Discipline and desire - Proverbs 1:1-7

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 13th May 2018.

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Discipline and Desire


‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is the kind of question frequently asked by adults of young children. Of course the answer expected runs along the lines of: ‘I want to be a nurse, a teacher, a policeman or a postman.’ But strictly speaking those are answers to the question what do you want to do when you grow up-make people better, teach, enforce the law.  You see, for the ancient Hebrews and the Greeks, the question ‘what do you want to be?’ would hopefully garner the answer, ‘I want to be a person of good character.’ And for the Christian that means wanting to be more like Jesus.

But how does that happen?

The Book of proverbs suggests that a vital element in our personal character development is to ensure that discipline masters desire.

Character counts

As we shall see in more detail next week, the Bible is less concerned about the career we adopt and more about the character we develop. In the past this was seen as the primary goal of education, for example, the great Samuel Johnson said, ‘The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things- the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.’ And when you think about it, that is not a bad summary of the purpose of the Book of Proverbs, ‘‘For attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair.’ (Prov. 1:2-3) So it is more than a matter of making good choices, it is a matter of becoming a good person who in turn makes good choices- and perhaps more to the point prefers them. In other words good choices flow from a good character which, in turn, makes a good character by their habitual practice.

But what do we mean when we talk about ‘character’? From both the Hebrews and the Greeks onward, character is the inner form which makes anyone or anything what it is- whether a person, a wine or a historical period. As such it is distinct from things like personality or image or reputation. The Bible sees character as being something which is fundamentally moral- being a righteous person, having a heart- the very centre of our being which coordinates all our thoughts, desires and plans- which pleases God by conforming to reality as he has revealed it. In short it is the inner ‘core’ of a person.

And if you want to know what a good character looks like, interestingly enough the Book of Proverbs provides us with a model, in the final chapter in the form of a woman. In chapters 8 and 9 Wisdom is personified as a woman, but in chapter 31 she is actually given flesh and blood, culturally embodied as a woman who has a family, conducts business, shows religious devotion. And the core of this woman of ‘noble character’, as she is called, shows itself in what she does. So she fears the Lord, is a dignified, hardworking, prudent, generous, kind, discerning, being careful how she speaks and is forward looking and so on.

The question is- how do you get to be like that?

Correction matters
Without doubt one of the keys to becoming a person of noble character is delighting in discipline, ‘Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.’ (Prov. 12:1) The word “discipline” (musar) basically refers to correction. In fact the church NIV Bible translates the word ‘discipline’ as ‘instruction’ as we see at the outset of the book: ‘The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction [discipline] in prudent behaviour.’ This gets across the idea that it is not so much reprimand, although it includes that (don’t do it that way), it is more guidance-‘do do it this way.’  As someone has put it, ‘Just as a violin teacher takes hold of the hand of the student to say, “Stop doing this and do it this way.” Correction is as important to teaching as positive instruction.’[Koptak].

The Bible is full of correction/discipline of this kind. It gives models to follow and examples to avoid, so Paul can say, ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1), whereas others are ‘named and shamed’ like Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17). It gives principles to practice, ‘Be joyful in hope, patience in affliction and faithful in prayer’ (Rom 12:13); as well as commands to obey, ‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, be kind and compassionate to one another.’ (Eph. 4:31-32) Do you see?

Now two things are necessary for our characters to be formed in this way.

First, we must welcome discipline, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction [discipline].’ (1:7). This knowledge  which we are to embrace comes from those who have gone before us, those who, in the light of God’s Word, have found out for themselves how to navigate the world God’s way and so we are meant to learn from them, ‘Listen, my son to a father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.’ It was Mark Twain who once said, ‘When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.’ That can sum up the attitude of youth- it was certainly mine! What could the older generation know? Well, quite a lot actually.

