It is not uncommon to hear preachers and evangelist exhort Christians to “surrender” to God or to “lay it all on the altar.” These phrases are not bad or unbiblical per se, but they tend to paint a picture of a passive approach to spiritual growth. The Apostle Paul (who was clearly “surrendered to God” Gal 2:20) used much different language in describing how a Christian should live out his discipleship.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
The Corinthians were thoroughly familiar with sporting events as their city was host to the Isthmian games, an Olympic-style sporting event held each year before and after the Olympics. The average Corinthian would have been very familiar with the discipline and stamina required for a man to succeed at the games. Paul uses their familiarity with sporting events to help them understand the discipline required to grow in the Christian life. He compares himself to a runner in a race who has a prize in his sights or a professional boxer who makes contact with each of his blows.
The phrases “discipline my body” and “keep it under control” literally mean to “subdue” or “make a slave.” In Paul’s mind, in order to be a spiritual success it required that he become the master of his own flesh and its desires and not the other way around.
Paul understood that personal discipline and spiritual growth were connected. What fleshly tendencies do you think we must control if we are to be a spiritual success?
Self-Discipline – A Mark of Discipleship
An integral part of self-discipline is the idea of “self-denial.” We live in a society where self-denial has given way to indulgence and instant gratification. There is no need, in our affluent society, to go without or to deny ourselves anything. But that should not prevent the Christian from practicing self-denial. The disciplined Christian will learn to deny himself pleasures and indulgences, not only to protect his spiritual walk, but to ensure that he is in constant control of his flesh and that his flesh is not in control of him. This denial of self is a mark of a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Galatians 5:24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Romans 13:13-14 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
To be a disciple of Christ one must be willing to crucify himself. To give his life, his own desires and his own priorities over to the control of Jesus Christ. Giving over control to Jesus Christ is not an act of passivity. It involves the constant, day-by-day subjection of our bodies to our control as we are lead by the Spirit of God. Consider below, some motivations for Self-Discipline.
Motivations for Self-Discipline
1. Seeking The Best
A lot of Christians spend their lives trying to find the fine line between liberty and sin. They want to get as much enjoyment out of this sinful world as they can without falling full-on into sin. Once they find that line they spend the rest of their lives in the precarious position of trying to balance the world with Christ. Paul had a different perspective. He not only abstained from out-and-out sin, but also avoided anything that had even the potential to control or hinder him.
1 Corinthians 6:12-13 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”–and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
It is true that the Christian will be forgiven of every sin when he sincerely repents (1 John 1:9). However, this is not a license to sin (Rom 6:1-2, 1 Peter 2:16). The question that all Christian’s should be asking themselves is not “is it wrong”, but rather “is it beneficial to my spiritual growth.” This question raises our concern regarding spiritual life to a whole new level. It is deciding that although something is not necessarily sinful, it is not best for me. Paul was willing to forsake all (Php 3:8), if it meant that he would gain a greater knowledge of God and experience the power of his resurrection (Php 3:10). Like the olympic runner, he was running to win and would not allow anything to hold him back, even if it was not technically sinful.
Paul’s desire to discipline himself and to avoid anything that might hurt his spiritual life is a great mark of spiritual maturity. Whereas the spiritually immature often conform to the prevailing standards of a church out of obligation, the spiritually mature willingly limit their liberty in order to protect the precious relationship they have with their Lord. Paul’s motivation for self-discipline was not to please people, to fit in, or to earn God’s favour, but to ensure that he would not become a spiritual failure. True self-discipline starts in the heart. It is motivated by sincere desire to live a life close to God and to encourage others to do the same.
Self-discipline is a matter of having right priorities. God is first; which is why our first concern is our spiritual walk. Second in our priority list are fellow Christians and last is self. Therefore, we deny ourselves in order to please God and to encourage the brethren. An undisciplined life puts self first and everything else last. It violates our relationship with God and discourages the brethren. It is selfishness to its core.
Consider next, we should exercise self-discipline in order to encourage our fellow believers.
