Mike talks about the relationship between the Holy Spirit's influence and the discipline of self-control.
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Becoming godly is each Christian's true calling in response to the question, "What shall I do with my life and why am I here?" We are, therefore, studying 10 spiritual disciplines that will help us move forward in this process: intimacy, simplicity, silence, solitude, surrender, prayer and humility. We will review these in the last lesson but for now, let us examine the eighth spiritual discipline which is self-control.

The problem

14For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
- Romans 7:14-25

In this passage, Paul is describing the battle taking place within every believer, the struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Does every Christian have this problem? Yes! Even the great apostle Paul.

What, exactly, is the danger here? The threat Paul describes is a situation where the flesh will overpower and dominate us. What is the Christian's objective in this situation? The believer wants the spirit to dominate the flesh. Sin and the desire of the flesh is still present, still felt but it is the spirit that dominates, not the flesh. How do you get to this point? Exercise self-control.

You cannot become a godly person unless the Spirit dominates and the Spirit cannot dominate unless we practice self-control.

Know your enemy

Many people fail to cultivate self-control in their lives because they do not really know their enemy very well. Our enemy, when it comes to self-control, is ourselves.

For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.
- Galatians 5:17

Paul says that the battle raging within us leaves us not able to do what we want, good or bad. My faith spoils the pleasures of evil. My flesh interrupts my communion with God.

When you become a Christian, you receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) and your life is redirected, however, your old habits and sinful desires remain and continually draw you back. The Spirit and flesh battle for domination and you can usually tell who is winning by the nature of the fruit or actions your life is producing.

18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
- Galatians 5:18-24

Giving in to our temptations, weaknesses, evil desires and worldly influences empowers the flesh to dominate and eventually destroy us. However, exercising self-control enables the Spirit to dominate and strengthen, and ultimately deliver us from the hold of the flesh and its natural result which is both physical and spiritual death.

If humility's reward in this life is peace, then self-control's prize is the ability to experience joy as faithful disciples of Jesus.

Winning the war

It is not enough just to know the enemy and how it operates, we have to have our own strategy for victory. Here are some strategies on how to cultivate self-control so that the Spirit can dominate and bless your lives:

1. Eyes on the prize

The Olympic athletes motivate themselves by imagining the moment they win the gold and what that would mean:

  • Names in the history books
  • Prestige, fame, wealth
  • To be the greatest in the world at a particular event
24Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
- I Corinthians 9:24-27

Paul uses this same sport analogy to emphasize the idea that self-control is the basis for success both in competitive sport as well as the competition between the Spirit and the flesh for the dominance over our bodies. Initially our prize is the joy we experience as we see the Spirit dominating our lives with the spiritual fruit being produced as the proof.

Ultimately our crown or wreath is eternal life and the call of the Lord to be with Him in heaven as good and faithful servants. The answer to give to temptation in all of its forms is, "You are not worth it."

2. Show your body who's the boss

The adage, "No pain, no gain" is just as true in the spiritual battle we fight as it is in motivating athletes to train hard. Self-control is painful because the body, the belly, the eyes and the heart all want something and if you don't give in, your flesh will extract a price of suffering for having denied it. You have to run, as Paul says, in such a way as to win, not to lose. Doing right, avoiding wrong and resisting the pull to give in are not easy or painless, but with time and practice each of these becomes easier and less painful. The key is to remember that it is always worth the effort - always!

3. Self-control is a personal matter

Your spouse, friend, parent or minister cannot instill self-control in you - it is all you with help from God. If you choose the flesh, the flesh will dominate you, if you appeal to the Spirit, the Spirit will empower you and dominate your life and it will show.

12So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!"
- Romans 8:12-15

Remember this important rule of thumb - you usually have only 3 seconds to decide who wins the battle of giving into the flesh or following the Spirit's lead.

If in those 3 seconds you use your self-control to call on the Spirit, He will empower you to do right and move closer to the godliness you are pursuing. You grow 3 seconds at a time.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which are you more vulnerable to, temptations of the body (consumption, illicit pleasure, violence, etc.) or temptations of the heart (pride, honesty, jealousy, self-pity, etc.)? Why do you think this is so?
  2. Why do you think some people believe that God will not forgive their sins (or one sin in particular)?
  3. When you fail to resist a temptation, what is the usual reason for your failure?
  4. Describe your greatest success in exercising your self-control to resist temptation or the return to a bad habit.
    • How did this make you feel?
    • How did it affect other parts of your spiritual walk with Christ?
  5. Do you believe in the 3-second rule mentioned at the end of the lesson?
    • If yes, why and describe how it works.
    • If no, why?