For there to be growth in any area of our lives, there needs to be discipline. Discipline is not punishment, although it often feels that way because many times the area we need discipline can be a challenge to us. Andy Stanley defines discipline as those things we are supposed to do but don’t want to, and the list is endless…
eat better, eat less, exercise more,
spend time with our families, call our parents, call our children,
work harder, sleep more, save more, give more, volunteer more …
While many of these things might start as a discipline, something we do just because we are supposed to, if we persist in them we often find ourselves actually enjoying the new habits and eventually find them a pleasurable part of our lives and lifestyle. Many people find this true with a new diet or exercise program. While at first it is difficult and painful, over time we grow accustomed to it and then we find it hard to imagine that we ever lived another way. The first time I ran, I wanted to throw up after about ¼ mile. I told myself if I didn’t go out the next day and do it again; I would never do it again. We don’t start these disciplines because we like them, many times it starts as a chore, but in time we find some of these things can bring freedom and be a blessing to our lives.
In this way we see that discipline is a form of delayed gratification. If we work hard now we will enjoy the benefits of that work later on. We can see this in the area of sports and finances where our discipline now brings a blessing later on, but many people have also experienced this in the field of music. The discipline of practicing the piano allows you to enjoy the gift of music for a lifetime. I always wanted this. I played violin, guitar and piano when I was in school and I loved the idea of sitting down and just playing for fun and enjoyment, but I didn’t like the discipline of practicing, so today I don’t play the violin, guitar or piano. Discipline takes hard work and it is not always enjoyable but if we persist we will experience the reward of growth and the same is true with our faith.
This month we are talking about the 5 things God uses to grow our faith and while we will never find these things listed in the Bible, they are principles we see at work there and in our lives. We have seen how God uses practical teaching and providential relationships to grow our faith and today we are going to look at private disciplines. While there are many disciplines or practices of our faith we could look at, we are only going to talk about three because these three were given to us by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount and are found in Matthew 6. Let’s start with Matthew 6:1-4.
The acts of righteousness that Jesus mentions here are the disciplines that need to be part of our lives and in each case Jesus shows us why they need to be private. If we make a big show out of these actions then the reward we get is the recognition of others, but if we do these acts privately there is still a reward, but the reward comes from God and in each case the reward leads to a bigger, stronger faith. There is nothing wrong with bringing these disciplines into our lives to receive a reward, remember, discipline is like a delayed gratification which means there is a reward we get if we follow through; we just need to make sure we are seeking the right reward. If the reward comes from the people around us, it is temporary and superficial, but if it comes from God it lasts and leads to a deeper and stronger faith.
The first discipline Jesus gives here is Giving. The giving that Jesus is talking about is not the tithe that everyone was called by God to give to the church to keep the Temple going and to care for all the priests and their families, that giving was expected. This was the giving of alms to the poor. In every community, but especially in Jerusalem, there were those who were sick and lame and begged for money at the Temple. While the community was called to help care for them, their needs were great and so they often begged and asked people for more help. There was no systematic way to give alms; people simply gave because they were moved with compassion and mercy when they saw a particular need. Some person or situation would touch their heart and they would give to that person.
You can still see this at work in the Holy Land today. As we toured a church there was a man who was severely deformed and he was being pushed in a wheelchair asking for money. We had been told not to just give money to people because it can be difficult to get them to leave you alone, so we all kind of looked at each other and asked our tour guide what to do. He told us that if we wanted to give we could. Somehow he knew the people who were genuine and grateful and would not become a problem and so several people gave to this man as he begged.
The day we spent walking the streets of Jerusalem we encountered many people asking for help and there was one man we saw who I would have said was clearly mentally ill. We encountered him in the market place right after our guide stopped and bought us some kind of candy that is well known in the area but honestly not very good. Our guide gave him a piece and so he hung around with us for a while. As I looked into his eyes and saw all the problems he had, I just felt compelled to give him something, so I did, but I made the mistake of taking several coins out of my pocket which he immediately saw. While I gave him one, he wanted more and there was no telling him I didn’t have any more because he had already seen them. Eventually I just gave him what I had which meant that he continued to follow us and talk to me and ask for more. I’m not sure our guide was very happy with me but he came and ran some interference and got them man to leave our group. I don’t know if it was the same in Jesus day, but sometimes you just have to give and that’s the kind of giving Jesus is talking about here. But unlike my sharing this story with you, Jesus encourages us to do this in secret.
Now if the only reason we give is to be recognized by others so they think more highly of us, then our reward is that recognition, but if we give in secret so that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing, then it says God will reward us. While we shouldn’t seek the reward of recognition of others, we should strive for the recognition and reward of God because that reward is the growth of our faith. Part of the reward we receive when we follow these disciplines is that God honors us and that honor brings strength to our lives and depth to our faith. But another reward to giving away money is that money then loses its hold on our lives and we learn to trust God more and live in spiritual freedom.
So why don’t we do this? Why don’t we live this way? Why aren’t we giving more of our money away? Why aren’t we more generous when we hear about or see a need? Many times we don’t give this way because we don’t really trust God to honor us on the other side of the giving. We don’t give because we think we need our money. If we really believed that God would honor us in the fullest sense of what it means to be honored by God, and that God would truly care for us in all things and in all ways, then we would give more but we struggle to believe and trust God and so we don’t give.
