Winning at Life:
Subtitle: A Study of Self-Control from 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:1-15.
Introduction: Everyone wants to be a winner. 1 Corinthians 9:24 explains that a runner “receiveth the prize,” because he runs to win. The instruction is then given, “So run that ye may obtain.”
Clearly, the text describes winning, and the point of Paul's illustration is that the key to winning in life is temperance, or self-control.
There are so many areas of our lives that require self-control.
We see the need for this first thing every morning. Even the act of getting out of bed requires temperance. Many people have lost their jobs because they couldn’t get themselves up in the morning. Other people are out of control to the opposite extreme. They work too much and burn themselves out.
Social media is another area where temperance is required. It is designed to be addicting and can quickly get out of hand.
Maybe you’re not on social media, but you struggle with controlling your thought life. Sometimes it’s lustful thoughts, other times it’s panic-filled worrisome thoughts that are out of control. (Consider 2 Corinthians 10:5; Philippians 4:8)
For many people, their emotional disposition is what lacks temperance. One minute they're melancholy, and the next minute they’re indignant! Their anger is outrageous and their mood swings are seemingly unpredictable.
These are just a few areas in our lives that require temperance, but there are many more. As we study the topic of biblical self-control, we will see an illustration of temperance, examples of lacking temperance, the origin of biblical temperance, and the addition of temperance to your life.
1. An Illustration of Temperance (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
This illustration includes 2 truisms. Two statements that Paul knows are obviously true.
“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?” (vs 24) Of course that’s true. The Corinthians know what he’s saying is common knowledge.
Then in verse 25, “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” In order for a competitive athlete to win, to obtain the prize, we all know that he must be self-controlled as he prepares for the race and as he runs it. These are obviously true statements that Paul uses to help illustrate his larger point.
Then Paul makes a distinction. He distinguishes between an athlete running for a corruptible crown, and the Christian who should be pursuing an incorruptible crown. He is saying that there is a more important race to run than the fleeting nature of physical sports. He is saying it is important to win at life and to run or navigate this temporal life with eternity in view.
He makes that distinction, but the illustration includes an overlapping commonality. Our body is the commonality. A self-controlled body is required to run an athletic endurance race, but it is also required to run your spiritual race well. An out-of-control undisciplined body will cause an athlete to lose his race: in the same way, a Christian who lacks temperance will face spiritually debilitating heartache and deep emotional pain.
Paul wants the reader to understand that your body must still be subdued and brought into subjection because your physical body can hinder your spiritual reward.
It’s important to note that the man that “striveth for the mastery” is temperate “in all things.” Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically and every other category; he is to be self-controlled. The same idea is conveyed in the phrase, “lest by any means.” Anything, in any category, that has the potential to disqualify the Apostle Paul, the Corinthian believer, or us; needs to be identified and controlled with the help of the Holy Spirit. Our anger, loose lips, an undisciplined mind, an unfaithful heart, and so much more all need to be in subjection to and guided by biblical temperance.
Then, Paul presents his strategy for winning at life. The strategy is found in verses 26 and 27a. “I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection…”
This strategy is rooted in personal responsibility and a deliberate focus. There’s not a hint of blame-shifting, excuse-making, or whiny falsified victimhood in these verses. He owns his responsibility and approaches life by saying, “I do not run aimlessly, but I run deliberately. I do not run wastefully but purposefully.” Christ-likeness and pleasing God is Paul’s focus.
Then, Paul references the potential consequences of failure to implement this strategy. “If I don’t maintain this strategy, I will face the consequences.” He says, “lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (vs 27b)
The word “castaway” means unapproved, rejected, or disqualified. To be clear, he’s not describing losing his salvation, but he is describing the danger of living in a way that fails to represent the gospel. He is describing preaching one thing but living another. He is rebuking duplicity and he’s highlighting the importance of behaving how you believe and practicing what you preach.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 is a sobering illustration of the need for temperance, but then in chapter 10, Paul gives some examples of “castaways” or individuals who lacked temperance.
2. Examples of Lacking Temperance (1 Corinthians 10:1-11)
This New Testament passage gives us Old Testament examples of individuals who lacked self-control and now serve as cautionary tales. Interestingly the overall point of 1 Corinthians is to teach the Corinthian believer how to embrace Spirit-filled self-control. Take time to read the book of 1 Corinthians and you’ll see that they were an out-of-control bunch.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 Paul reminds the Corinthian believer that “God was not well pleased” with their Jewish fathers because in spite of their many unique blessings and benefits, they lusted after evil things. Paul uses them as an example of individuals who lacked temperance in the area of lust. (See Exodus 13-14)
In 1 Corinthians 10:7 Paul describes people who were out of control in their loyalties. They weren’t loyal to God but instead were idolaters. (See Exodus 32:6)
In 1 Corinthians 10:8 Paul references individuals who lacked temperance and were involved in lasciviousness through fornication. (See Numbers 25:1, 9)
In 1 Corinthians 10:9 he mentions those who were guilty of tempting Christ. They were out-of-control in the area of arrogance. It takes a huge amount of sinful pride to challenge God in such a way. (See Numbers 21)
In 1 Corinthians 10:10 he points out the sin of murmuring and being out of control with your mouth. (See Exodus 16:2; 17:2 & Numbers 21:5-6)
Just in case you don’t think you need these examples or this admonition, “take heed lest ye fall.” (Consider 1 Corinthians 10:11-12).