One of the problems we face today is that part of the cultural atmosphere in which we ‘live, move and have our being’ is that any suggestion that someone might be wrong -if it leads to negative feelings- is somehow considered to be hateful. For fear of bruising people’s self-esteem, everything has to be affirmed and nothing denied. The result is that we end up being moral and spiritual pygmies - we learn nothing and achieve nothing. Just think of what would happen if this attitude was applied to things like learning how to drive? If the driving instructor, for fear of hurting your feelings, held back from telling you how to get the car into gear or that you were driving dangerously by steering the car with one finger - the result would literally be carnage. So what is the problem of avoiding becoming a moral and spiritual wreck by listening to an older more experienced Christian who has been round the block a few times and has developed the character to prove it? Could I ask you: How welcoming are you to be put right, that is be disciplined? For that will not simply be a measure of your spiritual maturity now but whether you will ever develop into a mature Christian in the future- whether you are wise or stupid.

Secondly, discipline is long term. If you want a spiritually strong and morally healthy character, it won’t appear by next Tuesday. When it is said, ‘Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction’, it is to be taken as a continuous listening, not tuning out when it suits and tuning out when it doesn’t. It means persisting in applying God’s instruction to our lives, it is what Alexis de Tocqueville called cultivating ‘the habits of the heart’ or in the words of Nietzsche, ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ All the great leaders in the world have been forged through hardship of one kind or another, life was never handed to them on a plate. Think of William Wilberforce. Soon after Christmas 1787 he gave notice in the House of Commons that early in the new session he would move the abolition of the slave trade. It would be twenty years before this would be put into law, and a further 26 years before all slaves would be set free- 46 years in total! I wonder how many Christians today would be able to stick at something for that long. It takes someone made out of strong stuff and deep convictions to do that.

But we have to admit that the idea of engaging in anything for the long haul is difficult for many of us, but it seems to me to be a special challenge to what has been called ‘the millennials’, those of the younger generation, and it is not necessarily their fault. It has often been remarked that one of the main characteristics of this generation is impatience. And a variety of social conditions have conspired into producing ‘I want it all and I want it now’ mind-set. For a start this is what parents and schools have been telling them from the day they were born, ‘You can have what you want’. ‘You can be whatever you want to be.’ ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ ‘You are special.’ In some cases awards have been given in some schools for coming last in races, if competitive races are allowed at all. Can you think of anything more demotivating to those who do have abilities? They will think, what is the point of trying my best if those who are nowhere near my standard get prizes? That is a recipe for lowering results not improving them. Then other cultural reinforcers start to kick in. You want to buy something- simple, click on Amazon Prime and you can get it tomorrow. You want to contact someone- you don’t have to wait until you next see them, or hang around until they are available to phone- you simply send a text and have instant contact. Want to watch a film? You don’t have to go to the DVD store anymore and search through the shelves, click on Netflix and it is there. Why, you can even get a date using an app. I saw on The London Underground last week an advertisement for ‘e-harmony’, which said that it was ‘the brains behind the butterflies’ and marked the end of dating. But I was most taken by the latest dating app called ‘Toffee App’ for those from privileged backgrounds who only want to date others from privileged backgrounds, those who went to public school- so you don’t get your gene pool contaminated by the hoi polloi I guess. In a nutshell, the problem is this: the expectation of the instant produces the impatient. And so when reality bites as you start work and you discover that you are not special, that you can’t have it all now in terms of status or money, but you have to work and wait, that losers aren’t rewarded, they are fired, that is when self-esteem takes a nose dive and you feel the to find something to give you that ‘lift’ to make you feel better. So you turn to alcohol, drugs, getting some ‘likes’ on Facebook to release the ‘feel good’ chemical-dopamine, in your brain. No, most things in life are a journey- including the development of our character. In fact, Proverbs 4:11 speaks of being instructed in the ‘way’ of wisdom, which carries the notion of a journey, going along a path, adopting a way of life which is consistent.

Carelessness corrupts

The flip side of embracing correction/discipline which leads to flourishing is the rejection of it which leads to corruption. Lack of self-discipline can so easily give way to self-indulgence, ‘The one who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honoured.’ (Prov. 13:18); ‘Whoever scorns instruction will pay for it but whoever respects a command is rewarded.’ (Prov. 13:13); ‘Listen, my son, and be wise, and keep your heart on the right path. Do not join with those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.’ (Prov. 23:20-21).

