Saints and SEALS: Discipline Equals Freedom

A significant amount of insights in our lives happen when we experience surprising connections between multiple seemingly unrelated ideas. This psychological phenomenon, referred to as “lateral thinking”, is the fertile soil of creativity where our subconscious can sense and establish connections, which fosters innovation.

One arena I have been experiencing some laterality – if I may coin a term – is between the historic Christian understanding of spiritual formation, and one of the most elite class of warriors in the history of the world: the Navy SEALS.

So let’s start here.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to go flipping tires or doing burpees, at least not yet.

The dude with the crew cut has a name that’s only fitting: Jocko. Jocko Willink.

I came across him a little under a year ago; I was listening to an archery podcast, in which the hosts were going over a book. Books and bowhunting, you say? I’m in.

The book they were going over was called Extreme Ownership, and two things became quickly evident to me.

First, the two guys who wrote the book, Jocko and Leif, were former Navy SEALS (what else would they be with names like that) who used their experience from war to glean leadership lessons. Secondly, the dudes on the podcast had a massive man-crush on the authors and the book, if it’s possible to have a crush on a book.

Now, I was initially suspicious; ever since I became a Christian, I have increasingly wrestled with the justification of war. However, this podcast made me curious, so I picked up a copy of Extreme Ownership, and also watched the TED talk with the same title.

And I was surprised and challenged.

Jocko Willink served as a Navy SEAL for two decades, and he commanded Task Unit Bruiser in the Iraq war, which became the most decorated Special Operations Unit in the war. Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, served on this team. After retiring from the service, he co-founded Echelon Front, a business-consulting firm, wrote a New York Times Best-Seller Extreme Ownership, and began one of the most popular podcasts, the Jocko Podcast.

One of Jocko’s cornerstone pillars is that “discipline equals freedom”. Through his time of leading SEALS, Jocko noticed the counterintuitive principle that discipline, more accurately self-discipline, is the actual path to nurturing and forming freedom in our lives.

This is largely in step with the view of spiritual formation and growth throughout the history of the church, going all the way back to the beginning.

However, as I’ve talked to people about this idea, they tend to see two types of contradictions present: a spiritual contradiction to the Christian message of freedom through grace, or a logical contradiction between the concepts of discipline and freedom.


Regarding the spiritual contradiction, a common response I get is that “this sounds like legalism, which Jesus came to free us from.” Paul tells the church at Ephesus “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God – not the results of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians. 2:8-9). Consequentially, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Now this is all a good point. However, lets turn to another passage written by Paul: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

“Do you not know that in a race the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

What do we see here? Well, we seemingly have a very different picture. In this passage, Paul is spurring the church at Corinth to change from their libertine ways and pursue discipline in their faith and lives. Before this passage, he had been challenging and correcting the Corinthian church and their laundry list of naughty behaviors. and then he rolls into this passage.

Here’s some historical context. Every two years, Corinth would host the Isthmian Games, which was an athletic event that was second only to the Olympics in scope, fame, and glory. So Paul’s audience would quickly get the analogy that Paul was giving.

I’ve read multiple commentaries on this one to see if Paul was making some kind of historical appeal that is now outdated, but this passage is pretty straight forward. One commentator even goes to the extend of saying that the main point of the passage is that we should “exercise self-control in everything”, as “the whole life is at issue, not simply the ‘soma’ body’s desire to eat meat, but wholesale attitudes toward others which determine day-to-day practical stances.”

In the The Spirit of the DisciplinesDallas Willard says that “the successful athlete knows that his disciplines must be undertaken, and undertaken rightly, or all his natural abilities and best efforts will go down in defeat to others who have disciplined themselves in the preparation for the game”.

In this passage, Paul is saying that our attitudes should be like that of athletes, who pursue self-discipline in our lives for the sake of pursuing their goals and missions. They should cultivate an increasing level of sleekness and limberness in their lives as they leave the dross and extra baggage behind through discipline and training. This level of self-discipline is a theme throughout Paul’s letters, and is modeled by Jesus throughout the gospels.

Now the reason behind this apparent contradiction is that we’ve got some things mixed up – and overly simplified – through out the millennia regarding the interplay of God’s grace and our activity. Willard goes on to say “we have simply let our thinking fall into the grip of a false opposition of grace to ‘works’ that was caused by a mistaken association of works with merit.”

So me must begin by detangling our perceived connection between exerting effort at spiritual “works”, and an attempt at earning some merit with God.

So there isn’t a spiritual contradiction present within the claim that discipline equals freedom.


The apparent logical contradiction of discipline equaling freedom is clear enough. Common sense assumes that freedom comes through open and uncompelled choice, and typical conceptions of freedom are grounded (a) pursuing our desires, and (b) a lack of limitations. So at first blush, discipline does seem contrary to this because we are consciously enforcing our will to create parameters that hinder and block the way me may want to act. This, then, is not too far from one of the great taboos these days of being disingenuous to us.

