Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Spiritual Sweat of Self-Control

One of my favorite sports films is Rocky, the classic inspirational movie about a down-and-out, mediocre boxer who seizes an incredible opportunity. When heavyweight champion Apollo Creed's opponent is injured and cancels three weeks prior to their fight, Creed chooses a local fighter, Rocky, to box. It is an amateur's dream.

During one promotional interview some time before the fight, Rocky and a reporter stand in a large meat freezer with a long row of frozen of beef behind them. The reporter asks him how he came to train inside an ice box. Rocky answers that his friend let him in, he hit the beef, and he liked it—and the owner doesn't mind. “Is this a common training method? I mean, do other fighters pound raw meat?” the reporter asks. “Naw. I think I invented it,” Rocky replies. The reporter asks for a demonstration, and Rocky obliges her. He begins punching a side of beef.

Meanwhile Apollo Creed's training assistant is watching the interview on TV. Creed, unlike Rocky, isn't training but is rather engrossed with promotional details. He makes sure he flies his barber in to Philly, confirms ringside reservations, and sends the mayor's wife 200 roses (making sure the newspapers are there to take pictures).

While Creed and the promoter briefly discuss tax breaks and advertising for the fight, the assistant, engrossed with Rocky on TV, leans forward. As Rocky ferociously pounds the meat, the assistant says, “Hey, Champ. You gotta come and look at this boy you're gonna fight on TV. Looks like he means business.” From the background Creed says, “Yeah, yeah, I mean business, too,” and asks for coffee. The assistant has a worried look on his face as he watches Rocky continue his assault on the beef. (Watch the video clip here)

For those of you who have seen the movie then you know that although Rocky doesn't win the fight, but he shocks Apollo Creed and the world by going 15 close, bloody rounds with the champion. The difference maker wasn't that he was athletically gifted, but because he had the “eye of the tiger.” So when it comes to spiritual training you need to ask yourself: “Am I more like Rocky or Apollo Creed in my preparation for battling against the world, flesh and the Devil? Do I exercise spiritual sweat in my personal disciplines?

The apostle Paul spoke often of the discipline of self-control. In Gal. 5:23 it is listed as a fruit of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul likens then Christian life to that of an Olympic athlete who relentlessly trains in order to win the race and stand on the award stage. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:25-27). This quality may also be translated as “temperance” and it refers to the mastery of one's desires, impulses and appetites.

We see a good example of self-control implied in Proverbs 25:28: “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.” The picture is that of an ancient city in which the walls have toppled over and has nothing to stand in the way of an invading enemy. So the person who has no restraint against the baser passions of the flesh—greed, sensuality, anger, etc.—doesn't stand a chance in this pressure cooker world.

The Bible has much to say about this particular quality and the behaviors that accompany it:
·         People with self-control watch their words. They put their minds in gear before opening their mouths: “Be careful what you say and protect your life. A careless talker destroys himself” (Pro. 13:3).

·         People with self-control also restrain their reactions. How much can you take before you lose your cool? “If you are sensible, you will control your temper. When someone wrongs you, it is a great virtue to ignore it” (Pro. 19:11).

·         People with self-control also stick to their schedule. If you don't determine how you will spend your time, then others will decide for you: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

·         People with self-control know how to manage their money. The self-controlled learn to live on less than what they make and know the value of a budget is that it tells your money where you want it to go rather than wondering where it went! “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.” (Pro. 21:20) 

·         People with self-control know how to turn down temptation. Someone has explained resisting temptation like so: “Temptation is to see Satan standing outside the backdoor of your heart. Sin is to unlock the door so that he may have his way. Victory is to open wide the front door of your heart, inviting the Savior to enter and give you strength to bar tight the back door.” James 4:7 advises, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. The exercise of this discipline called self-control prevents desire from becoming a dictator. For the person without Christ, the desires dictate and he or she obeys. Those in Christ, living under the authority of His Spirit and ruled by Him, are able to defy this once-powerful dictator. As a result, we experience a transforming change that others notice. -DM

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