self-control, or self in control

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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

It’s important to consider context. What precedes has some significance to this passage, but what follows seems to have more bearing: warnings from Israel’s past in failing: testing God, idolatry, and sexual immorality. We downplay the importance of all of Scripture to our own hurt. Paul certainly makes that clear here, as well as in other places.

Part of being faithful in following Christ is to exert self-discipline even in a ruthless, non-compromising way. Sometimes people who emphasize God’s grace, as all of us Christians should, make much out of how we’re not to do anything, but just rest. Yes, we’re to learn to rest in faith for sure, but grace does not at all exclude effort on our part. We’re even told in Hebrews to make every effort to enter into God’s rest. Paul is certainly talking about effort here.

Sometimes it seems for one reason or another, maybe for many reasons there’s not a thing we can do, that we’re past the end of our rope, and there’s no use even trying. We’re in danger then of crashing, or more likely, gradually drifting before the crash comes. Those are the times when we especially need to take heed and discipline ourselves in the way of the Lord, and to fulfill God’s calling for our life. Our goal must be to make this self-discipline a part of who we are. With the goal in the end of somehow by God’s grace hearing Christ’s affirmation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

But what if we’ve already failed? Of course it all depends on the specifics and to what degree. But take the worse case scenario. Of course consequences will follow. Certainly people have to wrestle through what they otherwise would have avoided. Confession of sin, repentance, where need be- restitution, change of life over a period of time, and reconciliation as much as possible. And all of this within the fellowship and oversight of the church, led by wise leadership.

Unfortunately that seems an exception to the rule. People ordinarily end up on their own, the church doing little or nothing to help them. Surely if such happens after people are ordained into ministry, it’s different, but too often there doesn’t seem to be sufficient means in place for restoration. So people are on their own. This is another subject, and a good reminder of part of why it’s vitally important to avoid all of this in the first place.

At any rate, regardless, this should be our goal: to follow Christ faithfully to the end, a part of that self-control over our bodily passions, so that we might avoid great transgression (Psalm 51), and fulfill the calling God gives us, to be faithful witnesses in word, deed, and especially life of God’s good news in Jesus.

 

incentive to godliness: leaving the past behind

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:1-11

Peter wrote to Christians who had once lived what scripture calls fleshly, sinful lives. The list he gives is obvious, and today is no different. Pornography for example is a huge market, and many it has taken down. Of course there are other sins maybe more acceptable to society at large, but nevertheless destructive as well. Usually especially to relationships, and also simply to one’s well being.

Peter’s words alluding to Christ’s suffering, and then saying we should arm ourselves with the same, in a kind of bodily way, so it impacts how we live seems I suppose Catholic to many of us. So be it. Peter points back to their wild, reckless past as an incentive to live differently in the present. And in the face of ridicule for doing so. In so doing, they will be following Christ, living out that following. And to do so, Peter is suggesting, again, that they’re to arm themselves with a mindset which embraces suffering in the body. Actually what might be spoken of here is the refusal to do what one is tempted to do in the body. We realize that the rest of the letter speaks of suffering in terms of persecution for their faith.

This incentive to live godly lives because of past ungodliness might be especially helpful to younger Christians. But it should provide incentive to us all. It actually puts us in a sphere of life and experience where we live bodily for something else entirely. Not to indulge ourselves, but to deny ourselves. Not really to deny our humanity, either. The New International Version adds “evil” to “human desires” to make that clear (click link above to compare with Greek, and other translations). But in doing so, it maybe to some extent loses a certain sense of what this scripture is saying. Yes, strictly speaking Peter is not telling those Christians that they can’t eat and drink and marry, etc. But what the passage does seem to be saying is that a Christian should live not for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires, but rather for the will of God. That such an attitude is a necessary fortification to not drift into what actually is evil. And important even, in us fulfilling God’s will in our lives.

I include what is the second paragraph in the translation above, because Peter puts that together with the call to live differently. It is to be done so in Christian love with acts of service.

Our lives are lived bodily. What we do and don’t do are important. We live bent on doing God’s will. When we fail, of course there’s always confession and repentance, and if need be for a serious enough offense, restoration. This passage indeed points to reformation, to a changed life, completely different than the world not only accepts, but often celebrates. We seek to follow Christ in a different way. Finding our fulfillment, including as humans, in that. In and through Jesus.

the need for strict, ongoing self-discipline

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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9

They say we often eat to feed not really our bodies, but our minds or hearts. That we do so from being troubled. The Christian life contra some of the early church fathers is not meant to be one of harshly treating the body. Not at all! Read Paul’s words in Colossians:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Of course the Christian ascetics did not have such a worldly system in mind in their fasting for the sake of Christ, and for their own spiritual good, so it is different. Yet the sameness might exist in thinking that harsh treatment of the body in itself can do good, as if the body is the enemy of the soul, a neo-Platonic way of thinking which surely infiltrated the church, even probably noticeable in perhaps the greatest of the church fathers, Augustine.

And yet Paul minced no words in the Corinthians passage quoted above. We by grace either discipline ourselves, and specifically our body, or we place ourselves in danger of losing out with reference to all that is ours in Christ. How God rewards in the end, I don’t think we can be sure, though we may have some inklings. But there are certainly some lines we’re not to cross in this life. We must pull out all stops to stop dead in our tracks, and not go past certain lines we might even be rushing headlong to. And we need to work on an agenda in which we are following a different path altogether.

And even if we have failed, that gives us no excuse to excuse ourselves from Paul’s example here. We need to do so all the more. We are weak in ourselves for sure. We need God’s grace to help us through. And we need sheer determination to persevere in that grace and not let up.

They say our brains are one of our most important physical organs. The brain does better with the extra flow of oxygen which comes from good physical exercise. And the mind certainly can affect the body. We surely need to have our hearts and minds set on Christ, and on the things of heaven where Christ is, someday destined to come to earth, and already present now by the Spirit. But we need to take heed of our focus, in order to have the kind of discipline Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians. Paul’s words there should be considered in their context. And interestingly enough, Paul’s warning in Colossians is followed up with the counsel to focus on Christ and might even seem austere by today’s standards. It is referring to a spiritual discipline, but there is no such discipline in which our bodies are not involved. Our bodies are part of our real selves.

And so what we do and don’t do does matter. God has indeed richly given us all things for our enjoyment, so that we’re not to deny ourselves of the good of creation (1 Timothy). But we must avoid counterfeit gods, which can include even our own stomachs (Philippians 3), and sometimes might involve making some major changes. Our goal is to pursue Christ and likeness to him until the very end. May God grant us the grace to do so together in and through him.