self-discipline

Numbers 21, Isaiah 10:5-34, Psalm 126

Today’s readings are Numbers 21, Isaiah 10:5-34, and Psalm 126.

This devotional is about Psalm 126.

As with many Psalms, we don’t know who the songwriter was or what the circumstances around its writing were. Because verse 1 says, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion” we know that some kind of calamity had come to Jerusalem and that this Psalm was written after that calamity was reversed. And whatever it was must have been major because even the nations were saying, “The Lord has done great things for them” (v. 2c-d). The Psalmist agreed (v. 3) and God’s kindness to them seemed too good to be true (v. 1b) and caused them to rejoice (v. 2a, 3b).

Still, there must have been more restoration needed because the second half of the Psalm calls for God to “restore our fortunes” (v. 4a) even though verse 1 said that the Lord had “restored the fortunes of Zion.” Verse 5 continues by saying, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” That indicates that there was still work to be done. Perhaps literal sowing was meant; maybe the farms around the areas had been left uncultivated and much more work than usual would need to be done to make the land productive again. The promise of this Psalm is that sowing may be done in sorrow (v. 4a, 5a) but harvest time will bring joy and songs (v. 5b, 6c-d). Nobody likes to rebuild something that has been wiped out be it your farm, your personal finances, your career, your relationship with your family, or whatever. Starting over brings sorrow because it reminds you of how much you lost and where you would be if calamity hadn’t struck. But if you allow sorrow to overtake you and you don’t sow, you will never know the joy of reaping.

The point of the Psalm is that you should do the hard work you don’t want to do so that you can reap the benefits that only hard work can bring. This is a good definition of self-discipline which I heard someone else define as “Doing what you don’t want to do so that you can have something (or be someone) that you want.” But note that the Psalm puts this call to hard work and self-discipline in the context of faith in God. The Psalmist has already seen God do great things (vv. 1, 3). Now, by faith, he was calling on God to keep restoring their fortunes (v. 4) while they sowed in tears. God the creator made the world so that sowing predictably and normally brings reaping. Those who work hard get rewarded. Calamities happen--crop failures, drought, war, etc.--but those are rare events. Usually the person who believes that hard work will be rewarded gets the rewards of hard work. That’s because God the creator made the world to respond to the faithful efforts of humanity.

Are you trying to rebuild something that fell apart--your marriage, your career, your retirement, or something else? Does the sorrow of loss tempt you not to try anymore? This Psalm calls you to have faith in God and put in the work even when you don’t feel like it. Even if you’re crying while you do the work, the work will matter. The ground doesn’t care if you sow in tears or in joy. It doesn’t respond any better or worse based on your mood; it responds to faithful effort. So let this song encourage you to keep doing the work despite how you feel and to pray over your efforts by saying, “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.”

Proverbs 26:1-16

Today’s reading is Proverbs 26:1-16.

Self-discipline is a character quality. It is the ability to do things that are necessary or required ore productive when you don’t feel like doing them. Someone else defined it as doing what you don’t want to do in order to get a result that you do want to get.

Self-discipline does not come naturally in every area of life for us. You may be painfully aware of some areas where you are not as disciplined as you want to be or should be, but there are some areas where you are very disciplined, but you just don’t think about it. If you brush your teeth every day, twice a day, you have self-discipline in that area.

But there is probably at least one area in your life that is suffering from a lack of self-discipline. Verses 13-16 in today’s reading describe the opposite of self-discipline which is laziness. A “sluggard” is another word for a lazy person. What is he like?

  • He makes up crazy excuses for his lack of action. Verse 13: “a fierce lion is roaming the streets!”
  • He moves a lot, but only within his comfort zone. Verse 14 says he turns on his bed like a door turns on its hinges. That describes constant movement but only in the horizontal position. Sometimes we do a lot for our own comfort when we should be doing the uncomfortable--but much more productive--thing.
  • He quits halfway through a productive project. Verse 15 says that he puts food on his fork, but never moves it to his mouth. This is like getting your paycheck but being to lazy to take it to the bank and cash it. The benefit is right there, but it requires a little effort to receive it. The sluggard--the undisciplined person--can’t be bothered.
  • He thinks he’s got all the answers. Seven wise people can all give him the same bit of great advice, but the undisciplined person thinks he has better ideas.

Do you see any of these qualities in your life in areas where you know discipline is lacking? Why do we act this way? Often it is about fear. We fear putting in effort and having the project fail anyway, so we make excuses, stay in our comfort zone, quit doing productive things just before the productivity benefit shows up, and refuse skillful advice.

Living a self-disciplined life requires faith. It requires believing that God has structured the world in ways that reward productive behavior. Could it be that your laziness in one or more area of life is really an expression of unbelief? God has promised that a person reaps what he sows and you see it everyday in the corn fields that surround our church building and are throughout our community. Don’t let laziness and unbelief rob you of the blessings and benefits of disciplined work. God will reward effort that is invested in productive things.