Self-control in All Things
In ancient Greece, every year before and after the Olympic games were held, the Isthmian games took place in the city of Corinth. Those who won would receive a wreath made out of pine. No doubt those who participated in these games trained rigidly as the athletes of our day do for the Olympics. It takes strict discipline, sound eating habits, rigid training programs, a burning desire to win, and a persevering commitment to the task to prepare for an athletic event of this caliber. Those who compete at this level run to win, and in order to win, they must discipline their bodies. Self-control is a key component for victory.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul alludes these athletic competitions when he says,
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul says that it makes no sense for a boxer to punch the air. His goal is to train so that he can land his punches, knock down his opponent, and win the match. In the same way, it makes no sense for a runner to deviate from the course and go for a stroll through the country. His mission is to stay on track within the boundaries and cross the finish line before everyone else. Winning will require self-control in all things, from the training and preparation to execution and performance on race day. Spiritually it makes no sense to view life as haphazard or to approach it carelessly. God has called us all to run a race, and we are in it to win it, or at least we should be. Paul viewed his commission to share the gospel as even more intense and serious than the training of a world-class athlete. He knew that a race has only one winner, and he lived the Christian life as if he wanted to get the most rewards possible for the sake of Christ.
What helps makes an athlete successful is the same thing that contributed to Paul’s spiritual discipline- self-control. Paul speaks of disciplining his body to the point of making it his slave. The Greek word from which we translate the word self-control implies mastering fleshly passions and sensuous lusts. Just as an athlete has to discipline his mind, will, emotions, and body in order to perform at the highest level, a Christian must discipline his thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and actions in order to bear abundant spiritual fruit. Self-control means that we don’t make any provision for the flesh and its lusts (Romans 13:14). We don’t do anything to aid and abet self. Rather, we yield to God by faith Who by His Spirit will enable us to live as new creations in Christ rather than as those who are enslaved to sin. We have been set free from being slaves to sin (Romans 6:6), and self-control is thus the process of continuing to reckon by faith that we are indeed free. This freedom will enable us to live out the fruit of self-control, which is discipline. A Christian who runs to win will thus be committed to studying God’s Word, to meditating upon it, to praying, to serving, and to doing all that Christ has commanded us.
Too many Christians, either out of ignorance or a lack of faith, continue to live as if they are slaves to self. Their lives become mired with self-gratification, self-seeking, self-absorption, and self-righteousness. They might be able to control some behaviors, but they are themselves controlled by others. The beauty of self-control is that it is the absolute opposite of selfishness. It is the ability to, no matter what the circumstances, stand firm in righteousness, remaining strong in faith. Life will riddle us with encumbrances, and Satan will fire temptations at us more often than we like. Self-indulgence gives into a little sin here and there, and self-righteousness abstains from sin for the purpose of glorifying self. Self-control, on the other hand, makes self a non-issue and serves Christ as Master over all areas of life. When this fruit of the Spirit is manifested in the lives of believers, they will be able to resist temptation, persevere under fire, and finish the race strongly. This requires discipline by the power of the Spirit so that we don’t become disqualified in our Christian race due to sin. Sin saps the power of God working in and through us. If we want to win the crown of life, which is much greater and longer-lasting than the pine wreaths given to the Isthmian winners, we must have self-control.
We may never be a professional athlete, but we can be a world-class Christian if we have self-control in all things. Let us run to win, exercising the discipline characteristic of a champion.