Editor’s Note: This week welcome guest blogger, David Hundert. David is a current Master of Divinity student at Evangelical Seminary.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the Apostle Paul writes, “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.”
So, here Paul uses the analogy of a race. We know that people in the Ancient Near East used to participate in games all the time. They would have been familiar with this. They also would have been familiar with the schools that were raised up throughout Rome to train the competitors.
Think of all of the things that Olympians today put themselves through in order to compete. They literally have to beat themselves into shape. They have to train relentlessly because unlike many sports today, there are no participation trophies. There was only one winner. Today, the Olympic Gold is actually worth something. In ancient Rome, they competed for a crown, usually woven together into a wreath they wore. It was essentially a wreath of withered celery.
Here, Enkrateia, (which is often translated “self-control,” as we learned in the previous post here) means “power over oneself in the sense of persistence, endurance or restraint, mastery of one’s appetites and passions.” Socrates included enkrateia as one of the chief virtues. Plato, Aristotle, and Stoic philosophers, from various disciplines, celebrated the man who could control, suppress or moderate his impulses and desires. Paul uses the term in the classical sense, but with a significant difference. For Paul, enkrateia ultimately is not an independent human achievement: enkrateia is a fruit of the Spirit, a supernatural byproduct of responding by faith to grace, and walking by the Spirit, as we are led by the Spirit.
Christians are called to exercise self-control, but we cannot manufacture authentic self-control, any more than we can manufacture agape love. The most we can do—without the power of the Holy Spirit—is to carry out a life of “don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch.” Paul clearly condemns this type of approach, although many Christians—both ancient and modern—seem to prefer it.
Paul does tell us though, that we don’t have to do this alone! In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul states, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” While the word used here for “self-discipline” is different in the Greek, it can be translated as either “self-discipline” or “self-control.” The Spirit here functions in a way that Christians can learn to exercise good judgment or “temperance.” That’s a good “old-timey” word. Self-control is so important to Paul, that several times, in several letters, Paul includes it in his list of requirements for Church leadership.
We’ll take a look at how Paul connects self-control and leadership in the next post!