We know a lot today about the mechanics of self-control. Thanks to an explosion of research from social scientists over the past two decades, we have a greater understanding of the subject than ever before. We know how willpower works, why it fails, and what we can do to rein in our impulses. We can map out the areas of the brain involved in resisting temptation and overcoming challenges. We also have a host of tools and tactics to help us change our behavior. These insights and strategies are valuable, and we’ll explore them in this book. Yet as we survey strategies for increasing willpower and improving “self-regulation,” we can’t forgetthe purpose of self-control. Loving God and others is our ultimate aim. But there’s also practical benefit to defining our ultimate purpose. Focusing on a transcendent goal actually fuels the formation of self-control. Purpose is like a steering wheel and an engine. It guides and propels us.
The life of Paul provides a perfect example. While Paul lamented his struggles with self-control, it’s apparent he was no slacker. Consider just a few of the things he accomplished. He evangelized huge swaths of the Roman Empire (on foot!), wrote almost a third of the New Testament (often from jail!), and nurtured church plants across the empire. And he did so all in the teeth of violent opposition. At one point, Paul provides a sample of the hardships he endured along the way: shipwrecks, lashings, imprisonment, a stoning, hunger, nakedness, sleeplessness, and constant danger. On top of all that, he adds, “I face the daily pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).
How could Paul withstand these hardships and keep going? I’m guessing most people would have given up after just a sampling of the persecution he experienced. Take, for instance, the lashings he received. This was a customary Roman punishment for criminals. The offender was given forty lashes, minus one. That’s thirty-nine strokes on the back with a whip that was cruelly outfitted with small pieces of bone and metal designed to rip away chunks of flesh. I think one of these sessions would probably be enough to stop me. Paul endured five.
Why did Paul do it?
Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about his motives, because he came right out and told us what they were. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).
Purpose is like a steering wheel and an engine. It guides and propels us.
Paul’s extraordinary feats weren’t undertaken to impress onlookers. He wasn’t interested in flaunting his steely resolve or pursuing selfish ends. It wasn’t self-control for self-control’s sake. He did it for an ultimate purpose: to win the “prize” of being united to Christ and to help as many people as possible do the same. That’s what kept him going. That’s the bright future he glimpsed as he languished in dark prisons. That’s the comfort he felt as whips tore into his flesh. That’s what fueled his determination and confidence. It’s what gave him the oomph to stagger to his feet for the thousandth time and strike off for the next city. Paul had a purpose.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, urging them to live disciplined lives of self-control, he emphasized the necessity of keeping this ultimate purpose in sight. Comparing the Christian journey to a race, he asked, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” (1 Cor. 9:24).
The Corinthians were very familiar with races. Corinth was home to the Isthmian Games, a massive sporting event held every three years. It was second in popularity only to the Olympic Games held in Athens. Paul’s words would have called to mind fresh images of athletes in the stadium, circling the hard-packed dirt track, their heads down and arms pumping. Paul points out what the Corinthians already knew. The runners weren’t out there for the fresh air; they wanted to win. The purpose of the race was the prize.
But as Paul stresses, the key to winning prizes is preparation. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he wrote (1 Cor. 9:25). We know from history just how strict the training for these Greek athletes was. Competitors in the Isthmian Games were required to provide proof that they had trained for at least ten months and were confined to the gymnasium for the thirty days preceding the games. When it came time to compete, some athletes pushed themselves so hard, they died.
Paul noted the impressive commitment of these athletes, and urged the Corinthians to have the same unwavering focus and discipline when it came to their spiritual journey. “Run in such a way as to get the prize,” he implored (v. 24). And he reminded them that there was a crucial difference between the spiritual race and a physical one. While runners expended all their efforts “to get a crown that will not last,” believers “do it to get a crown that will last forever” (v. 25). The winners in the Isthmian games received a wreath made from celery or pine leaves. Talk about temporary! The Corinthian believers were working for a reward that would last forever.
Having assured them of the reward, Paul gives a glimpse of his training regimen.
“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 Cor. 9:26–27)
That’s strong language. Paul switches the analogy from racing to boxing and describes himself squaring off against his own fleshly desires. The words “strike a blow to my body” is translated from a Greek word that means “to give a black eye to.” This doesn’t mean that Paul literally hit his body. He forcibly subdued his sinful desires that threatened to make him forfeit the prize. But the flesh never goes down easy. It’s a violent, sweaty struggle. Here we see an example of self-control as the “fierce fruit” of the Spirit in action. Paul transforms his body from an enemy into an ally. He makes it his slave, an agent to serve his ultimate purpose rather than sabotaging it. Whereas before it threatened to take him out of the race, now it can help him win it.
I’ve been going to church all my life and can honestly say I’ve never heard a sermon with that kind of language. It seems we’re reluctant to speak of the war against the flesh in the same graphic terms. Even when we do broach the topic of sin, we use language that implies a sort of helplessness and resignation. We “deal with” issues or “struggle with” sins. Rarely do we speak of defeating them. Seldom do we don the armor of God and fight. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that when temptation comes, we roll over for it. We shrug our shoulders and repeat some cliché about how no one is perfect.
We desperately need the kind of Spirit-empowered, sin-killing approach Paul described. And that comes only when we’re focused on the prize. When Paul wrote these words, the church in Corinth was a mess. They were plagued with divisions. They were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. One guy was sleeping with his father’s wife. On top of it all, they were arrogant. Paul addressed these sinful behaviors, but ultimately to help them develop the self-control they so badly needed, he directed their eyes heavenward. He reminded them of their ultimate purpose. Like athletes, they must fight idleness and submit to training.
Focusing on a transcendent goal actually fuels the formation of self-control.
When I read this passage, I picture Paul as a track coach. It’s like he’s jogging alongside his spiritual trainees, shouting encouragements. “Have you heard about the prize? Don’t you want to win? Run! Run! Run!” All the effort and sacrifice would be worth it, he assured them. No cost was too great to win the prize.
In some ways, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians doesn’t seem very practical. Was it really best to encourage them to think about heaven when they had so many problems right here on earth? Had I been in Paul’s position, I might have handled things differently. I would have been more practical. “Let’s get some guidelines in place to deal with your appalling lack of self-control,” I would have said. “The Sunday school lesson on heaven can wait for later. Forget winning races; you just need to get back on your feet.”
But Paul was right to direct their gaze heavenward. He knew that seeing the prize would help them run the race. That ultimate goal would infuse their efforts with meaning and help them push a little harder to overcome obstacles. It would equip them to endure.
 John Piper, “The Fierce Fruit of Self-Control,” Desiring God, May 15, 2001, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-fierce-fruit-of-self-control.
by Drew Dyck
Why can’t I control my anger? Or stop overeating? Or wasting time online? Why can’t I seem to finish my projects? Or make progress...
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