1 Corinthians 9: 15 – 27; 1 Corinthians 10: 6 – 13.
It is not unusual that we would be blissfully unaware that under certain circumstances, we would have benefited from a level of self-control, whether they be our impulses and sensitivities or thoughts and opinions. The Apostle Paul concluded that without self-control (the latter being part of the expression of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Gal 5:22-23), we might generally be living a rudderless life, constrained by our idiosyncratic propensities or being controlled by various external dynamics; perhaps both. Inevitably, a willful life prognosticates an incongruent future in the context of a life in Christ (c.f., Gal 5:16-21). The Apostle’s athletic, wrestling and boxing analogies are instructional: with the prize in focus, the sportsmen’s unmitigated lifestyle is to desist from any further distractions that would compromise his preparation for the event of his life. If a perishable victor’s laurel were what an athlete in the first century was eyeing, the way he lived his life would be entirely under his management. In reverse, a person out of control is double-minded or has a divided heart (Ps 86:11; James 1:8; James 4:8). A believer’s quest is an ‘imperishable crown,’ that encompasses the blessings of a future eschatological reward.
Earlier in the passage, Paul expressed his compelling aspiration to personify the gospel to everyone he met, so that they too may become partakers of the privileged blessings that derived from it (1Cor 9:23). Simply said, Paul desired to be a living epitome that captured the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ; a life focused on pleasing God (c.f., Heb 12: 1-3; Matt 22:35-40). Paul was addressing the spirituality of self-control, which concerns matters of the heart. The metaphor of one’s heart in the Bible encapsulates one’s values and devotions, one’s motivations and desires; basically, our being. Consequently, a self-controlled individual is one who experiences spiritual freedom as he focuses on what is essential to God. Therefore, it becomes clear that self-control is not a matter of gritting one’s teeth in exerting one’s will toward an end. Neither did Paul mean that the physical body or the emotions are evil and needed to be disciplined (c.f., 1Cor 6:20). The Apostle was cognizant that it was the parallel sportsmanlike training process he had in mind; he must be a doer of the Word, lest by preaching the gospel to others, he disqualified himself (i.e., like an athlete being excluded from a race) by inconsistent living and contradicting the tenets of his faith (1Cor 9:25-27; i.e., it is not about the loss of one’s salvation).
How do we cultivate self-control and maintain it? The Apostle drew lessons from the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt under Moses in their persistent disobedience to God (1Cor 10:1-11): temptations are indispensable tests of our self-control, and our success or failure at it is dependent on our grasp of Scripture (amply demonstrated by Christ’s temptation; Matt 4:1-11). Therefore, a consistent reading and studying of the Scriptures are required. Secondly, without an accountable process within our Christian community, our enduring nascent pride and arrogance as independent individuals would likely lead to our eventual fall into sin (1Cor 10:12; c.f., Heb 3:12-19). It is imperative that we remain accountable to a group of trustworthy believers as soon as we begin our journey in Christ (James 5:13-16). Finally, we grow in self-control and confidence in our faithful God, when we are repeatedly being tested by trials and temptations, for God is faithful and the reality of His grace and strength is unswervingly made available to anyone who comes to Him in humility and faith (1Cor 10:13; c.f., Deut 4:27-31; Jer 29:10-14). By trusting in God in times of difficulties, we intentionally access God’s grace gift, including self-control, becoming more like Him as we grow in Him.