The Road Less Traveled

By: Dr. Steven Riser; ©2004
Dr. Riser helps us to understand the need for discipline, love and grace in spiritual growth.

The Road Less Traveled: Discovering the Need for Discipline, Love, and Grace in Spiritual Growth

Introduction: What is the road less traveled?

In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way….” In Acts 9:2, Christians were referred to as those “who belonged to the Way.” In Acts 24:14, Paul referred to himself as “a follower of the Way…” Jesus spoke of a “narrow way”—that “way” or that “road” is the road less traveled.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).

The road less traveled is “the road that leads to life… [that]…only a few find.” This road be­gins at the foot of the cross and stretches out for your entire life. The process of sanctification is a life long process. In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul said, “I will show you the most excellent way” What is that most excellent way? It is the way of love, the path of holiness, the way to life, the way to God.

Explanation: The Need for Personal Discipline—“I want what I want when I want it.”

Life is an exciting journey of faith because you never know what God is going to do next. Life is also a series of problems and to confront them is often painful, yet it is only through solving problems that we grow mentally and spiritually and find meaning in life.

Many of us try to avoid our problems and the emotional suffering they involve and this ten­dency to avoid facing reality is the primary cause of mental illness, character disorders, and neurosis. When we suppress suffering we stunt growth and without growth our spirits wither and our lives shrivel.

Have you ever observed the attitude of a spiritually and emotionally immature person? Their attitude is expressed in the phrase: “I want what I want when I want it.” They are selfish, impul­sive and lack the discipline necessary to solve their own problems.

In order to solve our problems we need self-control. Paul said that God has not given us a spirit of fear (to cause us to run away from our problems); rather God has given us a sound mind (enabling us to face and realistically deal with our problems) (2 Tim. 1:7). Christians are called to be Christ’s disciples and to be a disciple is to be one who is under Christ’s authority— under His discipline. One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control or self-discipline (Gal. 5:23).

We all know what discipline is, don’t we? It is structured training in right living. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself just what is involved in Christian Discipline? Discipline is many faceted and includes among other things:

  1. A willingness to delay gratification.
  2. An acceptance of personal responsibility.
  3. A dedication to truth and…
  4. An ability to live a balanced life.

Let’s take a look at these aspects of discipline in hopes that they will help us to better journey down the Road Less Traveled—the road that leads to God—to Life!

1. The Need for Deferred Gratification—“No Pains No Gains”

Moses practiced deferred gratification, “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Heb. 11:25). Jesus practiced deferred gratification, “for the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross…” (Heb. 12:3). Hebrews 5:8 says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Paul also practiced deferred gratification. He said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

To delay gratification means to do hard jobs first and easy ones last, to enhance pleasure by dealing with pain immediately and getting it out of the way. Many people live by impulse. They don’t learn to study, they drop out of school, they lose job after job and land in bad marriages, in psychiatric hospitals or in jail. Most undisciplined people are children of parents who were not disciplined or who did not love their children enough to properly train and discipline them.

It takes both time and love to discipline children. Without it, children grow up not feeling valued and are not motivated to take care of themselves. Self-discipline is the way in which we take proper care of ourselves. Children who are not disciplined feel insecure in themselves and unsafe in the world. Because they are emotionally starved they rush to gratify every passing appetite and are unable to discipline their impulses because they lack the confidence to wait for what they really want. Some people, in fact, ignore their problems and hope they will go away. But problems don’t go away. The longer they are ignored the more difficult they become to solve. Again, the primary problem is an unwillingness to delay gratification.

2. The Need for Personal Responsibility (Romans 14:12)—“It’s Not My Problem”

Paul said, “…each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Failure to face our problems in a healthy fashion results in helpless and hopeless people and eventually in mental illness. In order to solve a problem we must first accept personal responsibility for it. We can’t solve it if we say, “it’s not my problem.” Many people attempt to avoid the pain of their problems by blaming them on other people or circumstances. People who blame others are suffering from a charac­ter disorder. People who magnify the pain of their problems by blaming themselves for every­thing that goes wrong are suffering from a neurosis-an emotional disorder.

Do you assume too much or too little responsibility in your life? Distinguishing between what we are and what we are not responsible for is one of life’s major problems and requires con­tinual self-examination. Irresponsibility blocks spiritual growth and makes us a burden to others. Why do so many of us find it difficult to accept responsibility for our actions? Because we want to avoid the painful consequences of our actions. Some people would rather give away their freedom than accept personal responsibility for their actions. (However, without a willingness to risk, we don’t live but merely exist!)

