Tools for Living

Self Discipline and Religious Faith

“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7

Spiritual disciplines are mainstays of virtually every religious tradition. In fact, if we set aside the roles that religions play as social and political institutions, what is left at their core is a set of disciplines—that is, teachings and practices—intended to guide faithful followers to their personal salvation or enlightenment.  Yet each of the great religions may be characterized largely by associated disciplines that distinguish it from the rest.

For instance, many of us may find that it’s almost impossible to think of Buddhism without imagining a zen monk or the Buddha himself sitting quietly in meditation.  Judaism is associated with observance of the Sabbath and adherence to strict dietary laws.  Mention Hinduism and there’s a good chance that Hatha Yoga will come to mind.  We associate Islam with the practice of five times daily prayers and the month-long fast during Ramadan.  And when it comes to Christianity, we may be likely to think of the regular practice of confession, prayer, church attendance on Sunday, and weekly bible studies.

Although such disciplines naturally vary among the different religions, nearly all of them are common to most traditional faiths in one form or another.  For instance, all traditional religions involve some sort of meditation and scriptural study and even include prayer—although practitioners of different faiths may have very different ideas about what it is that they’re praying for or whom they’re praying to.

Followers of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—usually pray as if they were speaking directly to an unseen anthropomorphic Deity, asking for forgiveness, guidance, or a personal favor such as a cure for an illness.  However, Buddhism has nothing to do with any particular conception of God.  It’s all about developing a disciplined, practical approach to life, and the purpose of Buddhist prayer is to cultivate greater personal awareness of our essential spiritual nature and condition in life,¹ and to discipline ourselves in following the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration²

As with different religions, different sects within Christianity place varying emphasis on the disciplines.  Yet they all recognize the importance of disciplining ourselves to act in accordance with Christ’s teachings, based on the Gospels and other Biblical texts, but especially on Paul’s letters to the churches he founded throughout the Roman world:

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” 1 Timothy 4:7

“I discipline myself to always maintain a blameless conscience before both God and men.” Acts 24:16

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¹See Buddhist Prayer: An Anthology, Jason Espada, editor, online at

²See “The Noble Eightfold Path” at




“The corrections of discipline are the way to life.” Proverbs 6:23

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6

“Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.” Proverbs 25:28

“Examine yourselves to test that you are in the faith.” 2 Corinthians 13:5

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7

Bhagavad Gita 18:57-58 “Make every act an offering to me (God); regard me as your only protector. Relying on interior discipline, meditate on me always. Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you.”

Dhammapada 8:103-105 “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

Tao Te Ching 33 “Conquering others is strength. Conquering yourself is power.”

“The first and best victory is to conquer self.” ~Plato

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” ~Aristotle

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviors. Keep your behaviors positive because your behaviors become your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.” ~Gandhi

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.” ~E.M. Gray

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments” ~Jim Rohn

“Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from the expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear—and doubt.” ~ H.A. Dorfman (from The Mental ABCs of Pitching)

“Parents teach children discipline for two different, indeed diametrically opposed, reasons: to render the child submissive to them and to make him independent of them. Only a self-disciplined person can be obedient; and only such a person can be autonomous.” ~Thomas Szasz

Links to more information about Self-Discipline:

David B. Curtis on “Self-Discipline”

Scott Harris, “Successful Christian Living: Self-Discipline and Sacrifice”

“Principles in Practice: Self-Discipline—The Path to Freedom”

“The Christian and Self-Discipline”

A Buddhist perspective on “The Practice of Moral Discipline”

Sheikh Muhammad Al Munajjid, “How Can the Muslim Discipline One’s Self?”

Sayyed Mujtaba Musawi Lari, “The Importance of Self Discipline”

“Swami Krishnananda, “Meditation: A Discipline of Self-Integration”



Recommended Books:

Basil W. Maturin, Christian Self-Mastery: How to Govern Your Thoughts, Discipline Your Will, and Achieve Balance in Your Spiritual Life        An abridged version of Maturin’s guide to Christian self-discipline through self-knowledge and perseverance.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth        Foster writes about practicing traditional Christian spiritual disciplines in order to guide and inform our personal spiritual development.