Is There Discipline In Your Discipleship?
I was twenty-eight years old when I made the decision to open my life to the power of Jesus Christ, a decision that set me on an adventurous new path, totally different than my original plans, and remarkably fulfilling for forty years now. I had graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, gotten married, had two children, served five years on active duty as an infantry officer and had left military service for a civilian career. My life spiraled downward—morally, financially and relationally—when I was invited to a group studying “The Life In The Spirit”. It was a peer-led seminar based on three themes from the Bible: God’s Love, salvation in Jesus and life in the Spirit.
Immediately my priorities changed from a pleasure-seeking, materialistic, ego-centered mindset to a God-centered humble heart, constantly thirsty for more of the living water that Jesus promised (Revelation 21:6). I became a disciple of Jesus Christ, reentered the U.S. Army as a captain, served an additional thirteen years and retired in 1993 at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In those years I received the call to enter full-time ministry and after years of preparation, I was ordained with the Assemblies of God, planted a new church in Southwick, Massachusetts, and later served as the pastor of another church in Western Massachusetts. I retired from the pulpit in 2013 and began a career of coaching, writing and speaking.
With twenty-three years in the Army Infantry and twenty years of pastoral ministry, I wondered why God would take me on this very unique journey of military discipline and Christian discipleship, and what He would have me do with it. Well, now I know.
Many of the values instilled in me at West Point and in the Army are inextricably linked to the virtues that Jesus imparted in His disciples—those who lived with the Lord when He walked the earth, and those who have followed Him for the last 2000 years. Naturally the accounts in the Holy Scriptures that relate the exploits of God’s military leaders have a special interest to us warrior types, as do the scriptures that instruct us in spiritual warfare.
This year, 2017 I have authored a seminar called Training Spirit and Body for Spiritual Warfare. The premise of the seminar is that today’s American Christians are in need of a methodical training regimen that inspires them to reject the powerful attractions of our materialistic, luxurious lifestyle and draws them into a consistent daily discipline of spiritual training and physical training.
My Bible heroes are warriors like Joshua and Caleb who led the nation of Israel in victorious battles to recapture Canaan, the land given to them by Jehovah. Warriors like young King David and his brother-in-arms Jonathan who waged unconventional warfare against the Philistines. Warriors like Judge Debra and General Barak who commanded 10,000 Israeli fighters against the Canaanite Army with 900 chariots of iron. Warriors like timid Gideon, outrageous Samson and “madman” Jehu. I have to add Daniel and John the Baptist for their against-the-mainstream lifestyles. They renounced the enticements of the sensual world and took up a life of self-discipline and perseverance.
From these tough-minded role models I am inspired to shape my daily and weekly schedule into a lifestyle fundamentally different than that of today’s typical flesh-gratifying American man. With all the worldly distractions that scream into our ears and hearts—many of them unhealthy and destructive—we need to somehow separate ourselves and follow that straight path and narrow gate that offers us a life set-apart for the mission to which God has called us.
This all may sound like some crazy cultish, monastic venture, but it is not. The strength we need to operate as elite godly warriors does not come from ourselves, but it comes from the love and grace of Jesus Christ. God’s Word repeats this theme over and over again: It is not by human strength that a disciple can learn perseverance and endurance. “Not by might not by power but by my Spirit says the Lord almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6) The essence of our life in the Spirit begins by responding to God’s powerful love. “This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
Health, nutrition and fitness are getting a great deal of attention these days. Most of the resources in these areas focus on improving a person’s appearance or physical strength or improved activity. A Christian disciple adopts a spiritual and physical fitness regimen as a response to God’s love.
The first step in this Training Spirit and Body for Spiritual Warfare (TSBSW) is to elevate one’s awareness of the powerful love that God constantly pours out on us. We are so inclined to forget the fact that God created us, sustains us, provides for us and that He sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sins. So then our response to that great love compels us to become a disciple, ever increasing in our devotion to God in Christ.
So in this attitude of a submissive, humble follower of Jesus, I ask myself this question, “Am I truly living the ‘set-apart’ life that is constantly loving God back for loving me?”
My answer comes from my military experience. In the army, the deeper a soldier immerses himself in the warrior ethic, the more separated he becomes from civilian life. He first enters basic training where he is separated from his home, divested of his clothes, haircut, possessions and all other accouterments of civilian life. He lives on a military base in a barracks and he wears the prescribed uniform. Every minute of every day is programed for his inclusion in his unit. He submits to the authorities over him.
Then if he is motivated and qualified he may go deeper into the warrior ethic. He may become an airborne paratrooper, then deeper into the Rangers, then deeper into the Special Forces, then even deeper into the elite Delta Force. At every stage on this progression, the warrior receives more training, he becomes more disciplined and he becomes farther and farther isolated from the civilian life he left when he first enlisted.
In the same way the devoted disciple of Christ seeks to become deeper in love with his Savior, and by doing so he becomes farther and farther separated from the typical, worldly lifestyle that he left when he received Christ the moment he was born again.