Paul gives us these instructions in Galatians 6:4-5, 7-9: “Each one should test his own ac‑tions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing well, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

3. The Need for Pursuing the Truth—“Are You Living a Lie?”

John 8:31-32: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’” John 17:17: “Thy Word is Truth.”

What is truth? Very simply, truth is what is real! Truth is reality! What is false is unreal. Our view of reality is like a map. If the map is accurate, we will usually know where we are and how to get where we want to go. If the map is inaccurate, we will usually be lost. Why? Whether we realize it or not, anytime we depart, wander or stray from the truth we are lost!!

We are not born with maps and making them requires effort. The greater the effort to grasp reality, the larger and more accurate the map will be. Many stop making the map in adolescence and their maps are small and sketchy. But few persist beyond middle age. Those who are com­mitted to the truth have maps that are large and finely detailed. As we grow our maps need to be continually revised, and revisions are often painful to make.

Rather than change a way of looking at life, many people ignore the evidence that their map is out of date and as a result begin to lose their touch with reality. We can only revise our maps if we are willing to deal with the pain of facing reality. We all know at times that the truth can hurt. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs. A willingness to face reality requires examination of ourselves as well as the world via the study of God’s Word.

Dedication to the truth requires a willingness to be challenged, to open our private maps of perceiving reality to public inspection. Most people fear challenges and try to avoid them. Hon­est living requires that we accept the need for continual change. Many people would rather lie to themselves and others rather than face continual change. Such lying is an attempt to circum­vent the truth and leads to mental illness because lying distorts and divorces us from reality.

In short, a life in dedication to the truth is a difficult life, yet the rewards are commensurate with the demands. Open people are continually growing people. Only truthful people can enjoy intimate relationships with others, loved and loving, free from fear, free to be themselves. As Christians, we are called not only to believe the truth but also to obey it. Paul says that “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). While sinners suppress or reject the truth and exchange it for a lie (Rom.1: 25).

4. The Need for Living a Balanced Life—The Art of Letting Go

Honesty, responsibility and deferred gratification are essential elements to discipline. Yet mature mental health requires balanced living. The Bible says “let all men know your modera­tion.” God has called us to live a balanced Christian life (loving God with our heads as well as our hearts). This gives us flexibility by balancing emotion with reason. A balanced person doesn’t go off half cocked.

The essence of balancing involves avoiding excesses and a willingness to give up those traits, beliefs, feelings, illusions, relationships or practices that are not in our best interests. Balancing is difficult because it’s painful giving things up. The only way to escape the pain of giving things up is not to grow and that is exactly what many people do. That old expression is often true—“no pains, no gains!”

In order to grow the Bible says that we need to “put off the old man and put on the new man” (Eph. 4:22-24). The old self must be abandoned. There are many things which we must give up such as the dependency of childhood, the fantasy of omnipotence, the illusion of omniscience, the unwillingness to be committed, the fantasy of immortality, the desire to always be in control, etc.

Ultimately Jesus says that we must surrender ourselves. The surrender of the self releases the deepest joy and gives our life meaning. There are no short cuts to sainthood. And the en­ergy that powers the pilgrim’s progress is the energy of love.

5. The Mystery and the Majesty of Love

Love involves the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. Loving changes for the better the one who loves. We grow as we learn to extend ourselves for the benefit of ourselves and/or others. As we nurture the spiritual growth of others we nurture our own. We are incapable of properly loving others unless we learn to prop­erly love ourselves. Love implies effort—it takes effort to extend oneself for others. Love is an act; an act of the will—it implies a choice: to love or not to love that is the question.

6. Falling in Love—Grasping the True Nature of Love

Since (agape) love is implies a choice, you do not “fall in love.” Love is not something over which you have no control—something you just can’t help. One way to understand the nature of love is to understand what love is not. Falling in love has little to do with nurturing the spiritual development of another. Falling in love is an erotic feeling. Love is a spiritual action.

Love isn’t primarily a feeling! Love isn’t love till you give it away. Love is a decision to act in the best interests of ourselves and others. Falling in love is not love but a genetically determined response that enhances the probability of pairing and eventually marriage. This genetic ten­dency has been institutionalized into the myth of romantic love. Falling in love focuses on meet­ing the right person. Loving focuses on being the right person. True spiritual growth can only be achieved through the persistent exercise of real love.

