Podcast: Disciplines of a Godly Man (Kent Hughes)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Train Yourself for Godliness

In this episode, Kent Hughes discusses why discipline is so important for the life of a Christian man. He explains how discipline is actually aimed at freeing us to be the men that God called us to be, how to fight the addiction to entertainment that is so common among men in our culture today, and why working hard when it comes to our spiritual growth is not the same thing as working for our salvation.

Disciplines of a Godly Man

R. Kent Hughes

This updated edition of a best-selling classic by a seasoned pastor aims to empower men to take seriously the call to godliness and direct their energy toward the things that matter most.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:54 - The Story behind the Best-Selling Book

Matt Tully
Kent, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Kent Hughes
Thank you. It's great to be with you.

Matt Tully
You first published your book, Disciplines of a Godly Man thirty years ago. Since that time, the book has sold somewhere in the realm of 400,000 copies. My first question is, when you think about that number—400,000 people who have bought or received the book as a gift—how does that make you feel?

Kent Hughes
It goes far beyond my dreams because thirty years ago this was a series of sermons that I preached on the Lord's Day to my congregation at College Church. We were waiting on the construction of a new building, so we were meeting in Edman chapel on the campus of Wheaton College, so the content was originally for my people. As I put it all together I talked to Crossway about the possibility of it being a book, but at that time they were one-off sermons that I cobbled together on the whole matter of spiritual disciplines.

Matt Tully
What made you think about turning it into a book? It seems like it's one of those topics that is pretty well-trodden, so what was it that led you to say, I want to write this book, and I want it to be for men in particular?

Kent Hughes
I have to go back a little bit to its genesis. I preach expositionally. There's the Latin term lectio continua—I preach through a book in consecutive passages; that's what I always do. My staff said, You ought to do a topical sermon; and I said, I don't do topical sermons. So there was a back and forth and I was having a little fun with them. They said, We think you ought to do a topical series. So I went home and told my wife and also talked to a friend of mine who is an editor at another publishing house. He said, If you're going to do something like that, it needs to burn in your bones. The thing that was burning in my bones was spiritual disciplines. My wife said, I think that would be fine, but don't do it for men and women; do it for men because men need it more than women. She's actually right about that. She kind of had a prophetic word for me. So I decided that I would preach it to men because it really speaks to men and is more penetrating for them. So I took that to heart and preached it to the men, with the women sitting next to them in the congregation on the Lord's Day, and the ladies loved it. They could always elbow the old guy next to them when I was driving a point home. Of course, the principles are transferable, but my wife gave me great advice because the book is much more direct, much more straightforward, much more hard-hitting because it's directed to men. The other thing that I did is that I put a picture of my sons on the desk before me and imagined myself with a coffee cup giving them fatherly advice about spiritual disciplines. So that's how the book came about. I only had about six ideas in mind when it started, and then it morphed out to about seventeen or eighteen. I would have people say, Pastor, I've never heard a series like this. They were so hungry for it, so that's when I began to think that maybe it's got possibilities beyond my congregation.

Matt Tully
Why do you think it is that men in particular have responded so positively to the book over the last three decades?

Kent Hughes
I think there's a couple of things. One, it is straightforward. In that sense, it's manly and direct. In other words, the chapters are pretty hard-hitting. Whether you like them or not, they're in your face and they come at you. The other thing is that almost every chapter begins anecdotally or with a story that then feeds into what the biblical text is, then applies the text, and then has practical applications at the end. Each of the chapters are written to really engage you right from the beginning, so those are some of the reasons.

06:45 - The Necessity of Spiritual Discipline

Matt Tully
We're going to talk a little bit about some of those hard-hitting lines that I think are in the book, but before we get there, let's talk about that word discipline. I want to read a quote from the book that I think is really interesting and I would love to hear you unpack it. You write:

We will never get anywhere in life without discipline, be it the arts, the trades, business, athletics, or academics. . . . This is doubly so in spiritual matters. . . . none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage. In reality, we are all equally disadvantaged. None of us naturally seeks after God . . . . Therefore, as children of grace, our spiritual discipline is everything—everything!

