The Role of Discipline in Christian Life

(photo: Photo credit: “Fagata”, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday, Catholics worldwide heard about the importance of discipline. We were reminded that “all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” We were admonished that God “scourges every son he acknowledges,” as a father disciplines his son out of love.

Likewise, Christ told an unnamed questioner, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

On the one hand, these readings make sense. Work hard, be disciplined – about prayer, chastity, attendance of Mass, charity, etc. – and God may grant you the grace of getting through the narrow gate. Simple, if not easy.

But we are not just “this crude matter,” and we cannot earn our way into Heaven. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” after all.

So where does discipline fit into a Christian’s relationship with God?

As I reflected on this seeming contradiction, another part of the Mass struck me:

Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.

Christ died for us 2,000 years ago, as the ultimate sacrifice that broke down the final barriers between humanity and Heaven. Because of Him, we no longer need to make burnt offerings to God.

Yet the Church requires sacrifice – fasting, for one – and it requires discipline – such as chastity. If God made the ultimate sacrifice, does this make discipline unnecessary? On the flip side, if discipline is necessary, are Catholics called to implement a version of the flawed “prosperity gospel,” where humans can earn God’s favor?

I propose the following: Discipline, and its sibling sacrifice, are merely the rules of the game that put us on the path to the gate. They’re the guardrails of the highway of life, providing an understanding of what game we’re playing – scoring a touchdown in baseball shows incoherence, not success.

Mass brings us the Lord himself. Chastity reminds us that sexuality is about more than using our bodies base pleasure, etc. But while the rules are not relative, how each of us applies them to a relationship with God certainly is.

In the Mixed Martial Arts  ring, a grappler faces off against a kickboxer – and that’s good! Each person is seeking success by using their individual talents within the guidelines of the sport. Similarly, a priest’s path is as individualized as that of a mother with six children, and while marriage has specific characteristics, each couple must prayerfully discern how work, child-bearing, and child-rearing are to be handled.

Likewise, each person on the path to the “narrow gate” must follow certain guidelines so as to not get caught in the underbrush or ambushed by wild animals. But how one travels the path is between you and God.

St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

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