Marks of a Mature Believer Artist (II): Discipline

I'm having a hard time finding space to keep up the blog. The last three weeks were spent writing and re-writing ad nauseum a proposal for a book that would come out of the symposium plenary talks. Oh well. You can only do so much in this world. I will definitely not be winning any awards for blogdom any time soon. So be it. Or as I'm saying these days: soviet.

Here's part two of four parts.

"We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."~ Aristotle


Discipline is what helps people flourish over a lifetime of effort.

Discipline is the ballerina educating her body to do the freakishly impossible: toes to stand miraculously on end while she spins in pirouette, pliĆ© squats to bolster the hamstrings, scissor beats to muscle up the quadriceps, port de bras carefully sculpting the carriage of the arms, arabesques for balance—all so that when she appears on stage she appears effortless. “How graceful!” “Tre bella!” Did her toes bleed?

Discipline is practicing your chromatic scales on the piano, shooting a 1000 free-throws, rehearsing speeches before a mirror, memorizing German vocabulary while driving to work so that you can be free to become that which you intend: a pianist, a basketball player, an actor, fluent in German. Free and full and alive.

Without discipline there is no freedom. The undisciplined ballerina can never be free to be a ballerina. Without discipline we cannot flourish. I cannot write poetry in German or spin a good Bavarian joke if I have not applied time and energy to the basics of the language. As the feisty Henry Emerson Fosdick once said:

"No horse gets anywhere until he is harnessed. No stream or gas drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined."

With discipline we are free. With discipline we flourish. Discipline is what a disciple does: a disciple of jazz, a disciple of cinematography. Discipline is a defining feature of a mature human being, indeed of a follower of Christ, the truly human one.

But learning to be disciplined is hard. All together now: “But it’s harrrrrrrrd!”

Yes, it’s hard, but the good kind.

I have a problem getting enough sleep every night. I am not self-controlled with my z’s. And I’ve been complaining about it for seven to eight years . . . complaining, whining, a 6 foot-tall broken record crooning, “I’m tirrrred.” I have not yet learned the discipline of getting good rest for my body and soul and they suffer for it—and others around me who have to deal with me because of my lack of discipline. Yes, I’m not the only one affected by my choices, others get screwed too. Fun stuff that. So I need help. I can’t do it alone.

But let me pause for clarification. Discipline is not drivenness. It isn’t to be confused with ambition.

It isn’t about working harder and harder, all of which can tend to reinforce the idea that to be a happy human being is to be a productive human being: I work therefore I am. Our work is one of many arenas that needs to be disciplined along with money, friendships, food, our speech, emotional habits and so on. Discipline, in the case of work, helps us keep at bay both slothfulness and workaholism. It is all about a rhythm and a healthy, dynamic balance: good rest and good work over indulgent rest and indulgent work.

And again I say, we cannot do it alone.

We need the grace of God. We need friends willing to walk with us as we climb out of the valley of slavery to self and bad ingrained habits and into the fields of joy and freedom and renewed vigor.

Discipline is a mechanism that helps us rightly order our lives under God’s sovereign grace in the company of kindred souls so that we can become all that we are meant to become.

The problem is, our churches don’t talk much about discipline. We talk about being “Christians.” We talk about conversions. We talk about liking or not liking the service, the preaching, the music, the community, as if Christianity were another commodity like ice cream or a line of clothing. Yet when we don’t talk about discipline we don’t help our people know not what they’re supposed to do, but who they are supposed to become: disciples, of Jesus, truly and fully alive human beings.

The New Testament mentions “disciple” 269 times. “Christian” appears only 3. That’s uno, dos, tres. 3! Surely that catches our attention. Jesus said, Go make disciplined disciples of the God in whose image we are made and in whose image lies our truest life. Writes Dallas Willard:

“The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian—especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God.”

Discipline in this light is not just a necessity, it’s the “fulfillment of the highest human possibilities” and “life on the highest plane.”

Discipline is what helps us, in Richard Foster’s words, to be “deep people”—capable of offering the hope of a deeper, fuller life to a superficial, hollow world, a world that is worn out and worn down.

So there you go. Discipline is one of those things you can’t do without, like good shoes and good brakes as my grandpa might report to you.

What else? What else does discipline have to do with being an artist? Well here’s the start of a list:

* With discipline I learn how to develop personal and artistic habits that keep me fit and focused: fit because the moment I stop doing my art is the moment I start feeling fat and the more “fat” I feel, the more I want to avoid making my art; focused because I am so easily distracted—“Let’s watch a movie!” “Let’s reorganize my room one more time!” “Let’s go eat—take a nap—go shopping!” Let’s do something easier than make art.

