What is self-discipline? The Collins dictionary defines it as "the act of disciplining or power to discipline one's own feelings, desires, etc., esp with the intention of improving oneself". It has also been defined as "Training and control of oneself and one's conduct, usually for personal improvement."
It is important to state from the outset that no amount of self-discipline or self-denial on our parts can ever atone for any of our sins or moral failures. We can never "earn our way" to righteousness. Once you've blown it, you've blown it – and it takes the miraculous power of the blood of Jesus Christ itself to restore us to a place of righteousness with God. Those who suffer in the cause of Christ should never deceive themselves on this point. Painful self-discipline may be required to keep one's flesh under and break sinful habits and ways, but even this is empowered by God's grace and in NO WAY purchases favour with God. What self-discipline can do is help us to be in a place where the Spirit of God can get through to us more easily, so we can know God and hear His voice correctly.
Usually self-discipline of the right kind is an easier and less painful path than the discipline that comes directly from the Lord Himself. The Bible is full of Scripture telling us that the Lord disciplines his own children, His own people. That takes the form of a judgment, or a negative circumstance. If we don't voluntarily put ourselves in a place where we hear God, there is every chance that painful circumstances will arise to increase our motivation to do so. Paul put it this way:
"But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged." (1 Corinthians 11:31).
It has been said that "prayer is the key to revival". But this is only half the truth. Most people in the world pray. But how much, how well and with what personal discipline do they pray? And do they pray according to the Word, and by the leading of the Spirit? These things are important considerations. As you go on it God you will encounter people who will tell you how easy it is to be successful in God. How it is all by grace, how his yoke is easy and his burden light and how fasting is over-rated. But grace makes the walk with God possible for us, it doesn't mean its going to be easy. Paul the apostle talked about how mightily the grace of God worked in and through him, but he suffered a lot in fulfilling his call. The burden is light – but it is still a burden. The devil's burdens and the burdens of the world are a lot heavier, but often they come later in life once you start reaping what you have sown earlier on. Human beings have an almost infinite capacity for suffering, but Jesus doesn't stretch us to those extremes as we follow him. In hell people suffer like that. In the path of following the Lord our afflictions are only "light" and they are working for us a far more exceeding weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). For some strange reason some of those who have already paid the price in fasting make out that it is overrated. This may be because they don't fast much now, but they move in God's power a lot. Well, I am sure they wouldn't be where they are now if they never fasted in the past. They may not have seen immediate results but the results surely came later. One might think of the work involved in laying a foundation for a house – not much is seen for all that work, but later on it makes a stable building possible.
I want to say this: prayer without self-discipline has limited effect. God calls us to be watchful and diligent in prayer – these very words imply giving up sleep when we feel tired and pressing on when our body feels like stopping. The best and highest answers to prayer only come to those who approach the business with a certain amount of self-discipline.
I was at Yonggi Cho's prayer mountain in the early 90s. Thousands of people were there crying out to God. Hundreds were fasting. People would lock themselves away and pray. Cho would say: "Big problem, big fast. Little problem, little fast." There was a lot of Asian self-discipline going on at that place, and the results were enormous. The main reason people stuck with it I believe is because by that time SO MANY people had gotten miraculous answers. Impossible situations were resolved. Bodies were miraculously healed. Wayward husbands returned to their wives. Children came back to God. Financial needs were met. And people kept streaming into the church. God was answering. But it wasn't just half-hearted prayers from people who really didn't want to invest anything into the process. These people were committed.
Paul the apostle said concerning his own manner of life:
"But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." (1 Corinthians 9:27 – NKJV)
There we have that word "discipline".
The King James version says: "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway."
The NIV says: "No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
The word for "discipline" is "Hupopiazo" (keep under) and Strong's Concordance defines it as follows:
"to beat black and blue, to smite so as to cause bruises and livid spots like a boxer one buffets his body, handle it roughly, discipline by hardships"
Paul says he beats his body up and makes it his slave. It is like this: Paul's spirit, energized by the grace of God, is in control, and he does things that are uncomfortable to his body. His body just has to do as it is told, as a slave. He doesn't pamper it, or indulge it. Paul knows there is a relationship between denying the body everything it wants, and spiritual power.
It is very important to apply this verse through the Holy Spirit, and not in mere self-effort. The Roman Catholic monks and nuns would many times torture themselves in all kinds of painful and destructive ways thinking that this would help their prayers, or earn merit with God, Martin Luther, when he was a monk, tortured his body in various ways, but it could not give him a clean conscience – because only the blood of Christ cleanses our consciences from dead works to serve the living God,
But once you are in Christ, and you wish to remain in Christ, through the help of the Holy Spirit, you are going to find that you have entered into a spiritual conflict. While we remain on the earth, Satan's demons have the opportunity to plant thoughts in our mind. All of these thoughts are designed to stop us from knowing and experiencing God. They are all designed to get us to quench or grieve the Holy Spirit. Suggestions to self-indulgence are one such class of thoughts the devil uses. If we act on these thoughts, for example in over-eating or wasting time watching TV, we are going to lose time because it will take longer to enter into a place of undisturbed communion with God with His Holy Fire burning in our hearts. And sometimes, in order to fan the flames and keep ahead of the game, we are going to have to deny ourselves some legitimate food or sleep or even time with friends in order to pursue God. Paul did this in various ways. Sometimes we have to keep exercising physically, push ourselves to go to the next person or village to evangelize, while our flesh is screaming "enough".
Derek Prince said this, and I found it to be true in my own life also, "All my greatest spiritual successes began by saying 'No' to myelf", or words to that effect. Experience will teach you that if you want the real fire, the real power of God, the way you keep your body under has a lot to do with it.
Paul the apostle taught us that if we want to serve God acceptably the first step is to present our bodies as Living Sacrifices.
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. " (Romans 12:1)
What does this mean? It means that God still wants sacrifices. Sacrifices always involve giving up something that we like. They can be painful. Sacrificing our bodies as living sacrifices obviously does not mean that we commit suicide or go and get martyred deliberately – that would be relatively easy – but rather that we consecrate every part of our bodies to God and to His purposes. It means that:
our eyes should only look where God wants them, and should show Jesus through them
our ears should listen to what God desires us to listen to
our hands should only work on things pleasing to God
our feet should take us where God wants us to go, anywhere in the world if applicable, and not anywhere else
our mouths should only speak words that are edifying, according to the need of the moment – and we should use them to speak the Word of God to ourselves and others, especially those who are heading for destruction
we should eat and drink what tends to health and strength so we can serve better
our sexual organs should never be involved in uncleanness or adultery.
This is a big ask, but what is the upside? The upside is that when you do these things, you will be transformed by the renewing of your mind and you will be filled with the knowledge and personal experience of God (Romans 12:2). Your heart will enjoy eternal treasures that bring happiness and fulfilment, even now. You will be rewarded in time and eternity by God Himself. He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
When you see it from this perspective, you could view self-discipline as an investment. You are giving up some immediate gratification in order to enjoy MUCH more in the future with God. Like any investment, this one involves trust – and here it is God who is the object of our trust. And with this investment, God even gives you a down payment on the return on investment – which is a greater enjoyment of God through the Holy Spirit.