Discipline which comes from outside of us is meant to foster self-discipline within us. If we do not have self-restraint, the alternative will be imposed constraint which is precisely what we are increasingly seeing in our society. More laws have to be introduced to counter bad behaviour because we can’t be left by ourselves to say ‘no’ to ourselves. When civility is abandoned, civilization starts to crumble. The writer Russell Kirk puts the danger this way, ‘A good many people fret themselves over the rather improbable speculation that the earth may be blown asunder by nuclear weapons. The grimmer and more immediate prospect is that men and women may be reduced to a sub-human state through limitless indulgence in their own vices- with ruinous consequences to society.’

It’s been said that the defining figure of our time is not the astronaut but the ad man. The advertising industry has done more to shape the expectations of our society than any other. The logic is simple even if it isn’t logical – ‘I want it therefore, I must need it and if I need it, I should have it.’  So far from self -restraint being encouraged it is being discouraged which is the exact opposite of the way of Wisdom.

Jerry Bridges, helpfully describes self-control or self-discipline in these terms, ‘It is a governance or prudent control of one’s desires, cravings, impulses, emotions and passions. It is saying no when we should say no. It is moderation in legitimate desires and activities and absolute restraint in areas which are clearly sinful.’ Although this involves our will we are not talking about willpower alone. As Bridges puts it, ‘Self-control is not control by oneself through one’s own willpower but rather control of oneself through the power of the Holy Spirit.’

What steps can be taken?

First, we need to recognise that because we have a desire doesn’t mean it has to be satisfied; Prov. 25:28; ‘Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.’ A city’s wall is meant to keep its citizens safe within and its enemies in check without. To feel ‘I want this’ which then moves on to, ‘I must have this’ to ‘I will have this’, is like having a city which is under siege with some fool on the inside deciding to knock a hole in the wall to allow the enemy come flooding in. This is why Jerry Bridges in his book ‘Respectable Sins’ makes a lot out of learning how to master desiring things which are not bad but good so they don’t become excessive. If you can get good things under your belt like, snack eating, TV watching, then it will be much easier to deal with the bad things when they come along- like envy and lust. So why not deny yourself something just for the sake of self-denial? Try it and see what happens.

Secondly, we need to recognise how weak willed most of us are; ‘Who can say, "I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin"?’ (20:9). If you realise that you heart is like dry tinder just waiting for a spark to set it alight, you will be well advised to keep away from any fire. As someone has said, avoidance is often easier than resistance.

Thirdly, make Christ your example.

Now the interesting thing is this: Luke tells us that as a child Jesus was ‘filled with wisdom’ and ‘grew in wisdom’ (Luke 2:40/52). That means he, like the rest of us, had to learn to be wise in order to develop a righteous character. He would have been subject to discipline- the teaching of his parents: from his mother how to be a good son, from his adopted father, how to be a good carpenter. He would have learnt the Scriptures from his relatives and the synagogue as he attended every Sabbath day. He would have discovered how to relate properly with other children and with adults. It didn’t come to Jesus ready packaged, if I may put it like that, he learnt to channel his desires in godly ways. And so when he appears on the public scene there never was a man who was so completely balanced, the master of his own desires and thoughts. He was no ascetic- he ate good food and drank wine but in moderation. The fact that he did this led to the scurrilous charge by his enemies that he was a drunken and a glutton (Lk. 7:34). By the same token he was able to fast, as he did for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. He loved the company of people, women as well as men- like Martha and Mary, but there is not even a hint of impropriety in his relations with them-they were treated with the uttermost respect and courtesy- a lesson many young Christian men need to learn today. But he was also able to withdraw from the crowd in order to be alone with his heavenly Father in prayer. He could speak gentle words of comfort to the bereaved and the hurting and when appropriate give the self-righteous twisters of God’s word a good tongue lashing. Whenever you look at Jesus you see someone who is beholden to no man, and yet humbly receives acts of kindnesses from the lowest of the low such as when the woman washed his feet with perfume and dried them with her hair. Whenever attempts were made to trip him up by clever argument, Jesus always had to right answer at the right time- he was so wise. And all of this came about as a result of 30 years of growing in wisdom. Even with our Lord it did not appear fully formed overnight. Follow Jesus as your example.

And here is how you do it according to the writer of Proverbs: ‘Pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips.’ 22:17-18. It is a long obedience in the same direction.

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