Is there actually a difference between being legalistic and being disciplined? I've been thinking about this question for the last couple of days. It was spurred by reading 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 where Paul says:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
Paul was talking about making a choice to work for what happened in his life - in his journey with God. He didn't say that doing these things was the way to gain salvation, but he did emphasize the importance of being disciplined.
I think in our culture we often look for the easy way to get something. We don't want to work for it. And we quite easily transfer this same way of looking at things into the spiritual realm as well. In this passage, Paul reminds the Corinthian church of the results of their self-discipline, if they chose to go that route, rather than looking for the easy way to get through.
We do often look down on self-discipline - especially when it comes to the spiritual journey. But it's not necessarily a a bad thing. It can become a bad thing, but in and of itself it's not. Making, or setting aside, time in our days for Bible reading and prayer is a necessary thing and we shouldn't allow anything to get in the way of that. Just as we make time to grow our relationships with our friends, we must do the same in our relationship with God.
I have so often heard people say that they don't schedule things like Bible-reading and prayer because they think that's being legalistic. They say they do those things as they feel led - which is all well and good. But, I have to wonder, knowing my own tendencies, how often that means they actually do those things? I don't think it's the actual making time in our schedules that makes it legalistic. I think it becomes legalistic when we start to look at some one's prayer and Bible-reading times as the means of salvation, rather than a means to grow relationship.
It is incredibly important that we have the self-discipline to train myself to run the race of life as followers of Christ well. This means making time in our schedules to grow our relationship with Christ, so that we can follow in His footsteps as I run.
Having said all this, I would say that, in answer to my opening question, yes, there is a difference between being legalistic and being disciplined. I think the main difference comes because legalism starts to see the things we do as a means of being saved; whereas, discipline means that we are making the necessary time to grow our relationship with our Savior.