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Disciplined Disciples

"Disciplined Discipleship"- President John S. Tanner


This summer our cute red-headed, seven-year-old grandson, James, visited us at our home in Utah. James spent a lot of time playing with other grandchildren in our backyard. One of their projects, which lasted for days, involved digging in the backyard for bugs. We would often find old cottage cheese cartons on the back steps and patio filled with dirt, grass, and all kinds of crawling things. One day James showed us a to-do list he had written to organize the morning’s activities. Here it is.

Find Roly Polys
Find wearms
Find Ants
Go inside

We all got a big chuckle out of James’s to-do list. What struck me, after I got over laughing, was how James was already learning the discipline of time management.

Today, I want to talk with you about discipline—discipline and discipleship. My intent is to encourage, invite, and, if possible, inspire you to choose to become a more disciplined disciple. I confess that this is a lesson I need, too. I need to be a bit more like James. I suspect that many of you do, too.

What does it mean to be a disciplined disciple? Let me explain by looking at the original meanings of “disciple” and “discipline.” Both terms come from the same root idea of following and learning from a master teacher.

“Disciple” comes from the Latin discipulus. A discipulus is a follower or pupil of a master teacher. Disciples submit themselves to be instructed and trained by the person or in the area of study they wish to follow.

This strict training was called disciplina. Disciplina is what is required to become a discipulus. Discipleship involves learning discipline—meaning instruction, rigorous training, or mastery of a body of knowledge and skill.

Because such discipline was often administered with a firm hand, the term came to be synonymous with correction or punishment, but its root meaning is instruction or training. The verb “to discipline” did not originate in the idea of punishing but in the idea of teaching someone to follow rules with exactness in order to master a skill, or body of knowledge, or code of conduct.

The original meaning of discipline is still evident in the term “self-discipline.” When we think of self-discipline we do not think of people who punish themselves by engaging in self-flagellation. Rather we think of someone who has self-control, willpower, grit.

So when I use the term “disciplined disciple,” I do so with the original meanings of these words in mind. A disciplined disciple of Christ follows the Master with exactness and honor, like Helaman’s stripling warriors (see Alma 57:21). Disciplined disciples submit their will to His will in the rigorous quest to become more like Him. Their discipleship is demonstrated and developed by discipline. Today I invite and encourage all of us to become more disciplined disciples.

Developing disciplined disciples is central to the mission of BYU–Hawaii. Elder Bednar once described BYU-Idaho as a Disciple Preparation Center. In my view, this ought to be the function of every Church school. It is certainly how I see the mission of BYU–Hawaii.

Many of you have studied at the MTC. Its role is to train missionaries. Well this university is, or ought to be, a DTC—a Disciple Training Center. Its role is to train up disciples.

We speak often of our mission to prepare learners, leaders, and builders. In fact, these are aspects of a broader mission to develop disciples. “Learn, Lead, Build” is a shorthand way of capturing President McKay’s vision at our founding that this university was to prepare disciple-leaders. He singled out three areas, or disciplines, in which they would be prepared here: in testimony, character, and intellect.

President McKay said that the first purpose for which this school was founded is to strengthen testimony. The core content of a curriculum for disciple-leaders is a firm testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a testimony should burn in the heart of every disciple of Christ.

But it is not enough to know. As the Apostle James observed, “the devils also believe [in God], and tremble” (James 2:19). President McKay adds a second purpose for which this University was built: namely, character. He declared that this university exists to develop leaders who are men and women of integrity. Such disciple-leaders do not simply know the truth; they live it! Remember, “disciple” means “follower.” Only those who follow the Savior merit the designation of disciple. Likewise, only leaders of high moral character qualify as “genuine gold.”

So, nurturing testimony and character are the first and second grand purposes of this Disciple Training Center. These spiritual and moral objectives are higher than any narrowly academic aims. President McKay was fond of quoting the statement “character is higher than intellect.”

But he also believed deeply in the value of the intellect. As an educator, he loved learning himself. He spoke eloquently at our founding of academic learning as part of disciplining disciple-leaders here.

On both occasions when President McKay dedicated the university, he quoted extensively from the passages in Doctrine and Covenants 88 where the Lord invites His disciples in this dispensation to be instructed in all things—in theory and in principle; in thing, above, on, and under the earth; things at home and abroad; in history, government, languages, and so forth. And why? The Lord affirms that this broad education would prepare the Saints to “fulfill the mission with which I have commissioned you.” (See D&C 88: 78-80.)