My guess is that for some people listening right now, that might sound a little bit surprising to talk about the Christian life in that way, to talk about spiritual disciplines in that way. One question that might be in someone's mind is, Are you essentially saying that we can practice our way into godliness if we just have enough discipline?

Kent Hughes
Good question. First of all, I would say oftentimes what happens in a person's mind when they hear the word discipline is it transmutes into legalism. It just does. You hear that and you say, Wait a minute. I'm not in some sort of performance thing to gain status with God. The difference between discipline and legalism is like a universe apart because legalism says, I will do this thing or this list of things or follow this regimen so that I can gain merit with God. That's at the heart of legalism, and that's what legalism does. Discipline says, I love God, and I want to please him. So there's a difference in motivation: one is self-focused and the other is towards God. The other thing is that discipline is a biblical word. The apostle Paul hated legalism with a passion. He fought them bare knuckles all the way across Asia—he hated legalism. So he chooses the word "discipline yourself for the purposes of godliness"(1 Tim. 4:7). He not only uses it in 1 Timothy 4:7, but he uses it as a command—it's in the imperative. He doesn't leave us any room that we're to discipline ourselves. When you say “discipline yourself,” can you then—what was the way you phrased it?

Matt Tully
Kind of like practice your way into godliness with sufficient discipline.

Kent Hughes
Yes and no. For instance, if you go out on a basketball court and you're at the three-point line and you don't go off the court until you make seven hundred baskets, you'll get pretty good at shooting three-pointers. There's a sense in which you create pathways—muscle memory—to do that kind of thing. There is a kind of spiritual muscle memory that takes place by regular discipline. If you read the Bible regularly, listen to the Bible regularly, pray regularly, I'll say you get spiritual muscle memory that helps. This goes all the way back to John Dewey, the psychologist, who said if you do something for twenty-eight days in a row, it will be a part of you. We're not talking about psychology, but I think you understand the principle.

Matt Tully
One of the things that strikes me too is the connection between some of these spiritual disciplines—things that we want to do and things that we're called to do as Christians—and the more broad idea of habits and habit formation. How do you see those two things as connected?

Kent Hughes
There's a story that I tell in the book that comes from J. Sidlow Baxter. I heard that he said this, so I wrote J. Sidlow Baxter—who's now long gone and from another generation—and said, Did you say this? He typed it out and signed it and gave the whole story to me. He tells a story about going into his study, and he said he has his will and his emotions. He says his will was to go into his study and have devotions. His emotions said, I'm not going! I'm not going! He talks about how he decided that he was going to assert his will over his emotions. He would go into his study and pray, and he did it on a consistent basis. Then one day—this is how he tells the story—his emotions shouted, He's going to go in no matter what we do! He said, That was the day that my will triumphed over my emotions. The whole territory of J. Sidlow Baxter was committed to prayer and to God. He talks about this in a very humorous, funny way, that there are times when you need to will to do things so that they do become a part of you.

12:44 - Is Mastery of the Disciplines Possible?

Matt Tully
On that point, I could imagine that some people listening right now might be thinking: You've been a Christian for a long time, Dr. Hughes. You've served as a pastor for decades, you've taught seminary students as a professor of practical theology, and you even wrote a best-selling book on the spiritual disciplines. Even with all of that under your belt, do you ever still struggle when it comes to consistently practicing these disciplines in your own life, or at least feeling a desire to do so?

Kent Hughes
As a matter of fact, every time I review the book I say to myself, I'm not living up to any of the disciplines in the way that I ought to. In other words, I really get convicted myself in reading it. I need to re-read my book and reapply it to myself. Just in preparing for today I looked at a couple of things and thought, Oh my! I'm not practicing what I preach. So, what I'm saying is that I have laid out these disciplines, I have practiced them the best I can, but I don't really measure up on any of them. I've also said this: If you take all the things that I suggest in the book to do, you come up with 206 things! Talk about putting somebody under the pile—206 things! What I say at the end of the book is that's not what the book is meant to do. What you need to do is say, What are the ten things, or five things, that God really has spoken to me about? I will covenant to work on those things. The book has a lot of information, a lot of do's; but it's not meant to bring you under legalism. Here's an interesting thing—this is very important about this matter of working at your spiritual life or working at serving God. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15—which is that great chapter that begins with a mandate to biblical theology and it ends up affirming the resurrection—Paul says: “But by the grace of God I am what I am”—so he begins with grace—“and his grace toward me was not in vain.” He mentions grace a second time. “On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of god that is with me.” He mentions grace three times. The grace of God doesn't come by works. The grace of God is a gift, right? So he receives the grace of God, but what does the grace of God do? He works harder than all of his apostolic colleagues, by the grace of God. So grace will make you sweat spiritually in the service of God.