However, there are a couple of things off with this conception of freedom.

First, it oversimplifies our interaction with our desires. We are frankly at war much of the time with the bubbling mass that makes up our desires. One study estimated that your average person spends 25% of their waking time – that is about 4 hours a day – trying to resist some kind of desire. When I first came across this, I both felt like it was crazy, but also made a ton of sense. Our desires don’t present themselves in clear, concise, and consistent ways; they instead bear down on us from all angles and all times in a cacophony.

Second, it seems to ignore the kind of behavioral limitations that we are subject to, namely habits. At least 40% of what we do throughout the day – everything – is dictated by habitual patterns of behavior (financial, relational, physical, etc) that we have sculpted ahead of time, and exert coercive pressure on us.

Our desires are a swirling mess and we are largely shaped by the power of habits already. So the pursuit of discipline isn’t a self-inflicted incarceration in the face of freedom, but is the craft of conscious, intentional habit formation. In fact, the question shifts from “do we have discipline in our lives?” to “what kind of discipline do we have in our lives?” By intentionally practicing discipline, we are consciously shaping the habits that will in turn shape our days, and these have a profound impact on how we view ourselves, others, and God.

As Jocko throws down in Extreme Ownership, we want to be physically free and mentally free. We want to be financially free and we want more free time . . . You want more free time? Follow a more disciplined time-management system. You want financial freedom? Implement long-term financial discipline in your life. Do you want to be physically fee to move how you want, and to be free from many health issues caused by poor lifestyle choices? Then you have to have the discipline to eat healthy and consistently work out.”

We should add that if we want to experience the depths of the freedom of what God has for us, then we should implement a practice of spiritual disciplines in our lives.


So what are spiritual disciplines? Here’s a brief video from one of the contemporary sages on this concept, Dallas Willard:

Spiritual disciplines are exercises and habits which equip up to live fully and freely in the present reality of God – and God works with us, transforming us as we learn and grow, such as prayer, solitude, fasting, and service. The idea that “discipline equals freedom” is a great way to describe one of the main motifs of spiritual formation throughout the history of the church.


So what does all this mean for us? What are the practical nuggets? Welp, it should lead to the conclusion that we should pursue and cultivate discipline in our lives – especially the spiritual disciplines – if we desire to function optimally and thrive. However, this raises the question of how to go about that.

In Gretchen Rubin’s awesome book Better than Before, she drills deep into the structure of habit formation and deconstruction. I was stunned by the amount of great, practical, grounded wisdom in the journey of becoming better; it’s really a must-read. For instance, here’s a nugget she dropped that really caught me off guard: Researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did, because people with good self-control mainly don’t use the will power to rescue them in emergencies, but rather to develop effective habits and routines.

Here are a couple other starting nuggets from the book that I thought were pivotal.

  1. Self-knowledge is critical; especially regarding how we respond to inner and outer expectations. Rubin discusses a framework she came up with, named the four tendencies, which helps give us an understanding of the kind of accountability and motivation we’d need for success.
  2. Beginning well is paramount to habit formation. Starting habits are more likely to be tougher than continuing them. Interrupting a fledgling habit can be derailing, as it interrupts momentum, breeds guilt, and requires a re-up on willpower.
  3. Scheduling a habit helps keeps it going. The very act of scheduling a run, time for meditation, or an important relationship helps ward off procrastination, and habits grow strongest and fastest when they habit at predictable (i.e. scheduled) times.

Again, these points are just a few practical tools; it’s far from comprehensive (get the book!).

To wind down, I want to offer you a couple quotes.

The first is from our boy Dallas Willard, from the Spirit of the Disciplines (again; sorry, but it’s that good):

“In 1937 Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave the world his book The Cost of Discipleship. It was a masterful attack on ‘easy Christianity’ or ‘cheap grace,’ but it did not set aside – perhaps it even enforced – the view of discipleship as a costly spiritual excess, and only for those especially driven or called to it. It was right to point out that one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in the human life, and that one who pays little in the world’s coinage to bear his name has reason to wonder where he or she stands with God. But the cost of non discipleship is far greater – even when this life alone is considered – than the price paid to walk with Jesus.
Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly the abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.
The road to growth and freedom, especially growth in Christ – discipleship – goes through discipline, particularly through the spiritual disciplines. And there is a cost for not following the road of discipleship; it’s the exact abundance of life that Jesus came to bring.
So may we heed the encouragement that Paul gave his protege Timothy:
“Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Tim 4:7-8)
For in the true paradoxical way of the kingdom, discipline equals freedom.

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