A few weeks ago, I had the chance to share a short devotional on the topic of self-control. Here is the transcript for those of you who missed it!
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self- control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:22-24 ESV)
Today, I’ve been asked to share on the fruit of self-control. Let me be clear, I share with you not as someone who has this virtue down, but as someone who is still very much learning how to have self-control. I would say of all the sins I’m prone to struggle with, a lack of self-control is one of the most prominent. It is a daily, often hourly, struggle for me. I don’t think I’m alone in this regards. I can say confidently that this is one of the biggest struggles of our generation. We are a generation of instant-gratification and of indulgence, not of self-control. It shows in the way we study, the way we use the Internet, the way we fight against lust, and even in things as simple as how we late we stay up on Saturday nights before church. The sad thing is that despite the pervasiveness of this problem in our lives, we often marginalize our lack of self-control and do not take it seriously. We recognize and fight against other sins, but we are content to live without self-control. This is a serious mistake. Hopefully, from examining the Word today, we’ll see that self-control is not something to be brushed aside, but rather a fruit we should take seriously and pursue diligently.
If you have your bibles, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 9:25-27
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.(1 Corinthians 9:25-27 ESV)
There is a lot to be said about this well-known passage. I have four brief principles about self-control and its importance which will guide us through this passage.
1) Self-Control is necessary for the Christian
In this passage, Paul uses the image of the discipline of an athlete to illustrate truths about self-control for the Christian. He starts off by saying, “every athlete exercises self-control”. Notice the inclusiveness of that statement. Paul uses the word “every”, signifying that anyone who is an athlete exercises self-control, and conversely that there are no athletes who don’t exercise self-control. I don’t need to tell you this. We know intuitively that discipline is built-in to the very definition of an athlete. Anyone who is a serious athlete can’t do whatever they want. They have to eat a certain way; they need to spend a certain amount of time practicing and refining their skills; they need to study so that they know the strategy and the ins-and-outs of the game. However, at the same time, we know that these aren’t arbitrary burdens that serve no purpose. All of these things serve to enhance and enable the athlete’s goal, which is to perform well at his sport. So too it is for the Christian. Every Christian exercises self-control, and there are no Christians who don’t exercise self-control. Why? Because as Christian’s we can’t indulge in whatever we want and expect to glorify God in our lives, just as athletes can’t do whatever they want and expect to perform well. We need self-control so that we can fulfill our purpose: to love and glorify God!
2) The Christian exercises self-control in all things
Notice Paul says the athlete exercises self-control “in all things”. Here in this simple phrase, we see the scope of self-control. Self-control isn’t limited to one or two areas, it covers everything we do! If you think about it, every area in our life requires some degree of discipline. The Bible itself talks about the self-control in reference to a variety of topics. To name a few, in James 5:5, James condemns a lack of self-control with wealth which leads to greediness and indulgent living. 1 Peter 4:7 talks about how we should be self-controlled in regards to the area of prayer. Titus 2:6 talks about how young men should be self-controlled in order to present a good testimony to the world. 1 Corinthians 7:9 talks about self-control in relation to marriage and sexual passion. My point here is that we need to strive to be self-controlled in everything. We can’t be selective in our self-control, choosing to exercise discipline in certain areas of our lives while neglecting others. For example, it does us little good to battle against lust, if we waste countless hours on the computer and have no control over how we use our words. It does us little good to be disciplined in our studies, if we spend our money recklessly and irresponsibly for our own passions. The truth is God wants control every aspect of our life. So let us not pick and choose where we choose to be obedient. Let us instead surrender every area of our lives to the lordship of Christ
3) Self-Control is eternally focused
Paul could have just stopped by saying, “every athlete exercises self-control in all things” and made it simply a moral virtue, but he goes on to say, “They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” Self-control is not a unique virtue to Christians. We know all too well that there are many non-Christians who are much more disciplined than us. But Paul say here that there is a vital difference between worldly self-control and Christian self-control. When a non-Christian practices self-control he does it to gain some kind of earthly treasure—things like wealth, power, or recognition. But when we, as Christians, practice self-control we should have an entirely different goal in mind. We are self-controlled so that we might be conformed to the likeness of Christ. Think how much greater is our calling and how much greater shall our reward be! Their wreath will perish, but ours is imperishable. The end result of their self-control is empty treasures and accolades that will fade away. But the end result of ours will be as 1 John 2:28 says, that on the day “when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” My question for you today, is what is your motivation for self-discipline? When you practice self-control is it as the world practices self-control, to win wealth, power, and recognition for yourself? Or does your self-control actively preparing for and looking forward to an eternity with Christ?
4) Our Self-Control reveals the truthfulness of our love for God
In this last section, Paul directly relates the image of an athlete back to his life. He writes, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Here, Paul emphasizes why self-control has the utmost priority in his life. If an athlete does not have self- discipline, he cannot perform his profession– his running becomes aimless and his boxing, weak. Likewise, Paul says without self-control his whole ministry as a preacher and missionary would be in vain. Why? Because he would fail his ultimate goal to please Christ. Everything he proclaimed would have not been true in his own life. Christianity is not a religion of empty knowledge and words—Christ’s harshest rebukes were directed towards the Pharisees—rather it is a religion meant be practiced and applied. My question to you is if we lack self-control, how can we ever expect to practice what we preach and claim to believe? Or perhaps more directly: if we lack self-control, how can Christ ever be Lord over our lives? Self-control is an avenue through which we demonstrate that Christ, and not our flesh, is master. Think about it. I can proclaim that Jesus is Lord over all of my life, but it’s all empty talk until I can exercise self-control in my purity, time, money, and thoughts. As Christians, we have in our lives, countless areas where we can either exercise self-control or indulge our sinful flesh. How we exercise self-control gives a tangible statement of our love and commitment to Christ. Let us, then, adopt the same mindset as Paul, and realize that, though we may preach the right words and perform all the right deeds, if we don’t have self-control, then the Gospel has no power in our lives. Let us diligently seek to cultivate self-control so that there will be private truth behind our public words and deeds
In light of this passage, I have two points of application
- We Must Discipline Ourselves: There is a definite aspect of responsibility involved for us. Paul doesn’t use the image of an athlete arbitrarily. He uses it because self-control is not something that just springs forth from us without effort. It is hard work. Just as an athlete labors with sweat and tears to achieve the discipline necessary for his goal, we must also work so that we might please God. If we’re serious about self-control, we must be willing put in the work to build God-glorifying habits. We must be willing to sacrifice our comfort and pleasure, take up our cross daily, and follow Christ.
- We Must Look to the Gospel for Strength and motivation: Galatians 5:24-25, the verses immediately following the listing of the fruit of the Spirit, says: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Never underestimate the influence that our sinful flesh holds over us. If we try and achieve self-control by our own willpower we will fail miserably. Either we will be defeated and become discouraged, or we will become self-righteous like the Pharisees. The power and the motivation for self-control comes through the Gospel. Christ’s death saves us from the power of sin: we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In its place, we now have the Spirit, who helps us to live as Jesus lived. Christ’s death is also our motivation. Our self-control is an act of love and preparation: we strive for self-control with the help of the Spirit, pressing on towards the day where we will receive the imperishable wreath and be with Christ forever.