The word “discipline” has many slightly different meanings, but they all stem from the same concept – that of learning to follow a prescribed path or set of rules. It can refer to the punishment delivered for not following the rules, or the mastery of a field of study, but ultimately the core of the definition, and what I am interested in here, is the building of self-control in order to make ones actions consistent with ones values.
This kind of discipline is central to the purpose of religion, in general. In fact, I would argue that discipline is a defining characteristic of religions, in that the degree to which they embrace or eschew discipline and the object of the discipline provides substantial insight into the nature of nearly any religion. This is certainly true for the LDS Church.
The LDS Church embraces a high ideal when it comes to discipline. There are several scriptures that set this ideal. First, there is the command to be perfect, as stated in Matt. 5:48 and reiterated in 3 Nephi 12:48. On top of that, we believe that we will be judged by our thoughts, words and deeds. (Mosiah 4:30) So, not only should our behavior be perfect, but also our speech and even our thoughts!
Obviously, that’s not technically possible — at least not for an entire lifetime, and for most of us, even a perfect day is far fetched. Nevertheless, I am grateful for that standard. It means that we will always be able to be a little better, constantly improving ourselves. He wants us to be perfect. More importantly, God promises to help us achieve the things he commands us. (See 1 Cor 10:13 and 1 Nephi 3:7) In this pursuit, of utmost importance is the Atonement that makes up for all of the mistakes along the way, and makes true progress possible. Close behind in importance is the guidance, structure and assistance He provides for us to gain that discipline of body and mind.
That’s what perfection is: discipline. It is being entirely consistent with a perfect model: God and Christ.
When we desire to gain discipline in anything, we start by first learning the rules, often selecting a model or teacher to guide your progress. When it comes to Christianity, the model is obvious, but unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to directly observe Christ. So, we must resort to the scriptures and other religious teachers. As most religious teachers gained their knowledge the same way, the words of Christ and his prophets in the scriptures are the best way to learn His will for us. And so, from an early age, young members of the LDS Church are encouraged to read the scriptures daily.
Of course, discipline can’t be said truly to begin until you do something with what you’ve learned. We start out following the rules because they are the rules, in other words, through obedience. We try to follow the rules we’re given and the examples of our models and teachers (remember, I’m talking about those who desire to learn discipline).
As we make a regular practice of following rules, we often gain an appreciation for and an understanding of the rules. We also start to form habits. From an outside perspective, this may achieve a primary goal of the discipline, but there is a danger in stopping here.
Ultimately if we wish to master a disipline, we need to fully understand the reasons for the rules, so that we can extrapolate necessary or desired behavior in situations where the rules may be ambiguous or insufficient. In order to make this extrapolation a clear understanding of both the model and the rules is necessary. With this understanding, we are able to act in a way that effectively aligns us with the model, but where our adherence to the rules happens not because they are rules but because we understand how they help us to obtain the perfection we desire.
As human beings, our capacity for error is literally infinite. We cannot say that even mastery is the end of the road in terms of progression. We must continue to do one thing that we need to do throughout this process — constantly guard against and correct deviations from the model as we discover them or they are pointed out to us. We must both accept correction, and self-correct every step of the way.
When we apply this processes to attain a certain level of discipline within a religion we call it discipleship. Religions generally aim to make all of their followers disciples. This is certainly true in the LDS Church. Many of the teachings and practices recommended by the Church serve to foster such discipline. The teachings are certainly not unique to the LDS Church, and using them in any religion or even outside any religion at all, will also result in increased discipline.
The first is daily prayer. We are encouraged from a young age to pray over all parts of our lives. In the morning, at night, at meals, before and after meetings, even before and after sporting or cultural events. In fact, we are encouraged to pray always. One benefit of prayer, is that it serves to re-focus us on what is important, and provides a time for us to examine our lives and identify where we need to make corrections.
We are also encouraged to study the scriptures daily. We must know Christ in order to use him as our model, and there is no better way to know him than through scripture study and prayer.
Every week at church, we take the sacrament. For us, this is a time to renew our covenants (entered at baptism) to try to live as He taught and to take His name upon us – to be true Christians. We need these weekly opportunities to re-commit ourselves, to move past last weeks failings and focus on the good we can do in the coming week.
The Church has also designated the first Sunday of every month (though it is moved on occasion) as “Fast Sunday,” and encourages us to fast for 24 hours (or as much as we are able), and to give the money we would have spent to the fund the Church uses to provide food, clothing, housing and other critical assistance to members of the Church (and community, at times) in need. Fasting itself is one of the best ways to learn discipline. Through it, we learn that our spirits/minds can be more powerful than our bodies. That is the key to true discipline. If we allow our human impulses and urges to govern our behavior, or worse, believe that we have no power to control those impulses, discipline will always be beyond our grasp.
These tools are the basics for putting us on a path to discipline and discipleship. They allow us to tackle the more advanced, abstract concepts of self-control, integrity and sacrifice — all of which are ways in which we practice discipline.
We know we will always be imperfect. The great thing about discipline is that you CAN be perfect for short periods of time in some things. We are not required to be perfect to attain salvation. We are required to work on becoming more perfect. We call it “eternal progression.” When we are making progress, we are on the path. When we are helping others, we are on the path. When we are learning, we are on the path. If we get off the path, Christ is always there to help us back onto the path.
Discipline is an interesting thing. No matter how disciplined or skilled we are in a discipline, maintaining that level of discipline is a daily effort. Daily effort + daily discipline + eternal progression = perfection.