After quoting this in his dedicatory prayer of the Church College of Hawaii, President McKay goes on to explain:

“Thus dost Thou emphasize the fact that it is not sufficient merely to testify to the world of the Restoration but to present the principles of the gospel in an intelligent manner that the honest in heart may be convinced of the truth and may be led from paths of error into the ways of righteousness.”

The purpose of education then is to train the intellect so we may fulfill our mission to a world we would serve and save. Hence intellectual development is one of the key functions of this Disciple Training Center, just after spiritual and moral development.

Fulfilling this purpose requires disciples to acquire another sort of discipline—academic discipline. Academic majors are also known as academic disciplines. Educated people are sometimes described as having been trained in the discipline of mathematics, physics, history, economics, and so forth. I don’t know if you students are familiar with this usage, but it is common in the academy to refer to the bodies of knowledge that you study as disciplines.

I invite and encourage you to become a disciplined disciple in this sense of discipline, too, by becoming disciples who are disciplined in the academic disciplines we teach here.

Disciples educated in the disciplines may bring to their discipleship a knowledge of chemistry, like a Henry Eyring (the famous father of President Henry B. Eyring), or of sculpting, like Avard Fairbanks, who sculpted the friezes for the Hawaiian Temple, or fine legal training, like a Dallin H. Oaks, or skill in thoracic surgery, like a Russell M. Nelson. While being a faithful disciple is the key thing, not one’s educational training, educated disciples are able to lay gifts on the altar that the Lord can use, if they are humble and willing and consecrated.

Now is the time to take full advantage of your opportunity to learn all you can. This will expand the scope of your service and allow God to use you in ways that He otherwise could not. It will enable you to make greater contributions to the Kingdom and to the world, enjoy a more abundant life, and experience greater freedom than you otherwise would have had you not acquired self-discipline and academic discipline.

Now it may seem odd, even counterintuitive, to suggest that discipline will increase your freedom. On the surface these two things appear to be opposites. Most people associate discipline with rules, restraint, obedience, and control, while freedom is associated with lack of restraint, spontaneity, non-conformity, even abandon. In fact, however, discipline can enable greater freedom.

Let me illustrate this paradox by reading a picture storybook that I discovered as an undergraduate in college. I read it at the height of the hippie movement, not long before I left BYU for Berkeley. This moment in my personal life and in our nation’s history is part of the book’s meaning for me.

The story is called The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, by Norton Juster, who is also the author of The Phantom Tollbooth. The book tells of a love triangle between a dot, a line, and a squiggle. Much of the humor and wit of the story is packed in the pictures. So, with the publisher’s permission, I will show the illustrations as I read. So, sit back and enjoy; it’s story time.

The Dot & the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics.

Once upon a time there was a sensible straight line who was hopelessly in love with a dot.

“You’re beginning and the end, the hub, the core and the quintessence,” he told her tenderly, but the frivolous dot wasn’t a bit interested, for she only had eyes for a wild and unkempt squiggle who never seemed to have anything on his mind at all.

They were everywhere together, singing and dancing and frolicking and laughing and laughing and [who] knows what else. “He is so gay and free, so uninhibited and full of joy,” she informed the line coolly,

“and you are as stiff as a stick. Dull. Conventional and repressed. Tied and trammeled. Subdued, smothered and stifled. Squashed, squelched and quenched.”

“Come around when you get straightened out, kid,” the squiggle added with a rasping chuckle, as he chased her into the high grass.

“Why take chances,” replied the line without much conviction. “I’m dependable. I know where I’m going. I’ve got dignity!”

But this was small consolation for the miserable line. Each day he grew more and more morose. He stopped eating or sleeping and before long was completely on edge.

His worried friends noticed how terribly thin and drawn he had become and did their best to cheer him up.

“She’s not good enough for you.” “She lacks depth.” “They all look alike anyway. Why don’t you find a nice straight line and settle down?”

But he hardly heard a word they said. Any way he looked at her she was perfect.

He saw things in her that no one else could possibly imagine. “She is more beautiful than any straight line I’ve ever seen,” he sighed wistfully, and they all shook their heads. Even allowing for his feelings they felt this was stretching a point.

And so he spent his time dreaming of the inconstant dot and imagining himself as the forceful figure she was sure to admire.

