Self-Discipline and Trust

Posted January 30, 2009

A little girl said to her mother, “I’m happier today than I was yesterday.” In response to the mother’s inevitable “Why?” the moppet pondered for a moment before replying. Then she said, “Yesterday my thoughts pushed me around, but today I pushed my thoughts around.”

That unsophisticated description of self-discipline is, I’m sure, as good as any. Controlling one’s thoughts is the very raison d’etre of self-discipline. Yet it is not as easy as you might imagine. Self is a kind of disease that we must strive to control throughout our lifetime. “I have had more trouble with myself than with anyone,” admitted the renowned preacher Dwight Moody. A corollary to that is Tolstoy’s observation: “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” Everyone wants to have a share in the big omelet of the commonweal, but no one wants to break his own egg.

Self-discipline has three distinct connotations: the first is the notion of self-punishment-masochistic mortification designed to remove guilt even without sincere repentance. (Witness the self-flagellation or crucifixion cults in some third-world countries.) The second connotation sees self-discipline as a corrective process to strengthen and mold the individual to fit into some required social or cultural pattern, such as super-strict dress codes for office workers, or more heinously, strict coven attendance by Satanists or finger amputation or self-mutilation to indicate gang membership, and so on. The third connotation is the only one that makes self-discipline a virtue: it is a quality by which the individual cultivates certain ethical and moral standards of conduct that he or she is prepared to adhere to unflinchingly, in all circumstances, regardless of any foreseen or unforeseen painful consequences.

Without trusting the Lord and his revealed norms of morality to provide guidance in authentic self-discipline, one could fall into aberrations ranging all the way from pious but self-torturing scrupulosity to blasphemous satanic ritualism, and countless behavioral distortions in between. Moreover, the Lord must provide true motivation, not only to start but also to complete the work of self-reformation, which is ultimately his work from start to finish. With consummate trust in him, we will have no doubt whatsoever that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion” (Phil 1:6). 

Fr. John Hampsch, “Pathways of Trust