Originally posted at the Gospel Coalition (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/discipline-john-stott/) with permission of the author

I have a love/hate relationship with duty and discipline.

It may be a generational problem. After all, such a statement would’ve been incomprehensible for the so-called Greatest Generation; people just did what they had to do, however nervous or reluctant they might’ve felt. For me, it’s also a personality and temperament issue. Duty often seems arid and soulless; spontaneity is far more appealing. Despite my inclinations toward introversion and solitude, I struggle to focus on the tasks in hand.

Duty can, of course, be as arid as its reputation suggests. Hollow religiosity is a genuine risk for those committing to spiritual disciplines. Yet this is a poor reason for avoiding healthy habits. Disciplines and duty do have their place, especially for individualist Gen-Xers and millennials. This was forcibly brought home to me as I was granted the privilege (by his literary executors) of working on John Stott’s mammoth collection of index notecards soon after he died in 2011.

John Stott’s Discipline

Stott’s preaching was methodical and rational, watertight in logic, masterful in explaining biblical truth. This reflected how well-ordered his private world was: in his prayer life; in his dedication to lifelong study; and in his meticulous, relentless quest for clarity—for his own sake quite apart from that of his hearers and readers. Thus Corey Widmer, one of his later study assistants, describes

the very mundane pattern of our life together. Every morning at 11 a.m. sharp, I would bring him a cup of coffee. I would find him hunched over some letter or manuscript at his desk, consumed with the work before him, putting his unparalleled powers of concentration to whatever task was at hand. Not wanting to disturb him, I would quietly set the cup and saucer adjacent to his right hand, and oftentimes, he would mumble a barely audible word of thanks: “I’m not worthy.”

Despite only meeting him on occasion since coming to Christ in 1989, I had the chance to get to know him better in the last six years of his life (when I joined the staff of All Souls Langham Place in 2005). Perhaps more significantly, this afforded me the opportunity for friendship with his secretary, Frances Whitehead, of more than 50 years. She knew him better than anybody else did.

It was Stott’s lifelong, daily practice to rise early for substantial times of prayer and then to work at his desk from breakfast to lunch. That study time was sacrosanct. Frances once described to me how mortified she had felt when, on one occasion, she felt it necessary to interrupt him after someone had called with an urgent question (she couldn’t remember what it was). As she opened the door, Stott was poring over a book, elbows planted on the desk, head propped up in his hands. Without shifting from his position, he turned his head and muttered words to the effect of, “You have no idea how hard it is when my train of thought is interrupted.” Needless to say, she never, ever, did that again!

This was the secret of his teaching lucidity. It rarely came in flashes of inspiration. It was hard-won, with ideas refined and polished through constant mental wrestling. Only through labored effort did his apparently effortless clarity result.

John Stott’s System

There’s one aspect of Stott’s personal discipline that is now accessible to us. I have little doubt he would’ve failed to understand the value of making it public—he was constantly preoccupied with finished products, rather than works in progress.

Nevertheless, we do get a chance to go behind the scenes to glimpse some of his processes. From the 1950s onward (he became rector of All Souls in 1950 at only 29), he developed a system of index cards to order his notes and jottings. He continued the practice, with ample support from Frances, until around 2000, when his ministry slowed down. There were three sets:

  • Notes and quotations: this forms the largest set, and ranges from the odd one-liner to newspaper clippings and copied paragraphs, all gathered under a long list of topics. There were a few stories and classic “illustrations,” but not many. From these the Logos resource and recently the print publication The Preacher’s Notebook have been drawn. Even though the digital version is large, it accounts for perhaps only between 20 percent to 25 percent of the whole. Frances would type them up, and Stott would meticulously note the date and venue of usage. It’s fascinating to see how some were evidently favorites, wheeled out frequently over the decades.
  • Talks/sermons: these were in outline form, with headings, references, and key thoughts, and perhaps with a cross-reference to the quotations cards. He might then use these to speak from.
  • Book summaries: if there were books he particularly profited from, he would make a note of the salient points on an individual card, with page references for easy retrieval. The range of his reading was impressive, especially as his theological engagement with culture and ethics grew from the late-1960s and early 1970s onward.

All of this was emblematic of a discipline Stott called “double listening.” Double listening is the practice of speaking and preaching with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” That phrase—originally from Karl Barth’s pen—was open to misunderstandings from some who assumed Stott was implying that these were equally authoritative. That couldn’t be further from the truth. He was just driven by the urgency of the need to build bridges from the ancient words to the contemporary world.This entailed working patiently through complex and weighty tomes as well as lighter, more populist fare. He routinely made contact, when possible, with debating opponents in order to ensure he did justice to their arguments. He’d be appalled by our tendency today to indulge in supposedly slam-dunk soundbites, tweets, or blog punditry that distorts the importance of a minor point in order to vilify an entire book despite its careful scholarship. Such practices were anathema to him.

Godly Legacy

These cards form quite the legacy. Working through their digitized versions was akin to tracking a quarry’s footprints as he negotiated five decades' worth of ministry challenges, controversies, and concerns. Many are no longer relevant or urgent. But that isn’t where their true value lies. For me, their true value is derived from a godly dedication to his private world every bit as tireless and generous as his public ministry.Nobody can be another John Stott—and nobody needs to be another John Stott. But as Tim Keller explained in his message at Stott’s U.S. memorial service, there’s so much to learn from him at precisely those points where we differ from him—whether due to temperament, context, or calling.

As someone who lacks that innate self-discipline, I’ve learned to at least pick up some of the processes that grew out of Stott’s routines. They may never change who I am as such, but they provide tools for that personal order that I, and perhaps you, so profoundly need.