Matt Tully
It strikes me that there's probably at least two types of Christians: some Christians are going to be tempted towards a legalistic kind of view; but then on the other hand, it seems like more broadly in our culture today the idea that our spiritual lives would require hard work is something that seems foreign to a lot of people. Maybe because of this fear of legalism we go too far in the other direction. I wonder if you could speak to that—why do you think that is the case with so many Christians today?

Kent Hughes
Consider the fact that Michael Phelps won eight gold medals, but he did it with thousands and thousands of miles in the pool with discipline and boredom. I can't put it any other way. Or Jack Nicholas said, The more I practice, the luckier I get. Maybe it was Arnold Palmer who said that. I think the point is that we understand that sweat is necessary in virtually everything in life. If you're going to be a good bull rider, you better practice with your head straight, right? Or motocross or chess or the violin—all of it requires discipline. And then what happens is you get to spiritual things and people say, No, it's got to be natural and emotive and flow out of love and if the love is really there

Matt Tully
It shouldn't be hard.

Kent Hughes
It shouldn't be hard because it's spiritual. Well, when the Bible says “there's none righteous, no, not one; no one seeks after God” (Rom. 3:10) and that's my nature apart from the grace of God, I'm sorry; you're not thinking clearly. It's going to take discipline, and discipline is a word that has the smell of the gym in it. Gymnasium. “Gymnosticize yourselves” is really what it is saying if I transliterated it. I think you can see what I'm driving at. You have to live with this tension.

18:29 - A Key Danger to Men Desiring Godliness

Matt Tully
One of the key dangers that you mention in the book, to men in particular, is addiction to entertainment that can lead us to not want to work hard. I'll read one of your quotes from the book that is one of those hard-hitting quotes that you mentioned earlier:

A face lit by a luminous screen is a study in passivity. Fleeting images, intermingled with the thousand commercials and banner ads of an average week’s viewing, instill passiveness. . . . The viewer becomes a passive, munching, sipping drone. . . . There are guys, voyeurs, who have substituted viewing for doing and imagine that they have scored a touchdown or taken a hill by virtue of having watched it—passive living legends in their own inert minds.

Those are some strong words. The question is: how big of a problem do you think that is—that we are so addicted to entertainment that we've just lost any strength that we would need to actually pursue these disciplines?

Kent Hughes
I will say this: I warn people about using the words always, never, all; and I'll say no man who spends his evenings in front of the TV—I really have to spread that out into the cyber world because television is almost passé—no man who spends his evening in front of a luminous screen in the cyber world night after night after night can be a godly man. This is always true, in every case, and there are no exceptions. That's pretty damning, pretty tough words, but it's true if that is how you spend your mind. We're in the political season right now, and I don't know if I ought to say this or not, but a lot of conservative Christians spend five hours a night watching Fox News and ten minutes a day reading their Bible. So what's going to fill your mind? Politics and politics and politics instead of the word of God. Now, I'm a football fan. In fact, every town that I've moved to has won a Super Bowl within two years of the time that I moved there. When I came to Chicago in 1979, the bears won it in 1986, so that was within five years. I moved out to Spokane, Washington eight years ago and the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. I moved to Philly four years ago and the Eagles won the Super Bowl. It was amazing! What I'm saying is I'm a football fan. I follow statistics. I have to discipline myself not to spend Saturdays and Sundays just watching games. I'll watch a game, or I'll pick out the second half or the final quarter where usually everything is decided. But I've got to be careful about that. I look at ESPN statistics and news every day on my phone. I'm interested in those things, but they don't dominate my life.

