Self-control…Putting the oars in the water
I don’t know about you, but I am amazed when I watch professional sports. I see the incredible talent and skills and self-control those athletes have. I’m amazed when I watch football, golf, basketball, the Olympics, almost any kind of sport, because those professionals are able to do things with their bodies and minds that I could never, in a million years accomplish. And one of the reasons why I could never accomplish what they do is that I am not willing to invest the time and energy it takes to be as good as they are. Think especially of Olympic athletes, how they train 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, month after month, year after year. Not only that, but they have very specialized diets, regulated by a coach or a trainer that tracks exactly what they can eat and what they can’t eat in order to be in top performing condition.
In our world today, on the field of play, professional athletes are some of the best examples of a self-controlled life you will find. Their profession determines their schedule, their training, their food, their clothing, and their sleep patterns.
But then ironically, off the field of play, professional athletes are some of the worst examples of a self-controlled life you will find. Our news is also dominated by the personal lives of professional athletes as they are caught doping, as they are caught driving while intoxicated, as they are caught assaulting others, as they are caught cheating on their spouses, as they are caught demeaning their teammates and coaches, as they are caught doing any number of out-of-control behaviors that embarrass them, their teams, and their fans. And as we watch superstar after superstar self-destruct, we wonder, how someone so talented, so disciplined, so wealthy, and so privileged can live such a self-destructive life.
Of course, we don’t have to look just at sports superstars to wonder how they could live such self-destructive lives, we can see self-destructive lives all around us. Co-workers, family members, politicians, community leaders. We see out of control lives all around us.
In the Greek root word used in this verse for self-control means “strength.”. Self-control is having strength over yourself. It is having the power and discipline and virtue of mastery over your desires and passions and longings. A self-controlled person is able to control their tongue, control their body, control their thoughts, control their passions, control their desires, control their anger.
Now, we would be tempted to think that as Christians, we wouldn’t need self-control. We would hope that we could just give our lives to Christ, allow him to take control of our lives, and then to never have to face temptations again. We love to hear those testimonies of people who just gave their addictions or problems over to God, and God just immediately took them away. But those are by far the exceptions, not the rule. And even in the exceptions, while God may deliver that person from one sin, there are many others that they still have to deal with in their lives. Most of the Christian life is not God rescuing us from all our temptations, most of the Christian life is God empowering us to say “no” to temptations.
I like this quote from Edward Welch – “As the Hebrews were promised the land, but had to take it by force, one town at a time, so we are promised the gift of self-control, yet we also must take it by force.”
Even though we are Christians, even though we have surrendered our lives to Christ’s control, we still have within us a battle to fight. Even though our desire and our passion and our heart’s cry might be that God delivers us from any and all temptations in life, we still have an important part to play in bringing that prayer to fulfillment. We must, in the words of Jesus, deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him. (Luke 9:23)
That is the spirit I hear as Paul is writing to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 9(24-27). Here Paul uses the same word for self-control as we find in our Galatians text, but the NIV translators translate in verse 25 as “strict discipline.” Paul says, just as our athletes go into strict training to win a prize, so we as Christians must go into strict training as well. In very graphic language Paul gives personal testimony of his own strict training, that “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.” (v. 27)
Paul says that the Christian has practices, has disciplines, has accountability friends that will keep them in check. The Christian is so focused on pleasing their Savior that they are willing to deny their own passions and desires that will hurt that relationship with their Savior. The Christian in a very real sense is called to live the same kind of disciplined, self-controlled life that the professional athlete does. But the professional athlete competes for a prize that will fade away, the Christian competes and strives for a prize that will never fade. The football player is focused on that Super Bowl, the baseball player is focused on the World Series, the Olympian is focused on that gold medal, the Christian is focused on their Savior.
But while we keep in mind all the work and training and self-denial we must do to run this race, we also must keep in mind that Paul lists self-control as a fruit of the Spirit, not as our own accomplishment. We, in our own power and strength, in our own desires and good intentions, cannot live self-controlled lives without the power of the Holy Spirit moving within us. To live a self-controlled life is a gift as well as a responsibility. But how do we know where this balance is between our work and God’s gift? Or how do we know when we are trying too hard and need to instead give it over to God for him to deliver us from? Or how do we know when we are just being weak and giving things to God, when he has already given us the insight or strength to fight the battle ourselves?
I like the analogy that Carlo Carretto uses. He says that in the Christian life we are given the boat and the oars by God, but it is up to us to row across the lake. We are given salvation, we are given the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, we are given the great promises of God and the hope of future glory. But if all we do is receive all that, and not put it into practice, then we are just sitting on the shore of the lake. We must put all those gifts into practice. We must put the oars into the water. We must start rowing. In the beginning the rowing can be easy, but it doesn’t take long to start getting tired. It may be that when we get into the middle of the lake it starts to rain, or the wind starts pushing us in the wrong direction, or the waves start to hit the boat.
But you know what? We’re still in the boat, we still have the oars, and God is still calling us to cross that lake. We still have the gifts and the powers and the promises of God, it is just sometimes it requires more work and stamina on our part that we think we have.
The self-controlled life is where we, recognizing our gifts and talents and treasures, ask God to work in us and through us every day of our lives. And that is one of the most important keys of the Christian life, it is a daily walk with Christ, not an every Sunday walk. It is daily practicing the presence of God, daily reflecting on his promises, daily putting into practice our faith, daily growing, and learning.