In Paul’s mind, self-control brings freedom. Like an athlete, he exercises self-control to free himself to achieve what he most wants to achieve, to live how he truly wants to live. No longer controlled by illicit sexual desires, he can live in purity; no longer controlled by the love of money, he can be content with little; no longer controlled by the opinions of men, he can be content to live for the glory of God. Self-control is the training regimen that will bring him to victory.
Every four years another Olympics begins and the whole world becomes obsessed with activities they haven’t thought about since the last games. Suddenly we find ourselves waking up early and staying up late to watch athletes pole vault and throw javelins and dive into pools. We can’t help but cheer as we watch little-known sports like field hockey and handball and water polo. What is it that compels us to watch these strange events and to cheer for people we don’t even know?
We watch the Olympics because we want to see the best of the best. Athletes do not get to the Olympics on the basis of natural talent or wishing upon a star. They do not earn the opportunity to represent their countries through parental privilege or dumb luck. They get to the Olympics by hard work, by committing their whole lives to the pursuit of their sport. They have a body that is very much like ours—the same 650 muscles, the same 206 bones, the same two feet—yet they can do things with their bodies that we can only dream of. We may not know much about high jump, but we do know that we are watching something that required thousands of hours of training. We may not know a tuck from a handspring, but we do know that it took years of painful labor to perform such an acrobatic move. They have become the best in the world because of their total devotion to their sport, because of their grueling training, because of their rigid self-discipline.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul uses athletes as a metaphor to describe how believers are to approach the Christian life. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Of course the Corinthians knew. Their city was the home of the Isthmian Games. Every two years, the best world’s athletes would arrive, their minds set on claiming the prize. In that day, there were no team sports, so each athlete competed alone, and there were no consolation prizes, so each athlete competed to be first. Paul tells these believers to think of the Christian life as a race and to imitate the kind of athlete who runs not just to compete but to be victorious. Striving against the deadly competition of the world, the flesh, and the devil, he urges them, “Run in such a way that you win!”
Just as self-control is the key to victory in athletics, it is the key to victory in the Christian life.
But how? What must they do to ensure that they win this race? Paul continues: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Athletes become successful through self-control. They commit themselves wholeheartedly to their sport and put aside any vices, habits, or activities that might keep them from peak performance. The athletes who competed in the Isthmian Games underwent 10 months of dedicated training before the games. In this time, they followed a strict regimen of training, exercising, and eating. They were absolutely single-minded in their pursuit of victory. Paul is saying that just as self-control is the key to victory in athletics, it is the key to victory in the Christian life. Good intentions will not carry Christians to victory, half-hearted effort will bring no reward, lack of discipline will lead only to disqualification. It is only by self-control that athletes would get the prize, and it is only by self-control that Christians get their reward.