* With discipline I learn to be centered, not distracted; diligent, not lazy; healthy, not unhealthy. With it I learn to develop a good rhythm for my life and work instead of allowing myself to be yanked around by every demanding appetite that crawls into my belly.

* With discipline I can live with a calm sense of purpose and holy urgency. I can resist the temptation of a fearful heart about my life that eventually makes me panicky and driven, losing my soul while gaining “the world.” With this calm, clear-headed sense I can thoroughly fast and thoroughly feast . . . thoroughly work and thoroughly rest . . . thoroughly be with people and thoroughly be away from people.

* With discipline I can learn how to be faithful to the vision God has given me for my life. I can remember that it will take my entire life to fulfill that vision—not this weekend, not this year. I can even be excited that my life’s calling extends into eternity where things more fabulous than anything I can yet imagine await my attention and the work of my hands.

I will be a great chef in eternity.

* Finally, with discipline I can be self-controlled. Self-control is an annoying virtue. It gets in the way of so many things I want to do. But it’s also probably the most practical. In the moment of overexcited, impetuous feelings all I want to do is Eat, See, Do, Fight, Yell, Run, Stomp, Shame, Whine, Burst or Hit something or somebody. Just like in Batman: kapow! clunk! bam! boff! But the Bible reminds us that self-control is one of the best juicy-fruit of a Spirited life.

It’s what keeps us sane and content. If we look at a few sample children we observe that an un-self-controlled life is a pretty miserable life. It’s what Richard Foster calls the everlasting burden of wanting to get your way when you want it.

But as with all the disciplines, the discipline of self-control is able teach us how to be sweet and strong when we don’t get our way—which on this fallen earth will probably be often and thank God for the grace we’ll receive in the moment of obedience.

"Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility and commitment." ~ H. Ross Perot


good, good stuff mr. artspastorman! You had me at this quote,
"We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."~ Aristotle
I could have stopped there, but am so glad I didn't.
One question that has arisen in our community is "What (or who?), in fact, is an artist?" Someone who has achieved a certain level of professionalism? Someone who took some classes in college? Someone who desires the entitlement of exhibiting an "artistic temperment"? Using Aristotle's quote as a launching pad, I'd say, at the very least, an artist is someone who is in the habit of creating art.
I have been astounded at the people I've met and worked with who believe themselves to be artists but who have not created any art.
Discipline. Habit. Excellence. great words to ponder.
Thank you
Tamara, the easiest and possibly coy way to answer your question is to say that everybody is an artist and some people are an artist. But this is also how I'd answer the question, Who is a missionary? Who is an evangelist? Who is a doctor? All of us have been commanded to preach the good news, but some of us are especially gifted and apt to preach it as a missionary or evangelist. All of have the capacity to put Neosporin on a wound, but some of us are especially gifted and apt for the work of professional doctoring.

Everybody has the capacity to make art. Some of us, however, are especially in tune with the aesthetic dimension of human life. And by that I mean that some of us feel more deeply the emotional currents AND see into the meaning of these emotions--and the imagination, the physical senses, beauty.

Beyond this you're dealing with the practical matter that some artists are "weekend artists," some are "working artists." Some are disciplined, some are not.

Just like the rest of everbody.
thank you. as i re-read my comment, i can see how much i am projecting my own lack of discipline onto those "people I've met and worked with". permit me to re-state,
Discipline. Habit. Excellence. Great words to live.
Chris J said…
Hi David,

I am very interested in you blog and the work you do in Austin. Please check out my blog at
Noah said…
Wow! Great and poignant thoughts. I WANT a copy of that book when it comes out!

I'll be sharing this post at a forum of Christian comic book artists that I frequent at:

And I'll probably post a comment on my blog as well:

Peace of Christ to you!
Thank you! Kathleen
Scott W said…
Thank you for this post on discipline. I am an artist and also in recovery and as an assignment my sponsor has me studying the principle behind the 9th Step-Discipline. He in particular wanted me to look at spiritual discipline. Your writing is beautiful and helped me immensely.
Thanks, Scott, for your note. I'm glad what I wrote was helpful. Be encouraged. All good discipline does beget greater freedom in soul and body. I'd highly recommend Richard Foster's book, THE CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE. It's an excellent introduction to the basics of spiritual disciplines.

Grace and peace to you.

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