7. Love Involves More than Dependency on Another—“I Can’t Live Without You”

Another common misconception is the idea that dependency is love. Have you ever heard someone say, “I love him so much I can’t live without him?” In reality, what they describe is parasitism, not love. In such a relationship there is no freedom, no choice, and without the free exercise of choice there is no love. Two people love each other only when they are capable of living without each other. When we feel that we can’t live without someone we suffer from a passive dependent personality disorder.

Such people are so busy seeking to be loved that they have no energy left to love. They are like emotional bottomless pits that can never be filled. They have no real sense of personal identity but define themselves only in relationship to others. They dream only of an effortless passive state of receiving care. The irony is that they never receive the love they want because in order to be loved people must give love. In such marriages, security is purchased at the price of freedom and personal dignity and the relationship retards the growth of both parties. A good marriage can exist only between two strong, independent people. Passive dependency is caused by a lack of self-love and self-discipline. Such people are candidates for becoming addicts.

8. The Labors of Love—Love Requires both Risk and Effort

To be alive is to be at risk, but of all risks the greatest risk is the risk of growing up and many people never take it. The courage to take the risk of growing up is an act of self-love. All major positive changes in character are acts of self-love. Only if we love ourselves do we accept the responsibility to grow spiritually—because when we love we always act in our best interests.

Commitment is the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship. Spiritual growth can only be fostered through constancy. Couples cannot resolve problems in marriage without the secure knowledge that the struggle will not destroy the relationship. Children cannot mature emotionally in a relationship with parents that threaten to leave them unprotected. Without commitment, relationships sooner or later crumble. Commitment is the cornerstone of spiritual growth. Com­mitment requires the risk of self-confrontation and change.

Love, in short, is work, and the basic form this work takes is attention. When we love, we attend to the growth of others. Listening well is an exercise in attention. When we listen well the other person feels valued by us. True listening is love in action. The better we listen the more rapidly we will grow and improve in our relationships with others. If we are to be loving individu­als, one of the great temptations we will need to avoid is laziness! Why? Because love requires important work and great effort!

Conclusion: Who Am I to Play God?—Love Requires A Great Deal of Humility on Our Part

James teaches that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Love requires the exercise of humility. When we confront another without love they are prone to resist. Only when we speak the truth in love will people be receptive to our observations. To confront without humility means we are assuming the role of intellectual superiority. Love involves mutual re­spect-not a superior-inferior relationship. To confront is to risk being arrogant (who am I to play God?) and that is why it must be done in humility. Not to confront is to risk shirking my spiritual responsibility of helping another person to grow. We must be willing to confront one another if we are going to promote the spiritual growth of one another. Do you care enough to confront? I certainly hope so, but do it in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1).

1. God’s Grace: In Search of a First-hand Faith

Spiritual growth involves a journey of developing a clearer vision of God. In order to do this we must relinquish our false notions and incomplete ideas about who God is. If our faith is to be vital, it must be personal—forged in the crucible of our own experience. A second-hand faith won’t suffice. The path to holiness lies only through personal repentance and first-hand faith.

2. God Wants Us to Become Like Him

Why does God want us to grow? What does God want us to become? The answer is clear: He wants us to become like Him—to be more conformed to the character and conduct of Christ. One of the greatest obstacles to holiness is laziness. Overcome laziness and develop the fruit of the spirit (self-control) and eventually all your other problems will be overcome. Fail to over­come laziness and no growth will occur. Sometimes we are just too lazy to take to time to under­stand God’s will. Laziness is a passive failure to love. God is interested in active participants,

not passive observers in the pursuit of holiness. We are called to consciously cooperate with God as His Spirit uses His Word to transform our lives for His glory.

3. In the Cloak of God’s Love

All of us to some extent, out of laziness and fear, avoid the effort and suffering involved in understanding the reality of the world. The farther we veer away from reality, the more unreal our feelings and actions become. When an individual deviates too far from God’s will (reality), mental illness begins. If we are willing to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness we can learn to love and, in so doing, live realistically and responsibly. Problems become opportuni­ties and barriers become challenges. Over time we become aware that we have been touched by God’s grace—that we are enveloped in the cloak of God’s love. Those who heed the call of grace, grow. The journey of life is not without risks. Spiritual travelers must search out with effort the path to God—it is the Road Less Traveled—it is the road that leads to God—to Life!

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