2. Encouraging Fellow Believers
1 Corinthians 10:23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
Paul not only exhorted the churches to build up one another (Rom 14:19; Rom 15:2; 1 Cor 8:1; 1 Cor 14; Eph 4:12; Eph 4:29; 1 Thess 5:11), but he himself was always conscious as to whether or not his actions would be a benefit or a stumbling block to his fellow Christians (1 Cor 8:13; 2 Cor 12:19). The eighth chapter of Corinthians is a wonderful example of Paul’s willingness to deny his own flesh for the sake of others. He was willing to abstain even from eating meat offered to idols if it meant encouraging others and avoiding their offense.
One last motivation for self-discipline is that of avoiding bondage.
3. Avoiding Bondage
Before salvation we were captives to sin (John 8:34; Rom 6:17; Eph 2:1), but Jesus Christ broke the bonds of sin when he died on the cross and rose from the dead (Rom 8:3). At the moment of our salvation we were made free from the oppressive slavery of sin and were given the ability to live in righteousness (Rom 6:18). Now, like a slave owner who has lost all legal rights to his slave, Satan does all that he can to entice his freedmen to willingly submit once again to his control. Sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom 6:6,14), but it still seeks to bring us into bondage (Rom 6:12-13).
As Christians, whenever we sin it is because we have willingly submitted ourselves to the control of sin (James 1:14-15; 1 Cor 10:13) and not because sin commands us. Self-discipline is a matter of avoiding any situation where sin can lure us back into its slavery.
Paul understood that although we are under grace and not the law, not all things are beneficial for us. He also understood that not all things edify or build up our fellow believers. Further still, he understood that there are some things that are not necessarily sinful but have the potential to bring us into bondage. For all of these reasons he was willing to discipline his body and to bring it under his control.
The Flesh – Prone to Indulgence
Would you give your child a box of chocolates and trust him to only eat as much as is healthy? Or would you give him a limit knowing that he has a tendency to overindulge? Not unlike that child, our flesh tends toward indulgence and left unchecked, indulgence can lead to bondage.
How can you tell if you have become servant to something that used to be just a harmless enjoyment? It might help to ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this thing occupy an inordinate amount of my thought life?
- Does this thing prevent me from accomplishing important tasks?
- Have I begun to sacrifice social interaction, family life or friendships in favour of this thing?
- Have I changed my social circle to one which revolves around this thing?
- Do I spend an inappropriate amount of time, money or resources on this thing?
- Have I become embarrassed or secretive about this thing?
- Do I become irritated or angry when someone I love prevents me from taking part in this thing?
- Have I tried to stop or limit this thing only to fail repeatedly?
There are some habits which are out-and-out sinful like drugs, alcohol and pornography but what about other things like food, entertainment and social media? These (and just about anything else) can be done to excess, thus creating a habit and bringing us unto bondage. Each of us should consider what it is in our lives that tends to bring us into bondage and then seek to moderate those things or abstain from them altogether.
This is not a matter of legalistic rule keeping, but rather the answer of a sincere heart which desires to protect a spiritual life and encourage others in their faith.
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
Remember, we started by looking at Paul’s analogy in 1 Cor 9 of an olympic runner. Here we are told that in order to successfully run this race we must lay aside, not only sin, but everything that weighs us down. Everything that produces an unnecessary burden upon us; that distracts or hinders us from focusing on the things of God.
It is important to realize that what tends to lead you into bondage may not be what hinders others. In order to apply Hebrews 12:1, we may have to “lay aside” some things that others are able to partake in. We should not make decisions about self-discipline by comparing ourselves with others. Nor should we judge or criticize others who do not make the same decisions that we do. Only you know what things have a tendency to hinder your spiritual walk and likewise, only you know from what things you may have to abstain.
Learning Moderation – The Key to Self Discipline
To exercise self-control is to learn moderation. Moderation can be defined this way: avoiding extremes of behavior or expression; observing reasonable limits
Let’s consider some things that prevent us from practicing moderation.