by Dave Hintz
In the last article, we discussed the importance of discipline, and how the Holy Spirit enables true believers to walk according to the Word of God. This can only be done when the believer yields control of his life to the Father’s will and the Spirit’s power. Knowing that sin severs us from the power of the Spirit, we must continually make ourselves right before God, repenting of our sin and applying the commands of Scripture.
Having laid this foundation, we can now begin to build those righteous habits which tame the flesh with the Spirit’s power. We will do this by discussing the necessity of hard work, and then offering some practical guidelines for becoming more self-disciplined.
Simply put, a habit consists of a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. We would like to think that once we become saved, our will and our mind automatically become predisposed to righteousness. However, after the initial high of our conversion fades, we find that our relationship with God, like our other relationships, requires work. When God regenerates us, we do not become instantly infused with a desire to read the Bible every day, tame our tongue, and pray without ceasing. However, God does give us the power and the ability to change. The shackles of sin have fallen off, and now we must exert our energy to walk away from our previous captor. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome and change any and all unrighteous habits that have dominated our lives, whether it’s an angry streak, an uncontrolled tongue, or a cocaine addiction. God gives us the power, but we must use it.
1 Corinthians 9:25-27 illustrates the kind of exertion necessary for true change. Paul writes:
And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
In the context Paul is discussing the extent to which he is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. The apostle does not use what God did in the past as an excuse to be complacent in the present; rather, he runs as if he has a race to win. He likens his own pursuit to that of an athlete who denies himself continually in order to compete in a race. This same rigor must also characterize our pursuit of God.
This athletic analogy also offers some practical implications for self-discipline. Athletes preparing to compete in the Olympics don’t regularly oversleep, indulge their appetites, seek their physical comfort and live a life of leisure. Rather, they focus every aspect of their lives on getting in the best physical and mental condition possible, pushing themselves beyond all normal limits in training for the big day: in short, they live a life of discipline. As Paul says, the athlete buffets his body; he gives his body a black eye. When he wakes up in the morning and his body says, “More sleep!” he says “No!” His nose smells french fries, his stomach growls and says, “Gimme!” and he says, “No!” His body gets tired and says, “Stop running!” but he ignores the pain and says, “No!”
In the same way, we need to be able to control our body’s desires, and doing so takes training and practice. Now although it is not necessarily wrong to eat French fries, sleep in, or relax in front of a TV, we must ask ourselves how well we are able to keep our body’s desires in check: if you can’t say no to your body’s desires when they’re not sinful, what makes you think you’ll be able to say no when they are?
Now, when beginning the process of training, it is often a good idea not to run all 26 miles of a marathon on the first try. Rather, you would incrementally increase the length of your training runs until the big day. Similarly, when you seek to train your body, set achievable goals before you progress to larger ones. For instance, instead of committing to reading the Bible for an hour a day seven days a week, try reading for fifteen minutes a day, four days a week. Other areas you might want to consider would be to limit your intake of junk food to one serving a day, decide to watch half your daily intake of TV, or wake up 30 minutes earlier for a week. All of these are just small steps you can take to train your body so that when you face temptations to sin, you will be able to resist them and deny your flesh with greater ease.
Again, let me stress that forming righteous habits requires work, but it is not a work done in the flesh; rather, it is a work of God in your life. In the words of Paul in Philippians 2:12-13
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.