What Is Spiritual Discipline?

« Return to Archives

Series: Proverbs II

What Is Spiritual Discipline?

September 10, 2017 | Randy Smith
Proverbs 6:6-11

What Is Spiritual Discipline?

Proverbs 6:6-11
Sunday, September 10, 2017
Pastor Randy Smith

Last week we enjoyed our fourth study in the book of Proverbs. I received a lot of compliments as to how convicting the sermon was. I think the reason for that is because we tend to focus on the co-called "big sins" such as murder, drunkenness and adultery (all of which are very manageable), but tend to neglect the so-called "little sins" that we violate every day without much consideration. Things like the sins of the tongue!

We say a lot of words throughout the day and the Bible has a lot to say about the words that come out of our mouth. With our words we insult others, break promises, talk too much, judge others, use profanity, gossip, slander, criticize, complain, boast and lie - and that's just the stuff we shouldn't do! What about all the things we are commanded to do with our speech?

This morning I would like to talk about another overlooked sin. And it is something Proverbs has a lot to say about, namely the comparison between diligence (a disciplined life) and slothfulness (laziness).

1. The Teaching From Proverbs

Let's first begin with the slothful man as he is described in the book of Proverbs. Unlike any of the other 65 books in the Bible, he is identified by the author of Proverbs as a "sluggard".

Immediately the connotations of a slug come to mind - those oversized, unattractive, snail-like creatures, not only lacking a visible shell, but also lacking diligence and any perceived purpose to life. It's said the average slug moves about .007 miles an hour. That's similar to many people in our society today!

Perusing the verses in Proverbs, Solomon provides us with a description of the sluggard's life.

Naturally, the sluggard begins the day by staying in bed when he should be starting his work. Proverbs 6:9, "How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?" Next the sluggard will invent any reason to prevent working. Proverbs 22:13, "The sluggard says, 'There is a lion outside; I shall be slain in the streets!" Rather than beginning his work he simply pacifies himself with his preposterous excuses and return to his bed. Proverbs 26:14, "As the door turns on its hinges, so does the sluggard on his bed." Once the sluggard finally rolls out of bed, he is even too lazy to provide for his needs to survive. Proverbs 19:24, "The sluggard buries his hand in the dish, and will not even bring it back to his mouth." Though the sluggard may be too lazy to eat, often, due to his slothfulness, he has no food to eat.  Proverbs 20:4, "The sluggard does not plow after the autumn, so he begs during the harvest and has nothing." Eventually, his laziness leads to a lack of food, a lack of food to deteriorated health, and deteriorated health to death. Proverbs 21:25, "The desire of the sluggard puts him to death, for his hands refuse to work." His neglect of responsibilities is evident in his health, but also in the care of his house. Proverbs 24:30-31, "I passed by the field of the sluggard, and by the vineyard of the man lacking sense; and behold, it was completely overgrown with thistles, its surface was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down." His life is simply a selfish pursuit of his laziness. Though he may wish a nobler lifestyle, steps are never taken to accomplish his goal because he's a dreamer. Proverbs 13:4, "The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing." He thinks his life is okay, but unfortunately he is greatly deceived. Proverbs 26:16, "The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can give a discreet answer." What the sluggard really needs is stern rebuke of wisdom. The slug is compared to another animal, one that is very industrious. Proverbs 6:6-11, "Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer, and gathers her provision in the harvest. How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 'A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest' - and your poverty will come in like a vagabond, and your need like an armed man."

The sluggard receives strong disapproval from God. For laziness is inconsistent with true godliness. It was Charles Bridges, the famous 19th century English Pastor, who said, "The proud person is Satan's throne, and the idle man his pillow."

In contrast to the sluggard, the diligent or industrious individual receives praise in the book of Proverbs. How can we forget the extolled woman in Proverbs 31?  Vs. 27 says, "She looks well to the way of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness."

The diligent lifestyle is to be commended as one that is pleasing to the Lord and receptive of His blessings. Consider the following verses: "Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (Pr. 10:4). "The hand of the diligent will rule, but the slack hand will be put to forced labor" (Pr. 12:24). "The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the soul of the diligent is made fat" (Pr. 13:4). "The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty" (Pr. 21:5).

It is a general axiom, a self-evident truth, revealed in both Scripture and general living, that the hard worker will bring forth fruit of his labor. His fruit will often, but not always, be in terms of wealth, advancement, fulfilled desires and prosperity.

But beneath the surface, the diligent man is ultimately blessed because he glorifies God as a creature created in His image. David Atkinson, in his commentary on Proverbs said, "Why is work important? Not because by working harder we will get richer; there is no simple equation between hard work and wealth. We work essentially because we have been given gifts of creativity to use in God's world. Work is our human activity which corresponds to the work of God in His providential care for the whole created order."

While the Book of Proverbs focuses mainly on these earthly blessing, the New Testament elevates the qualities of diligence and slothfulness to a higher spiritual state. Let us now go a little deeper and examine them from the perspective of the New Testament (point number two).

2. The Teaching From The New Testament

The New Testament (like Proverbs) provides many clear rebukes of slothfulness.

One of the more popular is found in 2 Thessalonians 3. "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, that you might follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good. And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thes. 3:6-15).

Why these individuals were not working is a mystery to many scholars. Some say they simply wanted to live off the other generous members in the church. Others believe they subscribed to the Greek distain for manual labor. Possibly the best explanation for their laziness was on religious grounds. In thinking that the Lord's return was near, they quit their jobs and were awaiting His arrival.

But regardless of the reason, Paul finds it as no excuse. His apostolic command is straightforward and to the point, "If anyone will not work, neither let him eat" (2 Thes. 3:10). He called these individual "busybodies" living an "undisciplined life" in an "undisciplined manner." And to rectify the situation, Paul goes so far to call for church discipline.