It is not a coincidence that the first private discipline Jesus chooses to talk about is the giving away our money. Jesus chose this because for most of us this is the thing we struggle with the most. We believe it is money that will bring us security and happiness. We believe that money will make our life easier and better and it is hard to argue this point when all we have seen for several weeks now is people lining up to buy their Powerball tickets. Let’s be honest, the thought of winning $1.5 billion dollars was a huge temptation. People who never played the lottery suddenly started buying tickets because we all believe that $1.5 billion would make life better and easier, and that’s the temptation right there, we believe it is money that will make the difference. As long as we have this attitude, then giving is going to be hard. It is hard to give money away freely and anonymously when we are trusting that money to make our lives better or to make us happy.
The only way to really trust God alone is to give up what we trust in more than anything else and Jesus makes clear that for most of us this is our financial wealth and resources. God doesn’t call us to give because God needs our money or God wants our money, God calls us to give because God wants us. God wants our hearts and lives and God wants our full trust and devotion. This is what God has always wanted. The first of the 10 commandments says I am the Lord your God and you will have no other gods before me. Money can become that god in our lives if we don’t free ourselves from its hold on us and so if we are to give God our full hearts we have to cut the hold that money has on our hearts. The only way to trust God completely is to give away those things in which we trust which for many of us is money.
While we believe money is our greatest asset, there is something that is even more valuable and that is our time. While we can work to get more money, we are all given a limited amount of time and there is nothing we can do to get more and so it is no surprise that the second act of righteousness or private discipline Jesus address is the time we need to give God in Prayer, Matthew 6:5-8.
The kind of prayer Jesus is talking about here is the private and personal time each one of us needs to give God every day. There is a time and place for us to pray with others, but we also need to give God our personal time in prayer. Just like with giving, we see that when we give time to God, there is a reward, Matthew 6:6. The reward for those who make a show of their prayers is to be noticed by men and women, but the reward when we pray in private is to be noticed by God. God sees us and hears us when we pray in secret and God will use this time to grow our faith and deepen our trust in Him, but giving God this time on a consistent basis is difficult and requires discipline
We are all busy and our days are full so it is hard to think about giving up some of our time to spend with God in prayer. The kind of prayer we are talking about is not the kind we do as we drive to work, see our kids off to school or utter when that test paper is given out in class. Jesus is talking about a very intentional time we set aside to spend with God each day. It’s taking time in the morning or evening or during our lunch hour to simply go away by ourselves to be with God. When it seems we hardly have enough time for what we need to do in a day, it’s hard to think about setting aside our valuable time to be with God – but again, it is that struggle which helps grow our faith.
Now we don’t have time to look in depth at the third discipline Jesus offers here, but let me at least identify it so we can give it some thought during the week, it is Fasting – Matthew 6:16-18. Again, there is a reward if we are willing to discipline ourselves when it comes to food, and the reward is not weight loss, the reward is that once again God sees us and honors us. God will grow our faith if we are willing to discipline our lives in this area and I would encourage you to think about fasting not as a diet but as a discipline to grow closer to God. Read more about fasting and consider how it can be used as a spiritual discipline.
When we look at these three disciplines given to us by Jesus, Giving – Prayer – Fasting, we see that none of them are easy. We also see that money, time and foodand some of the things we hold most dear and trust in to make our lives meaningful and secure. We can give these things up to draw closer to God but if we do it in very public ways, our reward is the honor and recognition we receive from others. If we are willing to discipline ourselves in these areas in private ways then our faith will grow.
Now, my guess is that I have probably made everyone here today a little uncomfortable. No one likes to be told how to live and what to do with their money or time. The tension we are feeling is the struggle we go through when God wants to grow our faith. It’s ok to be uncomfortable and it’s ok to struggle and do these things with some resistance. It’s like diet, exercise or financial stewardship, they aren’t fun and it’s not easy but the more we do these things the more we will be rewarded by God and the reward isn’t life in heaven when we die, the reward is a deeper faith right here and now which will lift our hearts and bring abundance to our lives. The reward is the ability to trust God more and experience more of the life God has for us. The reward is that God will grow our faith.
Andy Stanley defines disciplines as those things we are supposed to do but don’t want to.
In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18), Jesus identifies three acts of righteousness or disciplines that we should do in private. Practice these disciplines during this coming week.
1. First Few Minutes of the Day
• Set aside 10 minutes each morning to spend in prayer.
• Find a private place to pray.
• Use the Bible as a means of listening to God in prayer.
2. First Few Dollars we make
• Set aside a few dollars to simply give away this week.
• Look for opportunities where you could give anonymously.
• If you do not currently tithe, give proportionally of your income.
• If you currently tithe, increase your giving by one percent.
3. Favorite Foods or one day of Food this week
Please consider all health concerns before entering into any kind of fast from food.
• Give up a favorite food.
• Give up eating food for one day a week.
• Take some time to learn more about fasting.*
* Learn more about fasting and other spiritual disciplines, check out The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.