Against Self-discipline

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What does the word disciple mean? It means, “pupil, student, follower,” and comes from the word that means “to learn.” In other words, if we are a disciple of someone, we are learning from them. It has a root related to the word discipline. If we are disciplined by someone, we are being taught by them. Usually the word “discipline” takes on a harsher connotation, but I don’t think it needs to.

If we are disciples of Christ, it means that we are subjecting ourselves to His discipline. We are becoming His followers and making Him our master and teacher. We are being instructed by him and following His instructions.

I’ve recently been thinking of the word self-discipline. We take it to mean that someone is able to keep themselves in line, rather than require someone else to provide order in their lives. Self-discipline connotes self-initiative—the absence of a need for a teacher, instructor, or rule-master. We talk about it as a virtue.

But I wonder if we should call what we value in self-discipline by another name. After all, our goal is not to be disciplined by the self, but by Christ. Our goal is not to be disciples of the self, but disciples of Christ. We don’t want our trained by our lonesome selves—we want to be trained by Christ. We want Him to transform our hearts and remake us in His image. In short, we’d do a terrible job molding ourselves on the eternal potter’s wheel. We want Christ to mold us.

In short, perhaps instead seeking after self-discipline, we should seek after Christ-discipline. What would we do differently? Perhaps instead of trying to “oomph” ourselves into a better lifestyle, we’ll fast, pray, and plead for the transforming power of the Atonement of Christ, through the gentle promptings of the Holy Ghost, to help us, bit by bit, to shed old habits and replace them with newer and better ones. And then, when we find ourselves living more faithfully to our principles, we have Christ to thank, rather than ourselves.

Because we’ll be disciples of Christ, rather than disciples of the self.


  1. What I believe the correct term to be is “self government”. I teach this concept to my students. It is a model I use at home with my children. It has a better reference to behavior and attitude than does the reference of self-discipline. There are words, I feel that have been pulled from there original intended meaning. The term “self discipline” is an excellent example. Good point raised here!

  2. Oh, how timely! I really appreciate your last paragraph. Over the years, I have been tough on myself for my lack of self discipline-more evidence of my impatience. Very recently I’ve moved into trusting Christ more to prompt me as needed and in answer to my prayers. His transforming ways are so much more gentle and loving. And yes, cause for gratitude. Appreciate your clarification.

  3. Oooh! I know your post addresses the pride inherent in the idea that we have the power to change our natures and our behavior ourselves.

    But a couple of LDS therapists actually devoted an entire book to the idea that “Willpower is Not Enough!” Their premise is essentially that our misbehavior stems not from intentional misdeeds of weak moral fiber, but from misguided attempts to achieve healthy, even righteous, goals. As such, the solution lies not in more “oomph,” but in coming to a conscious awareness of our goals, gaining a correct understanding of the ways in which our current behavior appears to bring us toward that goal yet leaves us further away, and learning more effective strategies for achieving those goals.

    I think there is a word that sums up that entire process. Repentance. The correct understanding of the antecedents and consequences of our behaviors can really only come from the Holy Ghost, who testifies of things as they really are and things as they really will be.

    Just like you said, the only truly effective effort will be to surrender the notion that I am good enough to do it on my own, and instead, rely wholly upon the merits of Christ.

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