‘Your brother has come [home],’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:27-30)
Self-discipline—whether with time, food, or money—is a good, God-honoring thing (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). The problem is when discipline becomes an ultimate thing and thus turns into a life-sucking idol.
How can you know when you’ve crossed over to the dark side of discipline? One sign is that you are unwilling to extend grace to others who are less disciplined than you.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Most preaching on this parable focuses on the younger son who “squandered his [father’s] wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). But as today’s passage reminds us, Jesus’s parable was about two lost sons, not one.
In his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller says that while “younger brothers” build their self-image around freedom and rebellion, “elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy.” Sounds like me and probably you if you consider yourself to be a disciplined person. But here’s the problem: As Keller points out, elder-brotherness “inevitably leads to feeling superior to those who don’t have those same qualities.”
That last line stings me to the core. If someone shows up late to a meeting or drops a ball on a project, I won’t telekinetically strangle them like Darth Vader, but I may find myself seething with self-righteous anger that attempts to mask the fact that I have made the exact same mistake before.
If this is part of what the dark side of discipline looks like for you, let me remind you (and myself) that the root cause of our failure to extend grace to others is a forgetfulness of the gospel. Everything we have—including our ability to be disciplined—has been graciously given to us. James 1:17 says that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.” Our ability to be disciplined is a gift of grace, just like salvation, “so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9).
I can’t take credit for being disciplined, and neither can you. God has graciously brought us books, software, mentors, and other resources to help us cultivate self-discipline. And because all of these things were gifts we did not earn, we can be gracious with those who have yet to be given the same gifts.
Of course, failing to extend grace to others is not the only sign you’ve crossed over to the dark side of discipline. Next week, we’ll examine a second symptom.