If we think we can’t win the fight against the incessant temptations of the flesh, then Scripture is mocking us. We’re being dangled by a hope that will never be realized. To put it even more bluntly, Paul was a liar.
But fortunately, we’re in a winnable war. Paul wasn’t lying. I offer four truths that can arm us for the conflict.
First, appreciating the nature of the battle is essential. It’s a universal war that began all the way back in the garden of Eden and includes every one of us. Our flesh craves satisfaction in the very things that God hates. And until we stand with the Savior in heaven, the age-old civil war rages on! Yes, we will experience the attack of Satan from the outside, but we have an enemy within that we must never forget or ignore. The flesh never takes a holiday.
Second, we are powerless to win the war against the flesh without the Spirit of God. By conscious submission, we engage the Holy Spirit in the first moments of crucial decisions. Our ability to do that will grow as we practice the spiritual disciplines. All of them prepare us for battle. All of them give us greater intimacy with the Almighty, who lives within us. The result is predictable: when faced with temptation, the Lord fights the battle on our behalf.
Third, developing this discipline is a personal matter. We can depend upon no one else to develop our own discipline of self-control. Paul wrote, “I discipline my body” (1 Corinthians 9:27, emphasis added). This is something each of us must do in the Lord’s strength. If someone else has to restrain us, it’s not self-control! As a pastor, I’ve seen a lot of people marry with the hope that a partner’s strength will prop up his or her own weakness. (I’m sure you’ve seen it too.) The opposite is more often the case. There’s no magic in marriage. A godly marriage can be the instrument of God’s working to make us more like Christ, but marriage by itself makes nobody strong. Developing the discipline of self-control cannot be the responsibility of a husband or wife.
Finally, ignoring the consequences invites disaster. Lack of self-control will invariably lead to embarrassment for us, for our ministries, and for those we love. With issues of self-control, we’re usually dealing with things that we know are wrong and will have negative fallout. And they usually involve something habitual, which means that the people we hurt are probably growing weary. What’s worse, it adversely impacts our spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul uses a word that most translations render “disqualified.” It’s in keeping with his word picture of the athletic competition, but “disqualified” can lead us to wrong conclusions about the spiritual consequences. Salvation and the assurance of heaven are not the issues in Paul’s mind here. Obviously, you will not lose your salvation if you fail to control yourself.
However, you quite possibly can be put out of the race by God’s disciplinary action. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a pastor sidelined by God for the good of the family, the ministry, and, of course, the individual.
I repeat: I urge you to appreciate the nature of the battle. Remember that you need the Spirit of God for victory. Take personal responsibility to develop self-control . . . and refuse to ignore the consequences.
They are disastrous.