Most of us admire discipline and want to have more of it. But we also find discipline difficult to develop, and even harder to sustain. We often want to be disciplined, but without the day-in, day-out costs.
Think about the resolutions we might make a month from now. Almost all of them involve some kind of discipline. Some of us have been thinking about them since our last round failed in February or March (or sooner) — weight to lose, new rhythms in important relationships, bad patterns to break, consistency and depth in our habits of grace.
Yet as we pine for discipline, we should beware. Our Lord says of some, “They will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me” (Proverbs 1:28). Some discipline — even in seeking God — offends him. There is such a thing as “ungodly discipline” — a form of hard work, persistence, effort, and commitment that drive him farther away, instead of inviting him near. We may appear busy, fruitful, even spiritual, all while estranged from God and severed from his grace.
God refuses a certain kind of diligence, but he runs toward another: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (Proverbs 8:17). As we aspire to and cultivate discipline, we need to learn the difference between the diligence God delights in and the diligence he despises.
Disciplined and Sent Away
When God says, “They will seek me diligently but will not find me,” his warning is even more devastating and terrifying. God declares to the wickedly diligent, “I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you” (Proverbs 1:26). This is not divine indifference, but something far worse; it is hostility from the Almighty. These people are seeking God diligently, desperate for help and rescue — and he laughs.
The judgment is severe, but not arbitrary. Why does such discipline smell so awful in God’s nostrils? “Because You have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof” (Proverbs 1:25, 29–30). Because they disregarded and disobeyed God — until crisis came and they had nowhere else to turn. Therefore, when they finally turned, their repentance was not from the heart but leaned on the work of their own hands, so they could not find the God who is everywhere at once.
Jesus warns his disciples, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22–23). We did. We did. We did. Jesus says, “Depart from me.” They held up the Babels they had built, and the Lord razed them all.
Discipline can become a mistress that leaves us naïve and proud today, and empty-handed before the Lord on the last day. The road to hell is paved with just as much discipline as the pathway to heaven.
Disciplined in Rebellion
God despises some diligence because of how it dishonors him. If we only reluctantly turn to him in crisis or tragedy, after months or years of ignoring and abandoning him, he does not look like the prize of the universe or the source of all wisdom and strength. He looks like a last-ditch effort at self-preservation. This kind of diligence is often impatient, expecting God to act in our timing; presumptuous, demanding that God do what we want; selfish, centering our prayers on ourselves; and short-lived, ending as soon as the trouble passes.
This discipline runs on fear of consequences, not on joy in God. We treat the one who was, and is, and is to come as our own personal first responder. But he is the Creator of the world, the sustainer of every living thing, the ruler over every nation, the author of all history. God hates some discipline because we eat and drink, pray and read, serve and even sacrifice to the glory of self, not God. When God looks into the fibers of our striving and planning and sweating, he wants to see how big and good he is, not how strong we are.
Diligence God Adores
But discipline also can serve as a firm and golden road to more of God — more mercy, more security, more joy. The Lord, personified as wisdom in Proverbs 8, stands strong and beautiful at the top of a high mountain and calls down to any willing to claw and climb up to him,
I have counsel and sound wisdom;
I have insight; I have strength.
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me.
He does not promise himself to half-hearted, relunctant seekers. He seeks expectant worshipers (John 4:23), men and women who pursue him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength — because they want him, not just his help, forgiveness, or gifts.
God adores our diligence when it unveils his worth to the world. This kind of diligence is patient, knowing that a thousand years is as a day to the Almighty; sacrificial, eager to spend, suffer, and even die for his glory; steady, not wavering under the waves of life and persevering long into eternity; and happy, having sowed the seeds of discipline to reap the richness of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8) — of finding him.
Make Every Effort
In his first letter, the apostle Peter rehearses that we have escaped the corruption of sin and been brought to life, having received God’s precious and very great promises, as well as his power to live like Christ. “For this very reason,” he writes, “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. … Be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Peter 1:5–7, 10)
Christianity is not the enemy of effort. Far from it! Christ, and Christ alone, did the work on the cross to atone for our sins and purchase our forgiveness. But when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he did not crucify our effort and discipline. He purchased our power to pursue him and charged us to lay down our lives. He ripped our effort from the grave, and began to set it aflame with another sweet gift of grace: his Spirit. If he is truly alive in us, he will inspire deeper, sweeter, more rigorous diligence, not less.
Delight Yourselves with Diligence
The danger of ungodly discipline is spending so much of ourselves running in the wrong direction, only to find that after all the effort, anxiety, and hard work, we are more empty, more despairing, farther from God.
Godly discipline is anchored in our joy in God — not mainly in fear of punishment, or in longing for earthly healing or relief, or in the pressure to conform or impress. Hear the Lord say, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:2). Be disciplined in delight — delight in God.
When we seek him, expecting him to satisfy our souls — on better days and harder days, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health — we will find him (Proverbs 8:17). And in him, we will find all we need and more than we can imagine.
Marshall Segal is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have a son and live in Minneapolis.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “The Discipline That God Despises”
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