Faith requires discipline, and there is no getting around it. One cannot truly believe in Christ without striving to cleanse the heart and enliven the soul by prayer, fasting, vigil – by committing oneself to what one theologian has rightly termed “a long obedience in the same direction.”
But discipline is a scary word for us modern people. We chafe against the thought of being subject to any other authority except our own self-will. We equate freedom with doing what we want, when we want, and how we want. Our loss of discipline has led to us to a state of spiritual carelessness, and this carelessness has resulted in an empty, numb existence. Is it any wonder that the inner landscape of our hearts has become so muddled, and chaotic?
So the renewal of faith involves a full surrender to the discipline of the gospel. Yet here we learn what discipline is not. For what the gospel reveals, first and foremost, is that discipline is not punishment. Some suppose that pain and suffering are God’s payback for the transgressing of His holy law. The scriptures, at first glance, seem to show us something akin to this idea, that God meets out a fitting justice against those who break His commandments. As sinners, we must thus beware, because will surely punish us for our transgressions. “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.” (Psalm 7:12,13). Better to turn or burn as the old puritan ministers used to bawl from their pulpits.
But a closer look at the scriptures reveals something different: that it is the wrongdoing itself that becomes the source of the punishment. As it says again in the psalms, “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.” (Psalm 7:14). Ecclesiastes says, “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will come back to you.” (Eccl. 1:1). To which St. Paul adds, more succinctly, “For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7). How many of us can attest that most of the distresses we experience in life are the result of the bad choices that we have made, and that God has, as a matter of fact, very little to do with most of our affliction?
Another problem regarding discipline is that some see the discipline itself as the perfection of the faith. Orthodox Christianity can easily be viewed in a legalistic sense, in much the same way as the Scribes and Pharisees viewed their religion during the time of Christ. Here, a good, practicing Christian is one who is morally exact, who attends the services from start to finish, who observes the fasts scrupulously, who quotes the scriptures from memory, who knows how to properly conduct himself during the Divine Liturgy, and who prepares himself correctly for the reception of Holy Communion. But here again we make a critical qualification, that these ascetical disciplines, indispensable as they are, are not the sum total of righteousness. Instead, they must be seen as signposts along the way. “So our fasting, vigil, scriptural meditation, nakedness and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection. They are not in themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained to through them.” (St. John Cassian).
Many people balk at these ascetical practices. “Must I go to Church every Sunday?” “Is it necessary to stand still and pray morning and evening?” “Must I fast on Wednesdays and Fridays?” “Do I really need to confess my sins on a regular basis?”
Well, the answer is yes for one simple reason: because it is worth it, and because this is the promise Christ gave to His followers. “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew, 25:21).