As we begin a new school year, even though the summer weather continues, we have to adjust to a new schedule. Perhaps you may have had a more relaxing summer – no classes, extra vacation time, more time to enjoy life. Now of course we have to buckle down again as we head into the new semester. This is a good time to begin to make some changes and to exercise some extra discipline in our lives.
No one really likes that word. It carries some negative connotations. We often think of it as meaning we have to work harder, give up certain things we like, say no to ourselves, and so on. It’s like trading in the beach for the classroom or the office. That’s no fun!
But personal discipline is necessary to live life well. Note that I did not say that discipline is necessary for life. That’s because it’s very easy to live life without much or any personal discipline. Many aspects of our society do not promote personal discipline but rather its opposite: self-indulgence. Our consumer society constantly encourages us to eat, drink, shop, buy, enjoy, relax, and so on. And it also encourages acting on our impulses and desires because the thinking is that not doing so means repressing our desires, and repression is unhealthy. But which one is the healthy attitude? Giving in to our every whim and desire every time we experience them, eventually becoming a slave to them, unable to resist them when they come along, even when doing so is harmful to us? Or learning to master our appetites, gain self-control, deny ourselves short-term pleasure for the sake of something better, and becoming stronger in the process?
Our readings today refer to this concept of discipline. In our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear that, “all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” This reading refers to enduring the trials and difficulties of life and speaks of them as things that come from God himself. It refers specifically to the trials and difficulties that come from following the Lord, especially the persecution that comes from others when we do so. The trials themselves do not come from God so much as he permits them for the sake of a greater good, which is our righteousness, or becoming more like God himself. And this reading instructs us that discipline, as unpleasant as it might be in the present, yields something better in the future: “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
In our Gospel, Jesus is asked, “‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’” Jesus of course does not give a direct answer to this question, as much as we might want one. But what if Jesus responded with something like, “54% of all people will be saved.” What good would that do anyone? Rather, what Jesus wants to impress upon us in his response is that we all have to strive towards salvation (although we cannot earn it since it is a pure gift from God); we cannot just take it for granted. Again, personal discipline is necessary.
As we all know, it’s so easy to just follow our impulses and desires. We sit down to study; we have every intention of dedicating the next couple hours to getting some serious studying done, and then an idea pops into our head, “I’ll just check my phone first.” And a couple hours later we’re still looking at the phone!
Or we say, I’ll do it later. I’ll start praying tomorrow. I’ll start eating better tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll get a good night’s sleep. Then suddenly years have gone by and nothing has changed. Three years ago, I bought a little cookbook called, “200 Five-minute meals.” I have a pretty busy schedule and I told myself, “This is going to change my whole diet. These meals are going to be so simple and yet so delicious!” Three years later the book still sits on my shelf, untouched. It just sits there taunting me: “Remember me? I was going to change your life. But no, three years have gone by and you’re still eating the same old junk.”
Life goes surprisingly fast, as will this school year. The time to act is now. The time to make change is now. Little acts of self-denial for the sake of a greater good might be difficult now, but they will benefit you in the long run. It’s like exercise: at first you have to force yourself to do it, it’s hard, maybe you feel awkward because you don’t know how to use the machines and you think everyone’s looking at you and smirking, but if you keep going despite the difficulties and the negative self-talk, you’re going to get in shape. You’re going to start to look and feel better, and it’s amazing how quickly you will start to notice some differences. Or it’s like investing: you might think, “I really can’t afford to save $5 a week right now; but if you start to do it anyway, pretty soon you won’t even notice the $5 you otherwise would have had, and years from now that $5 a week will have grown into literally thousands and thousands of dollars.
Short-term pain, long-term gain. Personal discipline leads to being in control of our desires rather than being controlled by them. It creates personal satisfaction and leads to a more fulfilling life. This is absolutely guaranteed.
Of course, our readings are directed at salvation, which is the most important thing: more important than getting in shape or saving money. Let’s not neglect our salvation. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus tells us. Pray every day. Many, many days we will not want to do it. We will tell ourselves we don’t have time to do it. Do it anyway. Put God first in your day. Go to Mass every Sunday. There will be times when we don’t feel like it or when it’s not convenient. Do it anyway. Doing these things will only benefit you. They will lead you closer to Christ. This life is short, and eternity is forever. Let us strive while we can so that we will be ready for the Lord to welcome us to a place at the table in the Kingdom of God.