As we turn our attention to a new year, I want us to consider a spiritual pursuit that is commanded of the born-again believer in Christ and is desperately needed in today’s church. It is something with which the believer is equipped, yet it is often, like Jello, slipping through our hands.
From the pages of Scripture, this pursuit sounds so simple and straightforward, yet it often finds us wanting. We tend to throw in the towel even before we break a sweat. It is a heart attitude that often tells us that we have failed. It is truth that we are to be consumed by and to live in. It’s not a flashy concept or an especially attractive idea; it doesn’t turn heads or grab headlines. Yet it is foundational to our spiritual growth.
It can be as seemingly small as saying no to another candy bar, French fry, milkshake, or spoonful of peanut butter — if that’s your thing — or another half hour on Netflix or Facebook. It can be as significant as living out a resounding “yes” to sobriety and sexual purity.
It checks our hearts and our freedoms in Christ and causes us to consider for whom we live, Christ or ourselves. It is at the height of Christian virtue in a fallen world, and its exercise is, quite simply, one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do. The spiritual pursuit I am talking about is discipline; self-control.
You and I, and, for that matter, the redeemed church, are in great need of self-control. This is something that the world doesn’t have. They do whatever is right in their own eyes, but for those who are in Christ, discipline is what the Spirit desires and calls you to pursue.
Self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. We live in a fast-paced society that has everything at its fingertips. We have a mentality of wanting more that never seems to go away. Being self-disciplined in an undisciplined world is extremely difficult, but it is exactly what God calls us to be. He wants us to be disciplined to the things of godliness, to be under control, to obey the truth of the Scriptures.
Let me point to a definition that I think is helpful. It comes from David Mathis and his book Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. He defines self-control in words that I think we can all agree and identify with, saying, “Self-control is simply that important, impressive, and nearly impossible practice of learning to maintain control of the beast of one’s own sinful passions.”
What does he mean by that? We are called to be sober of mind and under control, not only when things are going well, but also when faced with trials or temptations. It means controlling the “beast,” your body, to do what God calls you to do. It means being willing to to give up some of our freedoms in Christ so we can win others to Him.
Recognizing our innate tendency to be undisciplined presumes 1) The presence of something within us that needs to be bridled and brought under control, and 2) The possibility in us, or through us, to draw on some source of power to restrain it, to reign it in, to make it obedient to what God calls us to be and do.
Now that you are a born-again believer in Christ, true self-control is not about bringing yourself under your own control but bringing yourself under the power of Christ. I think of Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, where Paul sets aside whatever freedom he has in Christ for the goal of seeing others come to Christ when he says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul compares the Christian life to a race in which everyone competes and exercises self-control in all things. He says he disciplines his body, he makes it do what the Bible is calling him to do. He makes his body a slave to bring it under submission.
That is the Christian life, beloved. It is living under the control of Christ in such a way that He receives all the glory. It takes self out of the equation so that you can call others to Christ. Practically speaking, what might you need to set aside to let Christ reign in your life to win others for Him? What freedoms are you holding onto like a spoiled child that need to come under the control of Christ? Remember, church, the Christian life is to be lived for Christ.