It is important to understand the Christ-centered motivation for training the spirit and body: simply a response to God’s love for us. Otherwise the training can become an ego-centered program of self improvement, no different than the thousands of fitness and health programs that the world offers.
There are five ligaments that connect spiritual training with physical training. I list them below in reverse order of significance:
God cares about our outward appearance but if we adopt a disciplined regimen of physical fitness only to improve our appearance, that would be a vain and shallow motivation. So I list “image” as one of the ligaments that connect spiritual and physical training because it does exist, it’s just not very significant compared to the other four. Whereas most worldly programs of fitness and health offer the prospect of a more beautiful body as the primary objective, TSBSW offers improved appearance as a by-product.
The Bible teaches us to concentrate more on inward character and to minimize our attention on outward appearance. So with that as a foundation, let us acknowledge that we are created in His image and He is perfect, so our goal when it comes to image is to offer an appearance that reflects God’s image.
Here is Paul’s instruction to his young disciple, Timothy, regarding the priority of physical exercise:
“… the training of the body has a limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Tim 4:8)
Therefore a disciple’s spiritual training and physical training will result in his improved appearance, but this is not the main motivator.
More important than physical appearance is the disciple’s physical health. This includes all the functions of the body: the cardio-vascular system, digestive system, muscle and bone strength, brain functions, and all the other bodily systems. The spiritual warrior’s spiritual training unquestionably has a positive effect on his physical health. As the spirit grows stronger, the disciple’s ability to maintain a consistent regimen of physical health as well. And conversely, as the body becomes stronger, more active and healthier, the spiritual warrior has more mental and emotional energy to focus on Bible study, meditation and serving Him in His kingdom.
Therefore spiritual and physical training work closely together to increase the disciple’s health.
The apostle, John wrote to his friend Gaius: “Dear friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health physically just as you are spiritually.” (3 John, v. 2)
Going a little deeper here, as the spiritual warrior develops his consistent regimen of physical and spiritual training his attitude toward all external stimuli changes. I’ll give you three examples, but there are hundreds more: entertainment, achievement and food.
When the disciple becomes immeshed in his study of God’s Word and his experience with the presence of God, his attitude toward entertainment media like movies, TV, sports, and games diminishes. With a heart that is receiving the love of God and His daily instructions for living, a spiritual warrior begins to realize that attending concerts, sports events or other forms of entertainment just doesn’t do it anymore. That’s the way spiritual training radically adjusts our attitudes.
And when a disciple gets beyond the initial discomforts of physical training (which will definitely happen) his attitude toward his former daily schedule and activities changes. Those activities that do not support a healthy lifestyle fade away, and he does not feel as if he is being deprived of anything. His inward motivations have been altered by the Holy Spirit. That’s the way physical training radically adjusts our attitudes.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, he lays out how the life in the Spirit is the antithesis of life in the flesh. In the list of the “fruit of the Spirit” the last fruit is SELF-CONTROL. In my experience both in the military and in God’s army, I have learned that self-control can be developed. Many of my West Point classmates were naturally very disciplined people by nature and temperament. I was not wired like them. I needed external influencers to train my undisciplined nature. Fortunately I was wired as a trusting, compliant student, and I did learn the value of self-control that leads to a more organized, productive life. But it took training, not just military training, or academic training at the academy, but moral training. The most important result of my four years at West Point was the shaping of my moral character, such that I became much more conscious of the necessity of choosing “the harder right over the easier wrong”. (The Cadet Prayer)
One of the key purposes of TRAINING SPIRIT AND BODY FOR SPIRITUAL WARFARE is to emphasize the importance of training. When a soldier decides to become a warrior (and there is a difference) he recognizes three things: 1. He is always in need of more education, no matter how long he has been a disciple of Jesus Christ, 2.He can always grow deeper in love with his Savior, and 3. Once he decides on a regimen of spiritual and physical training he will become a more disciplined, more effective follower of Jesus Christ.
5. Loving God
How does a regimen of physical training connect with spiritual training when it comes to loving our God? Well, to repeat a sentence from the opening paragraph of this article, “A Christian disciple adopts a spiritual and physical fitness regimen as a response to God’s love.”
Psalm 139: 13-16 gives us an intimate picture of the depth of God’s concern for us:
“13 For it was You who created my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise You
because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful,
and I know this very well.
15 My bones were not hidden from You
when I was made in secret,
when I was formed in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw me when I was formless;
all my days were written in Your book and planned
before a single one of them began.
So here is the logic behind the connection between physical and spiritual training as we respond to the love of God: (1) Since He made us, and not only made us, but “remarkably and wonderfully”, and (2) since “my days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began”, then why would we treat this phenomenal physical invention—called a human body—with anything less than the utmost respect? No, we are inspired, as an act of love by our Loving Father who created us in His image, to keep this body in the utmost peak physical condition, as a spiritual worship. “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
So there are the five connecting ligaments between physical training and spiritual training. I encourage all you readers to consider how you can combine both as you respond to the magnificent love that our Father pours out on us.