22:03 - New Year’s Resolutions and Spiritual Disciplines

Matt Tully
It's almost a new year. A lot of people are thinking about New Year's resolutions, and maybe they're recognizing some bad habits that have crept in, whether that's related to entertainment or something else. What do you think about New Year's resolutions when it comes to spiritual disciplines? Is that a good idea, or do you feel like that's maybe setting yourself up for failure in some way?

Kent Hughes
Generally, I think a resolution is setting yourself up for failure, but it doesn't mean you ought not to make a resolution. There are people that make a resolution after the holidays to lose fifty pounds, and they do. A lot of them fail. But without the resolution, they wouldn't lose it, right? One of the things that I would say is that we tend to make extreme resolutions. For instance, I would rather have someone say to me, I'm going to read the Bible all the way through next year. I would say, No, why don't you read the Gospels all the way through next year and think about it as you read it. There's nothing in the Bible that says you have to read the Scriptures through once a year. I think it's a great habit, a lot of people do it, but I would say do something that's manageable that you won't fail at. Does that make sense?

Matt Tully
So you're saying start small?

Kent Hughes
Right. Then you can add to it. People have all kinds of different capacities. One of the things that I am so thrilled about in regards to technology today is the ubiquitous smartphone. When I wrote the book thirty years ago, I encouraged M'Cheyne's reading plan. It would be nice to read the Bible once a year—five pages a day puts the Bible away. Well, today I can be in my car on a drive and be listening to the ESV. I can listen to Galatians, Philippians, and Ephesians—each in twenty minutes. I can listen to the whole gospel of Mark in about an hour or an hour and a half. I can have the word of God streaming through my mind. This is what my wife does every night: she puts on her airpods and she listens to Scripture as she goes to bed and Scripture is still running when she goes to sleep and she's being programmed. So we've got great opportunities to fill ourselves with the word of God. Matt, this is very fascinating to me: I don't find in the Bible where it tells me to read the word of God. It's implicit that we do and that's why we have the book, but it says, Listen. Listen. Listen. That's what Jesus says: Hear. Listen. Jesus does mean listen, but it's with a moral tinge too. Listen, understand it, and obey it. We're living in an age where a guy that's in the trades can be filled with the word of God. A surgeon under intense pressure can be filled with the word of God. A housewife, as she's working, can put on her headphones and listen. I just think there are great things today that are available for knowing the word of God that didn't exist in the past. But you need to discipline yourselves to listen!

Matt Tully
That just feels like one of the ironies of our age is, as you said, it's easier than ever to hear the word of God in all different ways, and yet it's also easier than ever to be distracted by movies and shows and podcasts—even like this one—and not take advantage of God's word.

Kent Hughes
Right. My formula—this is for free—you need to be reading or listening to the word of God everyday. I'm not going to say how much. You need to have some section of Scripture that you are meditating on during that time, whether it's the beatitudes, the Lord's prayer, the book of Philippians, the ten commandments—it's endless—Psalm 19, Psalm 119, Psalm 1, Psalm 84, Psalm 32, Psalm 40—you understand what I'm saying. You need to be meditating on those things and knowing them. The other thing is you need to be in church on the Lord's Day listening to the word of God preached. Let me explain one of the reasons why, and this is a football thing. Let's say I'm watching Monday Night Football and a play takes place and it looks like voodoo to me; I can't figure out what happens. There’s Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth. Chris stops the screen, draws some arrows, says, This is what happened. I go, Oh! That's how it works! What happens on the Lord's Day when you sit under the preaching of the word is the pastor puts it in slow motion so you can be going, Oh! I see how that works. I see the logic of that. That makes sense to me. If you are reading or listening to the word of God on a regular basis, studying some section on your own and then taking notes on the Lord's Day, you can be filled with the word of God. In the Reformation, they said there were three functions of the church: the Lord's Table, church discipline, and listening to the word of God. Those are the functions that the Reformation said the church gave you for your spiritual health. You cannot absent yourself from the regular worship with God's people on the Lord's Day.

29:00 - “I Am Awful and Wonderful”

Matt Tully
What is your own life like these days when it comes to spiritual disciplines? You mentioned how you have a personal rule that you always want to be reading or hearing the word of God every single day, that church is an important part of your rhythm. What other things are normative for you in this stage of life?