Other clear examples of slothfulness can be found in the New Testament, each with similar results on condemnation. How about the five foolish virgins who were unprepared for the bridegroom's arrival? When the bridegroom returned and found them lacking diligence his response in Matthew 25:12 was, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you." The warning in verse 13 is clear, "Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour." The parable is in reference to our Lord's return.

Or how about the individual who did not invest his master's talent (also in Matthew 25)? When the master, who signifies our Lord, returned, his response to that slave was, "You wicked, lazy slave…cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt. 25:30). Again, the parable speaks of great consequences, when through our laziness we fail to use what the Lord has entrusted to our care.

Or how can we forget the incident in the garden, just moments before our Lord's betrayal, when His closest disciples could not pray and keep watch with Him for one hour. Three times He was forced to arouse them from their slumber, during a time when Jesus declared, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death" (Mk. 14:34).

When it comes to the slothful, the Bible pulls no punches. It is a hideous offense that discredits our testimony, displays our selfishness, dismisses our spiritual responsibilities and mocks the nature of our Creator to whom we are to emulate.

"And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (Heb. 6:11-12). God is looking for disciples, not sluggards! He does not want sluggish children. He wants us to not lag behind in diligence (Rom. 12:11). He wants us to apply all diligence (2 Pet. 1:5). He wants us to lay aside every encumbrance…and…run with endurance the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1).

The verse in Hebrews 6, which I just read, calls us to avoid a sluggish lifestyle and imitate those who went before us. You say, "Give me someone to imitate." How about someone from this church? I believe we have many good examples in this area! But for now we will consider two examples from the Bible.

First is the Apostle Paul. The man's mission was clear and His focus was heavenward. He understood himself to be a "bondslave of Jesus Christ." The man was far from being a sluggard. "For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God" (1 Tim. 4:10). You may say, "Well that's the Apostle Paul!" But the same Greek word used for "strive" in this verse, is also used of every Christian who is called to "strive to enter by the narrow door" (Lk. 13:24). Our whole Christian life is to be one of "striving"!

Paul then compares his discipline to the athletic realm. "And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air [purpose!]; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:25-27).

We all know Colossians 1. "And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose [what purpose? For the purpose of seeing others mature in Christ] also I labor (>kopiao), striving (agonizomai) according to His power, which mightily works within me (Col. 1:28-29).

Kopiao (labor) was used in secular Greek to refer to "a beating, weariness or exhaustion." It commonly referred to physical tiredness from work, exertion or heat. Basically, Paul is saying that I work to the point of exhaustion to present every man complete in Christ. Agonizomai (striving) is the source of our English word, "agonize". Originally it referred to completing in an athletic event requiring maximum effort. It breathes forth the image of striving after a specific goal or purpose.

And then on his deathbed, the faithful disciple could confidently boast in his purposeful and diligent living. "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:6-7). Paul truly is an example we can emulate as it relates to steadfastness, diligence and discipline.

The great Reformer, John Calvin sought to heed Paul's example. Even on his deathbed, his friends pleaded with him to refrain from his labors. He replied: "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?"

The second individual to emulate in terms of disciplined living is Jesus Christ. As the God-man, He was fully human. He struggled with hunger, thirst, sleep, distractions and temptations like us. But without a doubt, he lived the most disciplined life of any individual to ever walk on the planet. There was purpose to every moment of His life and His actions were brought forth with great diligence. His food was to do the will of Him who sent Him and His goal was to accomplish the work of His Father (Jn. 4:34)

Yet when it comes to disciple, what kind of disciplines are most important? Let me take you to our final point.

3. Spiritual Disciplines-A Godly Perspective

Point number three, a key verse, "But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

I want you to see this. We are commanded to "discipline ourselves for godliness!" The Greek word for discipline is (in verse 7 is the verb gumnazo) and (in verse 8 the noun gumnasia). Naturally, it is from these Greek words that we derive our English word-gymnasium. By using gumnazo Paul is playing off the cultural obsession with training and exercise and applying it to the Christian realm. As the Greeks prioritized training for beautiful bodies and athletic contests, Paul prioritized training for godliness. And for the Christian, godliness is to be a priority.

After all was it not Paul who said, "[God] predestined [us] to become conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29). God's greatest goal and purpose for His children is conformity to the image of Christ…godliness! And though we would like to see it happen without effort, godliness is accomplished through "spiritual sweat"! And how foolish of us to think that we can become godly and more like Jesus without discipline - gumnasia - as 1 Timothy 4 suggests. Often we refer to this holy exercise as "Spiritual Disciplines."

Donald Whitney in his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, defined them as, "[The] personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times." Whitney went on to say, "The gold of godliness isn't found on the surface of Christianity. It is has to be dug from the depths with the tools of the disciplines. But for those who persevere, the treasures are more than worth the troubles."

Without much elaboration, allow me to list some of the spiritual disciplines. Evaluate your own life beloved. Are you training yourself for godliness?

  • Bible Reading
  • Church Attendance
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Christian Ministry
  • Evangelism
  • Financial Giving

The Spiritual Disciplines take discipline to be accomplished! When they're done right, they're hard work! But in and through these disciplines, we train ourselves for godliness. We spiritually grow and God is glorified! All of us acquainted with athletics, academics, the arts and business know that discipline and fortitude and persistence are necessary to succeed. What makes us think the spiritual life is any different?

So how do we stay disciplined without running around aimlessly like a chicken with its head cut off? How do we get our "marching orders" from God, living a diligent life without a low-grade sense of guilt? Where does grace fit into all of this? As the Lord permits, next week we'll try to answer those questions.

Series Information

Other sermons in the series