1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Intro: Hat: Retired – No boss, no work, no responsibility, no paycheck
Imagine a man with no restraints in his life. Not just that he lacks inhibitions, but who really lacks controls of any kind -- no boss, no parents, no government, no laws, no morals, no restraints. He does what he wants, when he wants. Nobody, not even his own will telling him “no” to anything – not even his own conscience pricking him. You’re thinking, “man, that would be the life!” At first glance, we might say that man knows the true meaning of freedom and happiness. An entire hour of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” would be devoted to his life, because everyone would want to be like him. We assume the guy who knows total freedom will experience total happiness.
But we might ask, “is he really free?” and “will he really be happy?” A man who knows no control in his life isn’t really free at all, but under the most oppressive kind of slavery – slavery to sin and its master Satan.
Can’t say no to food – eating and gluttony in search of satisfaction
Cannot and will not control sexual appetite, always searching for pleasure
Can’t control his spending – compulsive spends and buys, searching for happiness
The things that addict – drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling, lying - whatever we cannot say “no” to – those are the things that enslave us. And we begin to realize that control is a vital, necessary part of our lives if we are to be truly free – Romans 6:16 “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
Paul, as he describes the fruit of the Spirit – those qualities that are the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life – he comes to the ninth and final one: self-control. Remember that these fruit are not natural, but supernatural – they do not come from the goodness of our life or the strength of our will. They must come from somewhere other than within us. Only as the Holy Spirit transforms us more and more into the likeness of Christ do we find these fruit inhabiting our own nature. But it is not immediate and it is only with a struggle on our part. Our struggle is the same struggle that confronted Paul in developing control over his “want to” – Rom. 7:18-20 “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
If you want to see that struggle played out, let’s get up-close and personal with King David. Samuel tells us he was at wrong place at wrong time (I Sam. 11:1-5) – “It was spring of year…” David sent Joab and armies to war while David remained in Jerusalem. Read further that “one evening David got up from his bed…”
David is home, when he should have been at war – on roof, when should have been asleep – sends for a woman from whom he should have fled. David should have read about Joseph who had a green light invitation from Potipher’s wife, but left his coat in her clutched fist and ran, not because he feared the consequences, but because God was in control of his life.
But David didn’t turn and run. Instead, he dismissed his self-control for the night and we all know the rest of story. His affair with Bathsheba led to murder, deceit, a child’s death, and ultimately the rebellion of his son and the split of the kingdom. Don’t tell me it won’t hurt just this one time.
Self-control is no magic cloak that protects a person from temptation, but a decision that is made beforehand – how I will act when temptation comes and then living by that decision. How does willpower work best – preventative rather than protective.
Husbands and wives, don’t wait until you find yourself in a dangerous situation – when you are in a vulnerable moment – make the decision now not to put yourself in a situation where your best intentions will be challenged by compromise.
Young people – do you want to know how to remain pure? Don’t wait until you’re in a parked car to decide. Decide right now to remain pure - don’t put yourself into that kind of supercharged situation where emotions and reason will have to battle it out – make the decision now, then filter every potential situation through that decision.
Everyone of us has been confronted with choices – maybe not the kind of choice David had to make that night - the kind of choice Joseph was confronted with in the bedroom of his master’s wife. Was one more godly than the other? Not necessarily. But one chose to live with a decision he made long before his confrontation with temptation. Self-control was exercised and Joseph fled. Self-control was abandoned and David regretted it the rest of his life. In the same way, we get to choose, and it’s a decision you must make in full control of your senses and emotions.
Self-discipline begins with God’s discipline – the Hebrews writer emphasizes this – Heb. 12:5b-6 “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Draws it to an application in our lives when he writes – Heb. 12:9-11 “Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
How do our children learn discipline? By our careful and intentional discipline in their lives. What child do you know that is born with self-control? I don’t know any. But I know that by consistent, loving and purposeful discipline in our children’s lives that one day that is going to bear fruit in them developing their own self-discipline.
There will come a day when you are not going to be able to discipline your children. But hopefully the control that you have given their lives by the time they are at that point will have set the foundation for their own self-control.
And that is what the writer of Hebrews is telling us about our spiritual lives. That when we are young in the faith, God doesn’t expect perfect decisions – he knows our immaturity, our weaknesses. But he puts discipline in our lives to mold us and mature us. He puts controls in our lives that guide us into self-control.
If one of your children gets to be 35 years old and is still living at home and the only discipline he has in his life is the rules you set for his behavior – he gets up because you tell him to, he only brushes his teeth when you make him, he only cleans his room because you demand it, then you won’t have done your job as a parent. The discipline you instill in his life now has a purpose – not to make him dependent upon you for continual guidance, but to develop self-discipline in him as he grows older.