The line as a celebrated daredevil.The line as a leader in world affairs.The line as a fearless law enforcement agent.The line as a potent force in the world of art.The line as an international sportsman.

But he soon grew tired of self-deception and decided that perhaps the squiggly line might have the answer after all.

“I lack spontaneity. I must learn to let go, to be free, to express the inner passionate me.”

But it just didn’t make any difference, for no matter how often, or how hard he tried, he always ended up the same way.

And yet he continued trying and failing and trying again. Until when he had all but given up, he discovered at last that with great concentration and self-control he was able to change direction and bend wherever he chose. So he did, and made an angle.

And then again and made anotherand then anotherand then anotherand then anotherand then anotherand then another

“Hot stuff,” he shouted, much impressed with his efforts. Then in a wild burst of enthusiasm he sat up for half the night putting on an outrageous display of sides, bends and angles. “Freedom is not a license for chaos,” he observed the next morning. “Ooh, what a head.” There and then he decided not to squander his talents in cheap exhibitionism.

For months, he practiced in secret. Soon he was making squares and triangles, hexagons, parallelograms, rhomboids, polyhedrons, trapezoids, parallelepipeds, decagons, tetragrams and an infinite number of other shapes so complex that he had to letter his sides and angles to keep his place.

Before long he had learned to carefully control ellipses, circles and complex curves and to express himself in any shape he wished–

“You name it, I’ll play it.”

But all his successes meant nothing to him alone and so off he went to seek the dot once again. “He doesn’t stand a chance,” muttered the squiggle in a voice that sounded like bad plumbing. But the line, who was bursting with old love and new confidence, was not to be denied. Throughout the evening he was by turns.

Mysterious.Clever. Dazzling.Profound.Complex. Erudite.Eloquent.Versatile. Enigmatic.Compelling.

The dot was overwhelmed. She giggled like a schoolgirl and didn’t know what to do with her hands. Then she turned slowly to the squiggle, who had suddenly developed a severe cramp.

“Well?” she inquired, trying to give him every chance. The squiggle, taken by surprise did the best he could.

“Is that all?” she demanded.

“I guess so,” replied the miserable squiggle. “That is, I suppose so. What I mean is I never know how it’s going to turn out. Hey, have you heard the one about the two guys who– “

The dot wondered why she had never noticed how hairy and coarse he was, and how untidy and graceless, and how he mispronounced his L’s and picked his ear.

And suddenly she realized that what she had thought was freedom and joy was nothing but anarchy and sloth.

“You are as meaningless as a melon,” she said coldly. “Undisciplined, unkempt and unaccountable, insignificant, indeterminate and inadvertent, out of shape, out of order, out of place and out of luck.”

With that she turned to the line and shyly took his arm. “Do the one with all the funny curves again, honey,” she cooed softly as they strolled away.

And he did. And soon they did, and lived–if not happily ever after, at least reasonably so.

Moral: To the vector belong the spoils.

For me, and now I hope for you, this romance in lower mathematics makes unforgettably clear how discipline can result in greater, higher-order freedom. My message to you today could be re-phrased as “Don’t be a squiggle! Be a spectacularly disciplined line!”

My favorite lines from Juster’s story are these two quotes. Both emphasize the connection between obedience and freedom.

“What she thought was freedom and joy was nothing but anarchy and sloth.”

“Freedom is not a license for chaos.”

The last sentence draws on an old-fashioned, but largely forgotten, distinction between “license” and “liberty”.

“Liberty” refers to morally-grounded freedom--freedom disciplined by virtue and self-restraint. “License,” by contrast, refers to irresponsible freedom--freedom without moral restraint, divorced from standards of personal conduct and decency. This meaning of “license” is preserved in the terms “licentious” and “licentiousness”—meaning lacking moral restraint.

Disciplined disciples enjoy true liberty, not its counterfeit license. They are not squiggles but lines. They know that true discipleship, like true freedom, is grounded in virtue and truth. As Jesus said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).

The Dot and the Line also reminds us of another distinction moral philosophers make between negative and positive freedom. This is the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to”—or between “may” and “can.”

Often we think about freedom primarily as freedom from various kinds of restraints: for example, from restrictions on speech, travel, assembly, etc. This way of thinking leads some to feel that students at BYU–Hawaii are not free because of restraints on dress, curfews, drinking, drugs, etc. But this equates all freedom with negative freedom from “thou shalt nots”— the let-it-all-hang-out freedom that the squiggle represents.

