It’s that time of year again: Fitness centers are offering discounted memberships. Advertisements abound for diet products. People making conversation ask one another if they’ve made any New Year’s resolutions. And months (if not weeks or mere days) from now, most of us will have fallen off the wagon with whatever resolutions we made. On at least one of my resolutions from last year, I made meager progress, reading only three of the twelve books . It wasn’t that I failed to read – I read a lot of books in 2010. I just chose other books which were more immediately interesting (the monastic literature kick I’ve been on) or that were more pressing for work or school.
Why is it that we find it so hard to follow through on our New Year’s resolutions? I think it’s because we lack self-control, or self-discipline. Beyond our natural lack of self-control, our society works against us. Advertisements erode what little discipline we have with invitations to follow every impulse we have. Self-centered though we may be, self-disciplined we are not.
Psychiatrist Scott Peck argues that “Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems” (The Road Less Travelled [New York: Touchstone 2003] pp. 15-16). Peck goes on to say that there are four basic disciplines that are necessary for our mental health: delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing (meaning recognizing what is and is not our responsibility, what is and is not in our control).
The monks who wrote The Philokalia knew that the same truths applied to our spiritual health. Consider these quotes from the fifth and sixth centuries:
“Someone else wise in the things of God has said that as the fruit begins with the flower, so the practice of the ascetic life begins with self-control.” – St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness, no. 66
“The fruit starts in the flower; and the guarding of the intellect begins with self-control in food and drink, the rejection of all evil thoughts and abstention from them, and stillness of heart.” – St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness, no. 165
“Those engaged in spiritual warfare practise self-control in everything, and do not desist until the Lord destroys all ‘seed from Babylon’ (Jer. 27:16. LXX).” – St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, no. 134
Mark and Hesychios saw the practice of self-control as the beginning of growth in our spiritual lives. And it functions holistically for them; self-control is to be practiced in all things. Discipline with regard to the intake of food and drink enables us to control other bodily appetites. That in turn gives us more control over our thoughts. This is what Mark means by destroying the seed of Babylon – he’s using a metaphor for evil and impure thoughts, which are brought under control through the practice of other forms of self-discipline. The physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person are all interrelated, and practicing discipline in one aspect yields fruit in all parts of the person.
Perhaps we all fall off the wagon with our New Year’s resolutions because we come to them after a season of excess. Christmas is rightly a time of celebration and feasting, but our unrestrained appetites and undisciplined spending at this time of year do not prepare us to exercise self-control. Perhaps we also ignore the holistic character of self-control. No resolution which seeks to exercise control in one aspect of life will succeed if all other appetites are indulged freely.
But there is hope. Though cultivating self-discipline requires work, it is not unaided work. Scripture speaks of self-control or self-discipline as a gift from God. It’s a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). We can’t will ourselves completely into self-control; we receive it. Or, to use the fruit imagery again, it grows naturally and over time. Yet we still have work to do. The Apostle Paul writes
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way as not without aim; I box in such a way as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
May God grant us such self-discipline in the coming year.