“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (I Corinthians 9:24).
The apostle Paul was very much concerned about disciplining his own life. In the passage listed above, Paul uses the illustration of an athletic contest—a race. That was a familiar thing to these Christians in Corinth. The Greeks had two great athletic events—the Olympic games with which we are very much familiar, and the Isthmian games which were held at the city of Corinth every three years. In fact, if you go to Corinth, you can still see the areas where the races were run. The starting blocks where the athletes started out the races are still embedded in the stones. And Paul uses this figure, because, to him, the Christian life is similar to races at these games.
These Corinthians knew that every athlete who participated in the races had to take an oath that they had been training for 10 months, and that they had given up certain foods in their diet to enable them to endure the race. They subjected themselves to rather rigorous discipline in order to win. But Paul says all that they were winning was a “corruptible crown.” In other words, they were running for a reward that over time would fade. It was traditionally a pine wreath, but in contrast, the Apostle Paul says that we are running for “an incorruptible” crown, one that is of an eternal nature.
Paul sees life this way. Our aim is to run the race of life in order to be a useful instrument of God; to be used whenever and wherever he wants to use us. That was Paul’s objective. When he woke up in the morning that is what was first in his thoughts; that is what set the tone of his day. He was ready to give up certain indulgences, if necessary, which may have been perfectly right and proper for him at a given time. But if they interfered with his objective to be what God wanted him to be, Paul said he would be happy to give them up. For him the great objective was to win the prize and to feel the sense of delight that he was being used by God.
In this figure of a race that Paul uses, it is obvious you cannot do that if there is no self-discipline. There is always something in life that will distract you if you let it. There are temptations to turn aside, to give up, to sit back and let life go on and enjoy yourself. But all those things will sabotage your Christian effectiveness. That’s what Paul is talking about. And so he says we need self-discipline, we need self-control.
It has been said that discipline is what we need the most in our modern world and what we want the least. So we have a country filled with students dropping out of school, husbands and wives looking for divorces, employees walking out on their jobs and Christians who are becoming unfaithful. Many of them simply don’t have the self-discipline that it takes to see their problems through. They run from their problems, look for the easy way out, and quit when the going gets rough.
Solomon once said, “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small” (Proverbs 24:10). Days of adversity are going to come. We need to understand that and develop the self-discipline to handle them.
To help us understand the concept of self-control better, I want us to look at another verse. It is found in Proverbs 16:32; “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” This gives us a very basic definition that self-control is “ruling your spirit.” In this portion of Scriptures the Bible compares self-control with one who conquers a city, and states that one who can practice self-control is better than one who can overthrow a city.
Throughout history the world has made much out of military victories. From ancient times we have records of generals and the cities that they have conquered. As we move through time we tend to make heroes out of generals. I think of two men who became presidents not because of their political abilities but because they were great soldiers—Dwight Eisenhower and Ulysses Grant. We give our warriors the highest honor and greatest power. But here in Proverbs 16:32 we are reminded that the simple, private victory of living in self-control is greater than all the great victories of any war. Let us consider why this is so.
In ancient times before the invention of artillery and heavy ordnance, to lay siege to a city took a lot of energy, time, and manpower. It took Nebuchadnezzar, who had by far the strongest army at his time a year and a half to take the relatively small city of Jerusalem.
A few hundred years later it took the mighty army of Rome years to accomplish the same feat. But, the battle of self-control is even greater.
It is greater because the enemy is within. The battle of self-control is not an external battle but an internal one. The war of the soul is a civil war. It is a war between our flesh and our spiritual nature.
Paul speaks of this inner battle in Galatians 5:17; “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” For the Christian there is the battle in the soul to do what is right and to do what is pleasing to the Lord. If you do not have this civil war in you then more than likely you do not have the Holy Spirit in you.
It is also greater because the enemy is unpredictable and cannot be tamed. In ancient times some races of people were harder to rule than others. Some would take defeat very easily while others would fight until the last man was dead. Let us realize that the enemy that we fight in the battle of self-control will not quit until it is dead. The battle between our flesh and the Spirit will continue all the days of our lives. There will be no treaty, NO peace until we get to heaven. The flesh will continue to strive to pull us away from God, to lead us down the roads of temptation and sin. Our sinful nature will be totally put to death when we are glorified in Heaven with Jesus Christ our Lord.
Self-control also requires a greater effort than storming a city because the enemy has great power at times. And the enemy, which is our flesh, is given that power by the one who is trying to defeat it.
Can you imagine a general shipping arms and ammunition to the enemy? Yet that is what we do with our own old, fleshly nature. We give to it what it needs to hinder our spiritual nature. We feed it through our own sin, giving in to its desires and lusts. We give in to the flesh until we have built strongholds in our lives. And it is our fleshly nature that dwells in those strongholds, waiting for us to try and defeat it.
It also takes a greater effort because the enemy that we are dealing with is subtle. What does Jeremiah 17:9 tells us; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”
Let’s realize that our flesh is always in the state of plotting treason against us. When all looks safe, that is when it will strike. Our own hearts are deceitful. It will lie to you because it is tainted with sin. It is desperately wicked; prone to turn us from God. Our flesh strives to have us ignore the Words of God and follow the desires of that wicked heart—the lusts of the flesh in our thoughts, in our actions, and in our words. Yet, we can defeat our deceitful heart. We can destroy those strongholds and destroy those walls. And we can begin that by practicing self-control.