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The Lost Art of Discipline

The Lost Art of Discipline

A recent business article caught my attention.  It was titled “The Lost Art of Discipline.”  In it, former tech executive Steve Tobak lamented the lack of discipline people have toward their work.  Few people today sacrifice what they have to in order to get a job done.

Tobak rightly notes that one of the problems is the explosion of distractions, the “archenemies of discipline.”  With CEO’s getting in online debates and ranking Senators playing iPhone games during committee hearings, it seems no one is immune.

“Even highly focused overachievers like me,” says Tobak, “sit down to work only to find that, a few tweets, texts, and emails later, half the day is gone and the work is a long way away from getting done.”

So forget our focus on drug addiction.  “Today, you can add texting, tweeting, posting, blogging, emailing, gaming, shopping, eating, and of course, porn, to that ever-growing list of addictive activities.  To make matters worse, it appears that the threshold for human susceptibility to these addictions is getting lower all the time.”

Tobak’s conclusion rings true:  “Discipline, will power, work ethic – call it what you want, it’s why we do what we have to do instead of what we want to do.”  

This isn’t simply important for the workplace. 

It’s the heart of spiritual life.

Historian Mark Noll has designated the founding of the Monastic Rule of St. Benedict (ca. 480-ca. 550) as one of the great “turning points” in Christian history.  Noll even goes so far as to say that the “rise of monasticism was, after Christ’s commission to his disciples, the most important – and in many ways the most beneficial – institutional event in the history of Christianity.” 

Penned at the beginning of the sixth century, St. Benedict wished to write a “rule” that would help guide monks to holiness.  By “rule,” he intended a guide for optimal spiritual formation.  Thomas Moore writes that “Every thoughtful person, no matter what his or her lifestyle may be, has a rule;” meaning a pattern or model for living.

I need a rule.  Something that will take the scattered, frantic activities of my life and carve out space and time for God to dwell, the two of us to connect, and from that to have the deepest parts of who I am formed in Christ. 

I need a rule that will reach into the numbing routines of my life, what the French often refer to as “metro, boulot, dodo” – “metro, work, sleep” – and create channels through which spiritual life can flow. 

The key is discipline

This is what a “rule” is – a collected, organized set of practices we determine to follow in order to tend to our spirits and shepherd our souls.  We need structure and discipline for our spiritual lives every bit as much as we do for every other area of life. 

Whatever our “rule” may be, it can, and should, be natural to our personality and developed in light of our season of life – but it must be created.  If we know that we would be profoundly served by reading, praying, and spending time with a soul friend, then we must work toward establishing the patterns of life that allow it. 


Of course not.

The natural flow of my life is away from discipline. If disciplines come at all, I have found that they must be cultivated.

There are many protests to the demands of living under a rule, but when I think of the challenges of such a life, I am reminded of Evelyn Underhill’s quip that it is a peculiarity of the great spiritual personality that “he or she constantly does in the teeth of circumstances what other people say cannot be done.” 

But the practices themselves are not the issue at hand.  The goal is to seek the face of God in such a way that Christ is formed in us.   By themselves the spiritual disciplines can do nothing, Richard Foster wisely reminds us, “they can only get us to the place where something can be done.” 

But that is a very important place to come to.  Christ formed in us is what will allow us to bring Christ to the world.  So let’s not lose the art of discipline.  Otherwise we will have nothing to offer the world that it does not already have.

And it needs so much more than what it now has.

James Emery White



“The Lost Art of Discipline,” Steve Tobak, October 10, 2013, FOXBusiness, read online.

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

Thomas Moore in The Rule of St. Benedict, Edited by Timothy Fry.

Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.