The truth is, every day we all struggle with internal desires that are cultivated by external pressures and attractions which are promoted by the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Unfortunately, in our humanity, we are constantly tempted to overindulge. We are tempted to live outside the boundaries that God has established for our good.
In Ecclesiastes 2:10 Solomon explains, “Whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy.” In other words, “I denied myself nothing that my heart desired.” He concluded that it was all “vanity and vexation of spirit…” (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Western culture’s 21st-century approach is similar to that of Solomon’s. Our culture tells us to “enjoy yourself, please yourself, and satisfy yourself,” but this ideology is not unique to one culture or generation.
So, what is our hope? How can a Christian avoid the mistakes of these Old Testament characters, and the mistakes of the Corinthian believer? Consider the origin of Biblical temperance.
3. Origin of Temperance (Galatians 5:16-26)
Biblical temperance comes from the Holy Spirit. Temperance is listed as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. A Spirit-filled life is a self-controlled life.
Spirit-filled temperance stands in contrast to asceticism which is religious self-effort. Asceticism is hollow and vain because it is self-focused and destined for failure. However, biblical self-control is Spirit-focused, and therefore the Spirit enables us to be successful.
To be biblically self-controlled is the duty of the Christian, but we must make sure that doctrine informs our duty. We must make sure that our position in Christ informs our Spirit-enabled pursuit of holiness.
My life verses are Titus 2:11-15 and aspects of those verses help explain this point. The reason we should dutifully “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts…” and “live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world” is because of the doctrine revealed in, “the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” Titus 2:11 is describing Jesus! It is referring to the doctrine of His incarnation and His offer of salvation. That doctrine fuels the Christian’s duty to seek after the holy pursuits described in Titus 2:12.
Biblical temperance is different from religious self-effort because it is positionally rooted in Christ, and it originates from the Holy Spirit in the life of a yielded believer.
Again, as Christians, our doctrine informs our duty, and our position in Christ impacts our pursuit. (Consider also Romans 12:1-2). But, how then do we pursue temperance? We add it to our lives.
4. Addition of Temperance (2 Peter 1:5-6; 2 Timothy 3:3)
One thing that my two decades in Christian ministry has taught me is that people do what they want to do. If they want to pursue holiness, yield to the Spirit, and walk in biblical temperance, then they will.
2 Peter 1:5-7 instructs Christians to diligently “add to your faith” 7 righteous attributes. One commentator calls them “holy affections.” Among them is “temperance.”
We are to add to our faith, Holy Spirit originated, biblically informed self-control.
The Bible explains that in the last days people will subtract self-control from their lives. Paul uses the word “incontinent” to describe the absence of self-control. “Incontinent” in 2 Timothy 3:3 is a failure to restrain passions and appetites and it manifests itself as men become “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.”
A tangible way to aid yourself in adding temperance to your faith is to spend time with people who have lived longer than you and have modeled temperance throughout their lives. Titus 2:1-8 explains that older people should walk in temperance. It explains that they should live in such a way that younger people can learn how to live a self-controlled life from watching them.
After 1 Corinthians 10 gives us examples of Old Testament individuals who lacked temperance, verse 13 reminds us that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
Winners take the way of escape. Winners realize that God is doing His job. “God is faithful.” He is faithful to “make a way to escape.” The Holy Spirit is doing His job by manifesting His fruit of temperance, but we are volitional. Winners at life, spiritually speaking, are people who choose to yield to the Spirit of God and choose to take the way of escape from sinful temptation.
1 Corinthians 10:14 explains “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.”
Why is idolatry mentioned here in the context of temperance and overcoming temptation? The inference is that whatever was the object of our mistaken pleasure, we loved that more than we loved God. When we indulge in the things God forbids, we make those things an idol. So, who or what are you worshiping? Are you worshiping at the shrine of your own appetite and desires, or are you worshiping at the foot of the cross?
Winning at life is largely determined by our ability to “abhor that which is evil and cleave to that which is good.” With the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, we can restrain our carnal propensities and appetites.
Further, winning at life is also largely determined by what we do when we fail. A winner “confesseth and forsaketh” his sins. (Proverbs 28:13)
Psalm 51 was written by a winner. David’s heartfelt desire for God to forgive him, and restore the joy he had with his heavenly Father, makes him a winner. David still had to face the consequences of his failure, but the attributes of a winner are all through Psalm 51.
We have seen an illustration of temperance, examples of lacking temperance, the origin of biblical temperance, and the addition of temperance to your life.
Remember, the most formative decision you will ever make in life is not where you’ll work, or where you’ll live, but the most formative decision a Christian makes is in the moment when temptation meets opportunity.
May we all avoid being a castaway and walk with biblical temperance in this life. May we be winning at life and understand that it’s our responsibility to, “Keep our heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)
“I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.” (1 Corinthians 10:15)
In other words, “You are sensible people. You can judge if what has been written is valid or not.”
Since it is, apply it to your life now and avoid the potential of a lifetime of regret and deep heartache, and become a winner at life.
The above article was written by Pastor James C. Johnson. He is the Pastor of NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola. To offer him your feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.