We live in an age in which actual conservative principles have been buried by tribal political discourse. There is such a thing as a valid and valuable conservatism that exists apart from things like patriarchy, white nationalism, and social Darwinist capitalism. There is a way of thinking that insists on prioritizing values like integrity, honor, and discipline rather than thinking the end always justifies the means and it’s okay to fudge the numbers if your intentions are good. True conservative values like these are not first-nature to me, but I definitely want them to be much more part of my character.
There’s one conservative insight in particular that I’ve been wrestling with recently as I process a number of situations in my capacities as pastor, counselor in training, husband, father, social media jackass, etc. And that is that true joy worth having often shows up on the other side of discipline. That is to say our immediate, impulsive intuitions about what we want/need are not always (or maybe even usually) right. Sometimes our deepest desires can only be discovered after plodding through many miles of things we don’t want to do but that we trust to be good for us. When we sacrifice our immediate pleasure, comfort, or laziness, we can gain a joy that comes only after hours, or maybe even years, of hard work.
The best example in my own life has to do with music. It took me years of practice to learn how to play blues on the piano. I had to go through many hours of drudgery when it didn’t sound good. But the result of that drudgery is that now I’m able to make sounds instinctively that I would not be able to make if I just felt like playing the piano one day without ever having learned my scales or keys. Yesterday’s discipline led to today’s joy. Any hobby that involves the patient cultivation of talent works this way. As a father, I am wrestling with this in a big way with both of my sons whom I want to cultivate talents they will later enjoy other than playing video games and watching Youtube.
Where discipline and sacrifice get contentious and confusing are in the sexuality debates that dominate our church today. Based on the comments I’ve seen sexual traditionalists make over the years, I suspect that they view queer sexuality primarily through the lens of discipline and sacrifice. Namely, they see queer sexuality as being a sort of undisciplined, whimsical pursuit of sin-corrupted impulses, because queer people say things like: “Actually we can trust our bodies’ intuitions; our desires are not inherently corrupted by sin; seeking bodily pleasure is not innately wrong.”
Of course, anyone who has actually experienced queer communities first-hand could testify that there is often a very high level of discipline and intentionality in relational ethics among queer people even when sexual intimacy happens in non-traditional ways. You can actually be someone who trusts your body’s intuitions and embraces your sexual desires while also embodying discipline and self-sacrifice in the interests of making space for others. My friend Emily Joy often complains about the presumption that “anything goes” is the only possible sexual ethic outside of evangelical heteronormative purity culture. It simply isn’t true. I wonder how many traditionalists would be more capable of inclusivity if they could be persuaded that it doesn’t require abandoning the very notion of discipline.
To me, one of the most tragic unacknowledged casualties of the sexuality culture war is the way that legitimately important conservative values are discredited and cast aside among younger generations because of their entanglement and misapplication in the culture war that often seems to them like bizarre baby boomer bullshit. I realize that this line of argument probably won’t win converts from the sexual traditionalists whose epistemic closure is more solid than the steel door into the mountain at NORAD. But what I am concerned about are the younger people today who are learning to mistrust concepts like discipline, sacrifice, holiness, or even most scandalously, purity, because every one of these words has been deployed as coded language within a discourse that says “I reject you.”Of course, a really unfair paradox is that the conservatives who actually best live out the virtue of discipline do not get to shape the discourse and public perception of conservatism because the loud, impulsive, angry conservatives get all the media attention. But I’ve been blessed in my life to have some patient, wise conservative friends who love me, pray over me, bless me, and, when the time is right, offer perspectives that contradict mine, which I’m able to hear and take seriously because of the discipline with which they have handled our relationship.
So what about the seeming contradiction between believing in discipline and believing in intuition? Can my body just know intuitively what brings me joy? Or do I need to listen and submit to obeying somebody else’s ancient wisdom that makes no sense to me to discover what brings me joy? I think these rhetorical questions might capture the underlying frame that a conservative would see in our debates.
When I think about these questions and their implications for how we think about sexual behavior as well as a whole lot of other issues that should get more airtime, one of Jesus’ statements comes to mind: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). I honestly think the best way to find joy in this life based on my lived experience is to seek the kingdom of God first. When I actually do that (which is sadly not often enough), all of the other anxieties that cause me so much grief seem to dissipate. To me, this is the basic Christian discipline that results in joy.
I do not think seeking the kingdom of God first precludes bodily pleasure. It doesn’t mean that I have to stop eating chocolate. Though I’ve fasted twice a week for six years, I disagree with the ancient views about “mortifying the flesh.” I also don’t think that seeking God’s kingdom necessarily prescribes specific rules about sexual behavior that are universally applicable regardless of context. Though it does mean thinking about people other than myself, it doesn’t mean neglecting my valid physical, emotional, and social needs, which all impact how I show up as a disciple of God’s kingdom.
One of the greatest crimes I have committed against the kingdom of God over the past six years of campus ministry is that I have renounced any semblance of a social life apart from ministry. And that is part of the reason I’m burned out and ineffective in ministry right now. So one of the most important disciplines I will be enacting when I reboot in a new church assignment back in Virginia next summer is that I plan to find friends and actually do things with them regularly that are completely outside of my role as pastor. Like go to rock concerts.
Maybe that sounds like a crazy discipline that has nothing to do with building God’s kingdom, but the undisciplined version of me is an obsessive workaholic who squanders my physical and mental health in order to do everything I can to get twenty or more students to show up at 5 pm on Sunday nights as well as build enough relationships with potential donors in local churches that my ministry can achieve financial self-sustainability. This year when I asked the question “Am I building God’s kingdom by how I’m living and doing ministry?” I had to say, “No, I’m really not, and I may be causing more harm than good. I need to reboot and figure this thing out all over again.”
Well I’ve gone all over the place with this and maybe I lost the plot somewhere along the way. I think what I’ve discovered while writing this is the degree to which discipline is such a multifaceted concept. It’s not so much about self-repression (which undisciplined workaholic Morgan is great at) as it is about discerning patiently, being open to others’ wisdom, and building habits of commitment.
Imagine if conservative and progressive Christians could encourage each other in the various ways in which we interpret what it means to live the discipline of seeking God’s kingdom first (which could really be God’s strategy for using a wide diversity of tactics to build his kingdom). Don’t hate discipline just because the idea has been misused and entangled with other nonsense. Treasure those who value discipline and teach you how to better make it part of your life.