But there is another, higher kind of freedom. There is the positive “freedom to” that the line acquires after he disciplines himself to bend and curve however he chooses.

Let me illustrate the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to” by using myself as a bad example and Jennifer Duerden as a good example. I invite Jennifer to join me at the piano.

Here on the piano is a piece of music by Rachmaninoff. Now I am perfectly free to play it. There is nothing stopping me. After all, I am the president. I can do pretty much what I want. And I want to play the piano. However, although I may play the piano, alas!, I cannot. When I was a boy I took only one piano lesson. To my recollection, all I learned in that lesson was this:

My parents decided that they couldn’t afford piano lessons for 10, soon to be 13 children. And as an adult, I haven’t demonstrated the discipline to learn on my own. I blame myself, not my parents, that I never did the finger exercises, never practiced the scales, never learned to read the notes well enough to play.

Now Jennifer come here and see what you can do with this music.

What amazing freedom Jennifer has to play the piano. Her “freedom to” is different from my “freedom from.” With respect to the piano, I am a squiggle; she is an amazing line. I am free from prohibitions against playing, but not free to play because I have not paid the price of such positive freedom. I am an undisciplined disciple when it comes to the piano. Thank you, Jennifer, for making me look bad.

Well that was embarrassing, but I hope a memorable way to make my point, which is that discipline enlarges our freedom. It allows us to be like the line rather than the squiggle. This is the time and place to learn to become more disciplined disciples.

Now I hope as I have been speaking today you have felt prompted to think of ways you want to develop more discipline in your life. I know that I have as I prepared this talk. As I said earlier, this talk is as much for me as for you.

I encourage you to write down these promptings. Follow the example of my grandson James. Write what the Spirit tells you on your to-do list—or better yet, on your “to-become” list. For the goal of disciple training, whether here at BYU­–Hawaii or in the school we call mortality, is to learn not just to act like a disciple but to become a disciple, heart and soul.

Some areas in which the Spirit might prompt you to develop greater discipline may be in your prayer life, in your fasting, in your scripture study, in your ministering, or in your temple worship. Some of you may feel prompted to learn a foreign language, develop a new athletic skill, play a musical instrument, pick up a new minor or certificate. Some may feel inspired to develop greater discipline in your exercise, sleep, diet, or study habits.

And speaking of study habits, let me share a piece of advice given long ago by then President Oaks to students at BYU about a discipline he practiced as a student. He called this counsel a master key of success in life. He attributes much of his success to following this discipline.

He said, WORK FIRST, AND PLAY LATER. This is powerful, potentially life-changing advice for every aspiring disciplined disciple. Think of it next you are tempted to go surf or go to a movie or go to a party when you need to first finish your homework. Follow Elder Oaks’s example: use play as a reward you give yourself for completing work.

I also invite all of us to review our commitment to the Honor Code. Disciplined disciples are people of integrity. They are promise keepers. We have each pledged our honor to follow the Honor Code.

Here is the document students sign every year with a few phrases highlighted in yellow. Note that we agree to follow these standards “at all times and in all places”—which means on and off campus.

The Honor Code articulates broad eternal principles, such as, chastity, modesty, and honesty. It also stipulates some specific Dress and Grooming standards, such as being clean-shaven and keeping hair trimmed above the collar for men; wearing shorts, skirts and dresses that are knee length; and avoiding revealing clothing, such as leggings and tights that are not covered, grubby attire, such as jeans with holes in them.

It also specifies proper beach attire, both at the beach and to and from the beach. Let me read what the Honor Code says about this:

Students should be dressed in standard and be adequately covered to and from the beach, athletic activities or exercise locations. Clothing, including swimming suits, must be modest in fabric, fit, and style (no bikini, or French-cut styles, no midriff showing). Modest shorts above the knees, sweats, and gym clothing are worn only in athletic and living areas.

I have been pleased to see so many students following the standards they have pledged their honor to follow. I compliment and congratulate those who are adhering to the Code. I urge any who need to practice more strict compliance to do so. Starting now!

Living the Honor Code is about more than chastity, honesty, modesty and other important eternal principles, though it is about these! It is also about being true to your word. It is about becoming disciplined disciples.

