by Jonathan Justin Chng
Whenever you watch your favourite athlete, let’s say Messi or Ronaldo, what do you notice? Are you impressed by their skills in soccer? Are you in awe of how they are able to curve that ball into the goal post? No doubt, these athletes have the skill and talent to pull off such tricks on the field. To many it looks easy, but it actually takes years of disciplined rigorous training in order to attain that level of skill and talent. Likewise, discipline is an essential element in being a follower of Christ. It all starts with a call from Jesus, to come and follow him.
In the days of Jesus, only the most elite of students would be chosen to be the disciple of a rabbi, which means teacher. Students had to go through years of studying the Torah. If they were excellent students, they would be invited to the next school and the next after that. At the end of formal schooling, the rabbi would approach the boys to either become his disciple to learn disciplines and the law under him, or ask them to “go learn the trade of your father.”
Jesus, however, invited grown men to be his disciples. These men were doing the trade of their fathers (e.g. fishing, tax-collecting). They were clearly not worthy enough to follow a rabbi, yet Jesus called them. In the same way, Christ invites us to be his disciples, even in our unworthy state, to come and follow his ways. Thus, to be a disciple is to first answer the call of Jesus to be his follower.
So after saying “yes” to Jesus, what does it mean to be a disciple then? Ephesians 5:1-2 says it clearly: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Therefore, a disciple is one who learns from Jesus, by following his example.
Creating Space for God
The words disciple and discipline come from the same Latin word discere, meaning “to learn”. Hence, a disciple learns from the master to be disciplined in everyday life. This means as disciples of Christ, we have to practice and cultivate spiritual habits. Most importantly, these practiced disciplines should lead us to a deeper conversion and a personal relationship and with Christ. It is in cultivating personal habits, which help us to grow in our walk with the Lord, that we grow in spiritual maturity.
The problem is that discipline can easily scare us off. For some, discipline may have a negative connotation, like a father disciplining his child. For others, we think that we have to give up many things, especially our freedom in order to be discipline. However, spiritual disciplines are not at all that depressing or sad!
Henri Nouwen puts it beautifully, to be discipline is to make “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” It is in practicing our spiritual disciplines, such as reading the scriptures every day, doing daily examination of conscience, journaling, attending Mass and frequenting the Sacraments, putting to death our flesh, avoiding temptations, etc., that we create a space for which we allow God to speak to us, to teach us, and to mould us.
Spiritual disciplines allow us to be tenderised by the Lord, to be spiritually “juicy” so that others may come to know the Lord’s goodness through us. Spiritual disciplines also do not mean we have to give up our freedom. In fact, in practicing disciplines we gain more freedom in living out our identity as children of the light. Thus, it gives us the space in recognising the truths of what God has called us to be.
Personally, cultivating and maintaining my spiritual disciplines and habits was and still is a challenge. I used to see spiritual disciplines as a chore, and as something that I would have to give up my free time for. I would think to myself: Why would someone give up his free time to relax in order to go for mass everyday? Or pray the whole rosary? Maybe you are just like me!
But as I grew more into the faith, I realised that living a disciplined life is crucial to be a disciple of Christ. After answering the call to follow him, I gradually realised that a personal relationship with God is important. In order for that to happen, I needed to make the time.
As a university student, time is of utmost importance, especially with many projects and assignments. After a day of lessons in school, I am often exhausted. It can be a challenge to cultivate and set aside time to spend with the Lord daily when you just want to hit the bed and sleep. But each time I stick to my allocated prayer time at night, sometimes sitting in my prayer corner of the bedroom and not saying a thing due to tiredness, this soaking in the Lord’s presence provides me with renewed graces for the next day.
Spiritual discipline does require perseverance. St. Paul compares the spiritual development to a race towards a goal, calling us to press on and persevere towards the end of the race and attain our heavenly prize (Philippians 3:14). The runner, in order to have a successful run, must persevere in training and strengthen themselves for the run. So too, in our spiritual journey, we must persevere in our spiritual disciplines to attain our heavenly goal!
Every time I persevere in my spiritual disciplines, I find myself growing in virtue and holiness. I become more patient and loving, even to the person whom I find to be most irritating. I also begin to recognise the Lord’s goodness in my daily living. Even in the shower, I see how blessed I am to have clean warm water and hygienic toilet facilities every day. It is with this constant daily choice to make that time and space with Jesus that the Lord prunes me, resulting in fruits of love, joy and peace in my life.
Responding to His Call
God is always calling us in our lives. He wants us to follow his ways and grow in holiness. Following Christ requires a disciplined lifestyle of cultivating daily habits that allow Jesus to manifest Himself in us and to one another.
No doubt, living a life of a disciple can be tough. Many things, our school, our work, our friends, fight for our attention every moment of every day. But our God is always present in our daily lives. We just need to take a step back and realise that He is there. Spiritual disciplines give us these pockets of space to acknowledge that God is with us throughout the day. As spiritual disciplines require sacrifice and dying to selfish desires, it is a constant choice to create these spaces for God to act. And just as a plant needs watering to grow and bear fruit, our faith life too must be nurtured and grown through the spiritual disciplines we set for ourselves.
How are you responding to His call in your life to grow as a disciple of Christ today?