I am teaching my son piano lessons. When we have a lesson, I give him instructions on how to spend his time practicing that week. I can get extremely specific: Play this scale at four 16th notes to the click at 104 clicks per minute, making sure not to allow your left index finger to collapse. If you make a mistake, play the scale perfectly twice before moving on. If you can’t finish the scale in two minutes, move to the next scale. At your next practice, focus on the scales you had trouble with, decreasing the tempo until you can play it perfectly. Then increase one click at a time until it is back up to tempo.
When my son sits down to practice, he decides what he will do: 1) scrupulously follow my instructions—or, 2) do some approximation of what I said and hope it’s good enough. When he chooses the latter, then his growth as a pianist is hindered. My ability to help him is limited because he isn’t carrying out my instructions.
He knows exactly what to do, but in order to actually do it, my son needs a key element.
Oftentimes, you receive instructions on how to improve and succeed in life: how to do a skill, complete chores or other work, organize your time, pray, study. You are clearly told things to do, and things not to do, that you know are for your benefit.
But if you’re like most people, too often you fail to follow through with what you know to do—because you lack this key.
Pay close attention to what Herbert W. Armstrong wrote about this. He said that in order for God to build righteous character in us, He had to make us free to choose whether to do right or wrong. Each person must be able to “exercise free choice, develop self-discipline.” In fact, Mr. Armstrong defined righteous character this way: “It is that controlled ability, in a separate independent entity, to come to a right knowledge of the true from the false—the right from the wrong …”—it starts there: with the knowledge of what to do. But then comes the real heart of the matter: “and, by free choice, to choose the right and the true, and, further, to use the self-discipline to will and to actually do the right” (The Missing Dimension in Sex; emphasis added throughout).
Aha—there’s the key! In order to do something right, you have to voluntarily choose to do it, by exercising self-discipline.
How much self-discipline do you have? Well, just look at how much you do what you should do—as opposed to just doing what you feel like doing.
What problems a lack of self-discipline can cause! Proverbs 25:28 says, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Revised Standard Version).
It is true that human effort does not create godly character. We cannot simply will ourselves into true righteousness. But how can God create righteous character in someone who won’t do as He instructs? God tells us to be doers of the word, not hearers only (James 1:22).
When you hear instruction and learn something you need to be doing, what determines your success? So much of it comes down to how much you discipline yourself to do it! How much you review those sermon or lecture notes, decide on specific actions to take, give yourself reminders, put it into your schedule, or tell your family or a friend about it so they’ll hold you accountable. And above all, it comes down to how much—when you don’t feel like doing it—you do it anyway!
“Character—that is, true character—has been defined as: 1) coming to the knowledge of the true, as opposed to the false values—the right, instead of the wrong way; 2) making, of one’s own free will and volition, the choice to do the right instead of the wrong; 3) the exercise of the will in actually doing the right instead of the wrong,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “Character, then, once the true knowledge is acquired and the right decision made, involves self-discipline. The truly educated person is a self-disciplined person” (Plain Truth, January 1984).
That is the key!
Look at yourself honestly—no excuses. Failing to do what you should is a lack of self-discipline. Doing the easy thing instead of the right thing is a lack of self-discipline. Giving in to whims and distractions is a lack of self-discipline.
Mr. Armstrong further defined self-discipline as two things: “1) self-restraint to resist the lower impulses and pulls in human nature—to restrain the self from desires, impulses, habits or customs that are contrary to the right way; and 2) self-propulsion or determined initiative to drive the self to do those things that ought to be done” (ibid).
If you want to grow and mature, build self-discipline. When you know the right thing, do that thing. Discipline yourself to do what you should. Every time you’re tough on yourself and stick with what needs to be done, you’re on track. Every time you exercise that muscle, it gets stronger and you grow. Whether as a pianist, or athlete, or student, or in prayer or work or anything else worthwhile, you’ll improve as much as you use that vital key for success: self-discipline.