Some Honor Code standards involve things that are intrinsically wrong—like cheating or being sexually promiscuous. Others standards are not inherently wrong—like growing a beard. You can have a beard and be a member of the Church in good standing. But here, at our DTC, there is a different standard from that which applies to members of the Church at large, just as there is at the MTC. Note that our General Statement about dress and grooming at BYU–Hawaii could just as easily be made about the missionaries:

The attire and grooming of both men and women must always be modest, neat, clean, consistent with the dignity adherent to representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If one of my missionaries started sporting the unshaved look or wearing ripped jeans, I would be less concerned about immodesty than about disobedience. This is the way I feel when I see students out of standard. I am less concerned about their failure to be neat and modest than I am about their failure to keep their word.

Thankfully, most of you are doing really well in living an Honor Code whose purpose is help develop disciplined disciples and I congratulate you for it.

Now let me conclude by giving you a concrete example of a truly exemplary disciplined disciple: President Russell M. Nelson. He is a disciplined disciple without peer. His long-time secretary said that “he is the most disciplined person I have ever known” and yet a gracious, “compassionate perfectionist” toward others (Spencer J. Condie, Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003] 370-71). I know of no one who better embodies the principle I am trying to teach.

We all know of President Nelson’s amazing discipline as a heart surgeon, which required years of assiduous work. But did you know that, unlike many doctors, he also disciplined himself to write in a neat, clear hand so that his handwriting would not be misread by his patients? Here is a sample from a copy of his biography that he dedicated to Susan and me:

During his busy years as a physician President Nelson felt prompted that he should learn to play the organ. So he got up an hour earlier than usual to teach himself to play. When he was called to the Twelve, he had the skill to become the organist for the Brethren in the temple. And when he visited the Saints in Vienna, he delighted them by playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D (bio. 191-92, 196).

President Nelson has also learned many languages so he could be more serviceable. When President Kimball challenged the Church to prepare to take the gospel to China, President Nelson immediately engaged a tutor to learn Mandarin. This prepared him to open many doors in the People’s Republic. As an apostle, he regularly learned the languages of the areas where he was called to serve. His biography speaks of his receiving tutoring and speaking to the Saints in French, Russian, German, Czechoslovakian, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese—and I may have missed some languages in my quick review of his biography. I remember going in to the MTC in São Paulo, Brazil and seeing on the wall the dedicatory prayer he gave in beautiful Portuguese. Those who heard it were amazed. He spoke without notes and with excellent pronunciation. He is something of a linguist in his scripture study as well. You will notice that he often explains the meaning of scriptural passages by mentioning what the original word meant in Hebrew or Greek.

Although an extremely busy physician, President Nelson disciplined his time so that he could accept a Church calling to be stake president. In doing this, he set an example for physicians everywhere in the Church. Up to the time he was called as stake president, few if any MDs held such heavy Church callings. President Nelson showed what could be done by a disciplined disciple.

He also disciplined his time so he could spend it as a husband and father with his family. He loves to spend time with his wife, ten children, and now large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. However, his biographer says that when he came in the room and saw his children wasting their time in watching TV, he would turn the TV off and encourage them to read (p. 368).

President Nelson also practices discipline in caring for his body, which he regards as the Lord’s property. He is careful about his diet. His posture is erect. He exercises regularly, even when he travels. He keeps his muscles limbered and toned so well that he was still skiing in his 90s.

Here is a slide that captures three images of President Nelson as a disciplined disciple. On the left, he is playing the organ in the Jerusalem Center. In the center, he is skiing with his family. On the right, we see him as a world-renowned heart surgeon.

If you want to know what a disciplined disciple looks like, look at this slide and then look to President Nelson’s life!

Now I have said a lot about discipline in this talk. But I want to close by focusing on far and away the most important term in the title for this talk: discipleship. What matters most in this life is not who we are but whose we are. What ultimately matters is: Are you a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? Have you taken His name upon you? Do you follow Him? Are you trying to become like Him?

President Nelson has reminded us that we are not Mormons. We are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We do not worship or follow Mormon. We follow Christ. Hence, we boldly declare with Mormon himself: “Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (3 Ne. 5:13).

My dear brothers and sisters, may we become disciples of Jesus Christ in the fullest sense of the word. Disciplined, yes! But above all disciplined in the attributes of Christ—especially in charity, the pure love of Christ. For those possessed of this love are “true followers”—meaning true disciples—of Jesus Christ.

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he has bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him.” (Moro. 7:48)

In the name of Jesus Christ, my master, Amen.