus. And ultimately, this is the kind of fuel we need and what truly separates discipline from a rut.
Eventually, if we are in a rut, we will try and escape. We will sense something more fulfilling or exciting or pleasurable on the other side of the fence, and we will chase after it. But by God’s grace, we can stay in discipline. The pattern might change with circumstances, but our commitment to following Jesus on the long, sustainable road of grace-fueled discipline will not. We will remain. We will abide with Him, even as He abides with us.