If you are a Christian of many years and the only control in your life is the rules God has set, and the only restraint in your life is your fear of the consequences for breaking those rules, then something hasn’t gone right in your Christian development. If the only reason you don’t get drunk and commit adultery and steal from others is because the Bible has commands against them and because you fear going to hell, then self-discipline hasn’t taken over. If you only go to church and read the Bible and give to the Lord because you feel guilty when you don’t then you’ve missed the reason for any of them. The fear of hell is certainly a motivation to live a godly life, but God wants our motivation to be more than fear. He wants them to be from love and a deep desire to be like Christ. Hear clearly – commands are important, but they must be internalized. God’s discipline has a purpose in your life – to develop self-discipline.
Paul wrote this to his son in the faith, Timothy: “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Tim. 4:7-8) “Train yourself to be godly” – have you thought about that? I go to the gym four mornings a week to work out – I don’t enjoy it, it doesn’t make me feel better. I do it for two reasons – so my wife doesn’t have to cash in my life insurance policy, and so that when I get out and do the things I like to do, I’ll be physically fit enough to do them.
But if I spend that much time in physical training, shouldn’t I spend at least that much time in spiritual training. Because if you compare the importance of the two, which is really the most significant? Paul says godliness far outweighs the physical, because it holds “promise for both the present life and the life to come.” It is eternal in its importance.
The question comes: Can God’s control and self-control exist in harmony? Can God be in control of my life and I still exert self-control? Are the two at some kind of odds in my life? When I read the Bible I see an absolute necessity for them to work hand in hand. The two are not contradictory, but symbiotic in their relationship in my life.
Our self-control needs a focus and a direction to it. Too often, self-control becomes an end in itself, a religion all its own. Look at the books being written by the self-help authors today – control yourself, refuse yourself, deny yourself. And yet, what is the motivation? So that you will be in control of your life and your destiny. To its furthest extreme – you become your own God.
Paul wrote to Timothy and warned him to practice self-control – 2 Tim 1:7 “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” He made it practical when he warned him to “flee evil desires…” (2:22). Paul didn’t want Timothy to fall into an uncontrolled licentious lifestyle.
But see also how Paul warns Timothy not to be trapped into the opposite extreme of asceticism in which everything is bad and self-abasement is the answer to religion. In 1 Tim 4:3 Paul warned him to avoid people who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods.”
Self-discipline is not an end in itself, but a tool which God places in our lives to be obedient to him. When self-control becomes our religion, then we have misunderstood its purpose and perverted it to some kind of self-serving, self-glorifying purpose. How do we avoid this extreme while maintaining a godly measure of self-control?
By allowing the control that we maintain in our lives be subservient to the control that Christ demands in our lives – 2 Cor. 5:14 “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” Christ’s control in our lives is not by the lightning bolt, but by love. He demands obedience, not out of tyranny or fear, but out of his own sacrifice on the cross. His control in your life was purchased (“you are not your own”), but you must give it freely. And his control must be absolute or not at all.
How does all this work together? How can you have self-control and Christ’s control working in your life at one time?
The problem is not how to get them to work together, but whenever we attempt to function with one without the other. I can develop my self-control to a certain level. But there are certain things in my life that are a weakness/ vulnerability – and the devil uses those points to tempt me to abandon my self-control. And even at my strongest defenses, they are inadequate, without the power of Christ working through the Spirit to strengthen those defenses and shore up my weaknesses. I say “no” to temptation and defeat sin in my life, not by my own strength, but by the strength of Christ. It is my self-control, but his power working through it.
That’s pretty biblical! When Christ was confronted by Satan in the wilderness, those 40 days, what was Christ’s defense against the temptations of the evil one? He said, “Away from me Satan!” But at every point, he added, “It is written…” “…Man does not live by bread alone,” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Where did Jesus look for strength? From the eternal Word of God.
Your self-control needs to grow and mature as you are transformed into his likeness, but each of us needs that standard and that strength of the measure of control Christ puts into our lives by his word and by his will… and by his Spirit – Romans 8:9 “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.”
But just as our self-control needs the partnership of Christ’s control, Christ’s control in our lives can be sabotaged and negated by our lack of self-control. Christ cannot and will not work in your life against your will. His control is effective only as you surrender your will to his.
Paul often used the imagery of the athletic competition. He admired those athletes who had dedicated themselves to excel in their sports and who poured themselves out in competition. Even our modern culture shares that admiration.
As the Winter Olympics begin this week, we’re once again reminded of those men and women who have dedicated themselves to being the very best at what they do. Hours upon hours, day after day, years on end in preparation and training and practice.
They made a decision when it all started, what their goal was and they worked toward it. Do you suppose in the middle of the training and the pain and the sacrifice, they ever wondered if it was worth it? You bet they did! But what keeps them going? Self-discipline. Commitment to a decision they made long before. They don’t wake up each morning and decide whether to train that day. That decision was made long before and they are simply living out that decision.
Paul tells us that the Christian life is much like the athletic competition – you hear him describe it in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 “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.”
You are in training this morning – not for training’s sake, but for a prize – a prize more glorious than any gold medal or trophy – it is a crown that will last forever.
It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not won by default. No more than an athlete could hope to start training a month before the Olympics and hope to compete, we must devote our lives to the task. But Paul says, it is worth it.