“The Reason for Self-Control” on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 by Joe Ellis — July 31, 2022
Let me start out with a little review, because today is our last Sunday working through the fruit of the Spirit. This refers to a list of virtues that Paul teaches that we grow into as we continue walking with God. That’s the impact of growing in the Holy Spirit. We grow in virtue. The big word for that is sanctification. We grow in virtues like love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith(fulness), gentleness and self-control. Of course, this list is not really exhaustive. The Spirit brings all sorts of virtues into fruit in the lives of followers of Jesus.
This morning, I want you to notice one thing that all these fruit have in common. These “fruit” share that they are there for the good of others. After all, that’s why a tree grows fruit: to be enjoyed by others. And of course, there is some self interest in a tree bearing fruit. Animals eat the fruit, spread the seed, and the fruit tree reproduces elsewhere. I find that a compelling picture of one of the reasons the Holy Spirit is so interested in growing fruit — the Holy Spirit grows fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest, so that the community around us enjoys the fruit of those things — and as the community enjoys our fruit, the seeds of love, and joy, and long suffering — the seeds of these things are planted elsewhere. When we love others, love is planted in the other person, it then sprouts, matures and bears its own fruit.
One of the church fathers named Tertullian said that the community around the church would often be incredibly struck by the witness of Christian love. “See how they love one another”, they would say. And of course love is the first fruit of the Spirit. As we mature and grow in Christ, we bear fruit. When people taste that fruit in our lives, they enjoy it, and then the seed is planted and begins to germinate. The Spirit growing fruit in us as followers of Jesus is one form of evangelism — I might say it’s the foundation for evangelism. If people see no fruit, if they encounter rudeness rather than love, hostility rather than patience, meanness rather than kindness, pride rather than gentleness — they will want nothing to do with this Jesus whom we follow. Yet, when people taste and see that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is indeed good, people will want more. There is a reason why Paul chose the metaphor of fruit of the Spirit instead of the fungus of the Spirit. Fruit is evangelistic.
Today, we are talking about the fruit of self-control. Maybe self-control might seem like a fungus and not like a fruit. Maybe if I were to try and say what fruit Self-Control is, I might say it was a Grape-Nut. You know that cereal which nobody eats because they like it, they only eat it because it’s supposed to be healthy. It’s like eating chewable gravel. When you go to the buffet of Spirit fruit, love and joy and peace are the peaches, strawberries and guacamole of the bunch. By the time we get to self-control, we’ve already gorged ourselves on the other fruit. There’s probably a reason why Paul left self-control as last on the list — there are always leftovers of self-control. None of us wants to take it, but we know we should. It keeps us regular.
So — what are we talking about with self-control? Is ‘self-control’ really the Grape-nuts of fruit? When I think of self-control, I know there are different areas where we can have self-control. Like self-control with food is not eating too much or too little and is eating the right things. Like self-control with lust — it’s not looking at people in order to lust after them and not being with people who aren’t your spouse as if they were your spouse. That’s self-control. I think about self-control around anger — not biting people’s heads off, even when you think they deserve it. Just like there are different varieties of a particular fruit like apples (red delicious, pink lady, and honey crisp, which is the mightiest of all apples), in the passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul is talking about a particular variety of self-control.
Before we get to the particular variety of self-control that Paul’s talking about, let’s just note that ‘self-control’ is really a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Or to use Paul’s metaphor in Corinthians, the goal isn’t simply to have self-control for the sake of self-control, self-control is a way of working towards your goal. Self-control isn’t the prize, self-control is a way of achieving the prize. In fact, when self-control itself becomes the goal, that’s when you get a lot of weird Christian behaviour, like fasting to the extreme, or monks beating themselves with whips, or reading through the Bible once a year while not absorbing anything you’re reading.
As Christians, we always need to be mindful of what the goal is behind our self-control. Often we get confused. We can think that self-control is the goal itself. Self-control is a strategy towards reaching a goal. When we forget what the ultimate goal is behind a particular practice, we need to reassess what we’re doing. Self-control for the sake of self-control can quickly get us into dangerous territory where we end up just punishing ourselves as some demonstration of our great willpower or diligently doing something that serves no real purpose.
So we need to keep the goal in mind. We can do all sorts of things in the Christian life and have no idea of why we’re doing them. We can do all sorts of things in church while having no idea of what our goal is. We can be disciplined, self-controlled, programmatic, intentional in our lives together, or diligent in visiting people — but if we’ve lost sight of the goal, then we’re not even in the competition, we’re running the wrong race.
Paul says that when he exercises self-control, he does so for a very particular reason. Let’s hear his words again: “Do you know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we do it to receive an imperishable one. So I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” Paul is intentional and purposeful in his efforts for self-control. He is running toward a particular goal. He is not running aimlessly. He’s not running like someone who doesn’t know where they’re going. I want to show you a short Monty Python clip that illustrates perfectly what it looks like when people run a race without any idea of where they’re going….
I find this video quite funny. But let’s watch it again without sound. What if this were a picture of the church. What if this captured our lives as Christians. We show up super earnestly, we run really hard — but we have no idea what we are running toward. We know that we should be running, we don’t want people to see us standing still, but we haven’t the foggiest idea where we are running to.
