Why is it that we look back on old photographs of ordinary life-moments with such fondness? I’m not talking about pictures of the more extraordinary occasions we have experienced, like when our first child was born or when we visited London for the first time or when we made our first trip to the Super Bowl. Those kinds of pictures are obviously able to elicit strong feelings of delight in all of us. We all look back on the extraordinary feats that we accomplished or the once-in-a-lifetime moments that we experienced and we can’t help but smile. I’m not questioning that.
I’m talking about the photographs of all the ordinary moments and experiences in our lives, things like throwing the football in the backyard; eating dinner around the table at home or at a favorite restaurant; sliding into second base during practice; receiving a handwritten note from someone special in the mail; meeting friends for lunch; and a variety of other ordinary things that we do every day. Why is it that looking back on old photographs of these kinds of experiences and events is able to elicit similar feelings of joy in us? Could it be we all realize deep-down that life is made up of ordinary moments, and that’s why we look back on these kinds of memories with such fondness—even more fondness than we may have had at the time the memories were actually created?
I am convinced that many of us are looking for the extraordinary so frequently in our lives that we miss out on the joy of ordinary events and circumstances. Looking back after the fact, we can oftentimes see the extraordinary in the ordinary details. But, at the time of their occurrence, ordinary events feel rather ordinary. This brings me back to what I said in the first article in this series on hard work. We struggle with completing our New Year’s Resolutions for the simple reason that they require ordinary hard work, discipline, and perseverance. We keep hoping for something extraordinary that will help make each year’s attempt at achieving our resolutions different than the years past.
In my previous article, I looked more closely at what the Bible says about hard work. This time, I’d like to explore the related concepts of discipline and perseverance. I want to see what the Bible has to say about these traits as they bear upon all the things we do.
If, as we said last time, we are to “work heartily” or “from the soul” (Col. 3:23) in everything we do, then that would certainly seem to imply that we are to exercise self-discipline and perseverance in everything we do. It is definitely hard to see how cutting corners, taking the easy way out, or even quitting part way through something would qualify as working “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” In order to do anything “from the soul,” we must give it our all until the task is finished.
When I speak of self-discipline, I am referring to the ability to pursue a course of action despite obstacles and temptations to quit. Defined in this way, self-discipline is very similar to perseverance, which I would identify as the ability to stick to something and not to quit. Despite the overlap, I do see a slight nuance between the two ideas: self-discipline deals more with obstacles and temptations that keep us from getting started on a given endeavor each day, whereas perseverance focuses more on our continuing on in that endeavor once we have begun. If I set a goal to run a marathon by the year’s end, for instance, self-discipline would get me up out of bed in the mornings to train—rain or shine—and would push me to do whatever needs to be done to reach that goal each day. Perseverance, on the other hand, would enable me to finish each day’s training session and not cut it short or to continue to stick to the goal when I am halfway to race day and tempted to abandon the idea completely.
The Bible speaks positively about both self-discipline and perseverance, although it is far more concerned about how these things impact the Christian life than about how they help us to achieve our New Year’s Resolutions or work hard at everything we do. The Apostle Paul, for instance, cites the self-discipline that is employed by the athlete in training to win a race and does so in a way that is not only commendatory of the trait but also applicable to living the Christian life (1 Cor. 9:25-27). Galatians 6:9 urges us to “not grow weary of doing good,” which obviously calls us to persevere in serving the Lord in everything He wants us to do. And the book of Hebrews plainly exhorts believers to persevere in the Christian life as we run “the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). We are thus encouraged to “pay closer attention to what we have heard” so that we do not drift away (2:1); to “strive to enter” the “Sabbath rest” that is designed “for the people of God” (4:11); to “hold fast our confession” (4:14); to “go on to maturity;” and to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1).
What is more, since our faith spills over into everything we do, or, perhaps better, since our faith expresses itself in everything we do, we know that self-discipline and perseverance in the Christian life will also find expression in everything we do. This means that we need to cultivate self-discipline and perseverance to grow in our Christian experience and in order to grow in everything else as well. So, how do we cultivate these traits? I can think of at least three ways.
First, we need to pray. We can ask the Lord to grow us in self-discipline and perseverance. We can ask Him to provide us with opportunities to be stretched in these areas. And we can ask Him for forgiveness when we fall short. Indeed, the very act of praying itself can help cultivate perseverance within us as we, like Jacob, refuse to let go until God blesses us (Gen. 32:26).
Second, we need to invite friends and family members to speak into our lives. We should allow them to hold us accountable, to encourage us, and to gently rebuke us when we fall short. We should also ask them to help us grow in areas where we are weak.
Third, we must challenge ourselves to develop new habits. I realize that this is easier said than done for most of us. Developing new habits can be a painful process that can easily leave us feeling defeated before we ever get started. In order to help ourselves begin this process, we must determine what it is that keeps us from taking the first step. Habits take time to develop—an average of around 2 months in most cases. This means that we will probably need to force ourselves to do the new activity until it becomes habitual.
But how do we force ourselves? As mentioned previously, seeking accountability is a great way to establish growth in this area. But we must also take practical steps toward achieving our goals. For instance, if going to the gym is our goal, we may soon realize that what is holding us back from accomplishing this is that we cannot get ourselves out of bed in the morning. If that is where we find ourselves, “forcing ourselves” may mean that we put the alarm on the other side of the room so that we must get out of bed to turn it off. If what is holding us back is gym anxiety, it may be beneficial to find a workout partner in the beginning. Asking a friend or family member to accompany us as we work out is a great way to overcome this hindrance and to “force ourselves” to develop a new habit.
Once a new habit has been formed, we won’t need to “force ourselves” in the same ways. Doing the activity in question will feel less like a chore and more like a welcome part of our daily routine. This does not mean that we will never struggle with self-discipline and perseverance again. On the contrary, the struggle will remain, but it will become easier for us to handle because we have made the activity a new part of our normal schedule.
Working to the glory of God in everything we do includes developing the traits of self-discipline and perseverance. These things play an important role in the Christian life, especially regarding prayer. But they also play an important role in everything else we do as well. Self-discipline and perseverance help us to ensure that we are doing all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).