Spiritual Strength Training: How to Tone Flabby Self-Discipline

Dr. Ray's advice for Lent, from our Feb. 26 issue.

(photo: Shutterstock)

We live in a culture where many don’t deny themselves. Arguably, we are the most comfortable culture in the history of the world, and most expect instant gratification. Dr. Ray Guarendi, clinical physiologist, EWTN radio host of The Doctor Is In and a Register “Family Matters” columnist, says, “In some respects, it is more difficult for us to give up things than it would have been for someone 150 years ago, because they lived in a state of deprivation.”

Consequently, if we truly want to strengthen self-discipline and bring ourselves closer to God this Lent, Dr. Ray challenges us to step outside our spiritual comfort zone and choose an exercise that works a new group of spiritual muscles.

Guarendi, whose EWTN television series Living Right With Dr. Ray begins the first Monday in March (1pm ET; re-airings at 5:30pm Thursdays and 10pm Saturdays), spoke about how to tone up self-discipline.

Why does doing something that is not in one’s spiritual comfort zone strengthen self-discipline?

It’s like lifting weights; everybody gravitates towards the exercises they’re best at. Your body is structured a certain way, so some exercises are more suited to you. But if you want to be completely fit, you have to go after those exercises you don’t necessarily like because they’re not as easy.

For spiritual exercise, you may love to read your Bible. You go up to your room and read for hours. That is all fine and good, but that doesn’t take much discipline; it’s something you prefer. The question always has to be asked: “Am I doing this to get closer to God or is this the easiest way for me personally?”

Are you actually recommending we offer up something that makes us feel uncomfortable?

Sometimes you find that getting closer to God involves doing something that you don’t easily do. For example, you don’t want to go visit Aunt Mary in the nursing home; she doesn’t even remember who you are. It’s not easy, but you go visit Aunt Mary. If it’s difficult to write out a $50 check every week to your parish, then step outside your comfort zone and give that $50 check.

Considering each of us has varying degrees of self-awareness, how does an individual discern which practice will strengthen self-discipline?

Trust other people. Your spouse and priest are the first places to start. Don’t block yourself off from persons who might have a good point to make. You have to entertain others’ advice. You have to be open and willing to turn off the voice that says, “I don’t do that. That’s not the way I do it.” Always be aware. You don’t really see yourself as you are. That’s Psychology 101. If you’re at least aware that you are not fully aware, you will be more open to things that will put you out of your comfort zone. Awareness comes from the constant willingness to admit: “Maybe I do need to take a closer look at myself.”

Why is vowing “I’ll be nice or kind to others” a Lenten cop-out?

Some people dodge self-discipline by saying, “It’s third grade [mentality] to give up candy. I’m going to do positive things. I’m going to be kinder, nicer.” When people say, “I’m going to do more nice things,” they don’t necessarily mean spiritually nice things. It’s socially nice things like “I’m going to say ‘Thank you’ when you pass me the coffee,” or “I’m not going to yell at my kids as much.” That’s good, but it is not really a specific spiritual action that goes beyond your spiritual quota.

How do I move beyond good intentions and follow through?

We have a mantra in the weight room: “Just show up.” Many people wait until they feel like doing something before they do it. The rule is this: If you want to get good at doing something, never wait until you feel like doing it. If you do that, you won’t do it three-quarters of the time. I’ve lifted weights for 40 years; I can count on one hand the number of times I felt like lifting weights. You develop willpower by just showing up.

Why is the practice of self-discipline no longer viewed as a positive in American culture?

The shrinks have gone a long way in saying you need to satisfy your needs and wants. The question becomes: Who is correct, the shrink or the theologians? I think you have to go with the theologians. They had a better understanding of human nature in a lot of respects. The idea that “by mastering my wants I gain strength” not only makes sense; it has a millennia of history behind it.

Do children really understand the motive behind self-sacrifice?

Much of what you are doing with kids initially is forming a habit. A 5- or 6-year-old is not going to understand the motive — we’re not going to have candy during Lent to show God that we love him. Three years from now, when she does understand, she’s already formed a habit. Her attitude is: “I’ve done this before — I can do this.”

Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Idaho.

Practical Steps for Success

Put one foot in front of the other. Half of self-discipline is not thinking about it.

Don’t let lapse lead to relapse lead to collapse. A lapse is only a lapse. If you fail, so what? Don’t say, “I knew I couldn’t do it!” Relapse doesn’t mean collapse.

You can do anything time-limited. You’re doing a six-week spiritual workout. It doesn’t mean you have to go at the same intensity after Lent — but maybe you will.

Pitfalls to Resolutions

“I failed; therefore, I am a failure.” That kind of thinking keeps you from doing things in the future. Failure is part of the human condition. It doesn’t mean we are failures.

Pride! Don’t get fluffed up about yourself. Whatever you do during Lent to spiritually discipline yourself, remember: You couldn’t do it without God’s help.

Don’t make your Lenten resolutions too vague. If they’re not concrete, your intentions will fade away.