Paul speaks of practicing self-control, self-discipline, striking blows to his body, training hard, becoming a slave… all to help him cross the finish line. Paul orients all his actions around a particular goal, and Paul is single minded about pursuing that goal. He exercises self-control, he trains himself to pursue that goal. So, what is Paul striving after? He tells us in the passage that comes just before, in verses 19-23b:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Did you hear the goal? It was in that first line — “I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” That’s the goal. He repeats the goal there again at the end, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” The goal is drawing others into the Kingdom of God. That is the goal. Paul is single-minded in his pursuit of the goal of drawing others to Jesus. This goal shapes the way that Paul exercises ‘self-control’.
Before talking about the self-control Paul practices to achieve this goal, I want to talk about the goal itself. Paul’s singular goal is to draw people more deeply into relationship with Jesus and into his Kingdom. That is our goal, too. As Christians, our goal is to draw others deeper into Christ and his Kingdom. Both inside and outside the church. All of our self-control, and by that I mean all of our activity, every aspect of our life together, our engagement in spiritual disciplines, are to be oriented towards drawing ourselves and others deeper into Christ. That is the finish line. That is the goal of our life together. That orients how we run. We run, mindful of how to draw ourselves and others deeper into Christ. Others. Drawing others, outsiders deeper into Christ.
What do you think about that goal? Does it orient your life? I’ve been haunted by these words of Jesus in Matthew 5:44-47, “Love your neighbours, pray for people who persecute you….. If you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? ..... If you only greet your own family, what’s so special about that?” My concern is that as a church we can lose missional focus. We can end up engaging in practices that are about loving those who are like us — we only love those who are in our fold. To use Paul’s metaphor, that’s what our training is about: to love people in our church.
In a number of recent conversations I’ve heard people say something like, “I worry that the church is going to take me away from my community outside the church.” Let’s name that danger as a danger. As churches we can do that. We can become insular. We can replace the goal of drawing others to Jesus with the goal of growing the church. They are different goals. There may be some overlap, but our goal cannot be simply to grow the church. Our goal is to make disciples of all nations — which by definition includes people not attending our church. As a church, we cannot be so involved church-life that we have no space for other relationships.
Being missional is a different goal than growing the church, and requires different practices and approaches to self-control. It involves ways of living that deepen relationships with people outside the church. It involves being church in a way that the boundary between church and non-church activities becomes more fluid, more porous. This takes thought. This takes different forms of action.
Here’s an idea: What if a church program was a bunch of us volunteering at the Friendship Centre? What if a church program was volunteering with the Smithers Mountain Bike Association? What if a church program was joining a baseball team for the Telkwa Bar-B-Que? What if we were intentional about how we take our light into the world together?
Being missional takes different forms of self-control, different forms of action, different intentionality. Quilters-from-the-Heart and Summer-Fun-Times are two groups affiliated with the church that make it easier for people to develop relationships with our church community. The boundaries of these groups are porous. Not overtly religious. The breakfast we had at Quick Eats at the beginning of the month was an attempt at helping people outside the church take that first step towards our community. In these ways, self-control takes on a particular form. We intentionally shape our behaviour towards the goal of being missional. We draw others into deeper relationship first with us, and so with Christ. After all, Christ is in us. As we develop relationships with those who don’t know Jesus, we embrace different spiritual practices. For example, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommends “talking to God about your brother more than talking to your brother about God.”
Now, let’s talk about Paul’s strategy towards pursue this goal of winning people to Christ. Paul says that he became all things to all people so that by all means, he might save some. This involves considerable self-control. Paul gives thought to how to engage with people so as to best help them draw closer to Jesus. He says this will look different with a Jew than a non-Jew. It’ll look different with a weak person than with a strong person. This is the challenge Paul gives the Corinthian church. They were thoughtless about how their behaviour impacted others. He challenged them to engage in self-control and to shape their own behaviour so as to draw others to Christ, not hinder them. This means becoming like a mountain biker to win mountain bikers; to become like an RCMP Officer to win RCMP officers; to become like a neighbour to win neighbours; to become like a school teacher to win school teachers; to become like a dairy farmer to win dairy farmers; to become like a high school student to win high school students, to become like a logger to win loggers, to become like a child to win children. This takes thought. This takes intentionality. This takes self-control. This takes time.
As a church community, let’s spur one another on towards this goal. Let’s try to develop practices that help us all towards the goal of drawing others to Jesus. Again, to reach this goal Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.”
You know those stories where the spy or the cop goes so deep undercover they forget who they are? “I don’t know which side I’m on, man.” Perhaps you’ve distanced yourself from the church in order to reach out to another community and have gotten lost in that community. When Paul says he became all things to all people, he does not mean that he lost his grounding in being in Christ. He never lost that core of his identity.
As a church, we help each other form our identity in Christ as we pursue mission. We help form each other in Christ, so that when we become all things to all people, we don’t lose ourselves. That’s the intent of being a part of a church community. We can help each other engage in the appropriate practices to grow deeper in Christ. That’s the other side of the self-control coin. Our life together helps us grow deeper in Christ and strengthens our mission. Here we become grounded in relationship with each other and in Christ, and we reorient ourselves towards the goal we are running.
The church is a place where we can partner in learning Christ, practice prayer, engage in worship, celebrate God’s gifts, love one another, enjoy the sacraments together — the church is a place where we are formed in Christ. As we do, we will bear fruit. And those we encounter on mission will taste and see that the Lord is good.
So, when we think about self-control, we think about what practices will help us run towards the goal of our faith — our formation in Christ for the sake of mission. As a church, let’s throw off everything else that hinders us from that goal, and run the race together.