Kent Hughes
Well, I am old—I'm 78, and on March 1st I'll be 79—so I'm almost an octogenarian. I've been around a long time. I preached through the book of Hebrews years ago, and one of the things I'm doing right now is I've been reading the book of Hebrews through on a fairly regular basis and I've been looking at all the Old Testament usages that Hebrews has. For instance, in the opening chapter you've got like six Old Testament references. Some of them are so arcane that I have to go, Why in the world did he quote this? How does that work? So I've been reading those Old Testament quotations through in their context so that I can understand what's going on in that opening chapter of Hebrews where it talks about Christ's superiority over the angels: “To which of the angels did he ever say . . .” (Heb. 1:5). Where's that from? Why did he say that? I've actually been working on trying to get a mental grasp of the whole structure of the thirteen chapters of the book of Hebrews so that they're just kind of part of me. So that's where I've been spending my time lately. Plus, just general reading. I read a lot. Certainly on the Lord's Day I'm there taking close notes. We're going through the book of Mark and I'm absolutely amazed by what's going on in Mark. Though I preached on it thirty years ago, I'm re-amazed and I can't believe what I'm learning in the book of Mark from the preaching of the word.

Matt Tully
That's one of those dynamics that I think we've all experienced, that we often have to re-learn things that we've already learned. We think we have something down and then we realize later on that actually, I need to recommit myself to this. Is that a dynamic that you've experienced even when it comes to the disciplines?

Kent Hughes
Absolutely. Virtually on every one of them. There are some that maybe I'm doing a little better at than others, and I won't say what I think they are because God will hold me responsible for my pride!

Matt Tully
Has that ever been discouraging to you?

Kent Hughes
As I said before, I am aware of who I am. When my granddaughter was three-years-old she was in the other room and my wife heard her say, I'm a despicable person. I'm a despicable person. I'm a despicable person. We went, Oh my word! What have we done to this child! With a little further research we found that she was quoting Donald Duck with his lisp. But something that I live with is that I am awful, and I'm wonderful all at the same time. I'm awful because of my sin and my depravity and my tendency to fall back into sinful patterns. But I'm wonderful because I'm created in the imago Dei. I have the potential of living a life in concert with him, thinking his thoughts after him, communicating with him because I am in the image of God. So, I am awful, and I am wonderful all at the same time.

33:28 - Liberation through the Disciplines

Matt Tully
Such a beautiful truth that we can hold onto even in the midst of our own weakness. Speak to the Christian listening right now who maybe is especially aware of his or her own weaknesses on this front. Maybe they've been listening to you talk today and they're feeling like, Man, he is so far ahead of me. I could never get to that point; or maybe even worse, I've neglected these things for years, maybe even decades. They just feel discouraged because, in their mind, so much time is perhaps lost. What would you say to that person?

Kent Hughes
You can never go back; there's only what's in front of you. I would say if it's a conviction about prayerlessness, make a brief prayer list—not a long prayer list—but a brief prayer list of essential things and pray through that list every day. Ten things maybe. If you're not reading the Bible, I would say get the ESV app, which is free, and listen to the word of God ten minutes a day. If you're not going to church, then I get a little more marshal and say you cannot maintain spiritual health apart from the fellowship of the body of Christ. You need the body of Christ. Someone may say, Yeah, but you don't know my church and you don't know the people that are in it and so on. Well, no church is perfect. You know the cliché: If you find the perfect church and you join it, it won't be perfect anymore. Get involved in the regular worship and fellowship of the church. This isn't in my disciplines, but give yourself to helping someone else in need, whether it's a divorcee in need, a child who's in need, a young mother who's in need, a guy struggling with his business—give yourself to loving and helping someone else with God's love and God's grace. Those are the kinds of things that I would say. I didn't write the book to make people uptight. Actually, it's meant to be liberating. The disciplines are meant to liberate you. If you take the athletic example, you could say all that discipline of shooting 1,000 free throws liberates you to hit a free throw at the final buzzer. It's a Steph Curry move, right? Or to kick that final goal like Beckham because you've practiced and practiced and practiced getting that bend it like Beckham curve. The freedom to do those things all comes out of discipline.


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