Ah! The New Year resolution! People come up with a myriad of ways that they want to improve themselves, resolve to do so, and all too often begin falling short and giving up by Valentine’s Day. Part of the problem is, of course, unrealistic goals, or an unrealistic view of what is truly important for yourself. But for many, the issue is one of self-discipline. Knowing you should lose weight but desiring the chocolate cake are incompatible desires. Since eating the chocolate cake is much more enjoyable than not eating the chocolate cake, it usually wins out.
We tend to look at self-control from the point of view of resisting temptation – resisting the chocolate cake. But in 1 Corinthians Paul pulls up an athletic metaphor for the application of self-control. In order for the athlete to win the race, he (or she) must apply discipline to their entire lives. All things must be tailored to win the prize. Whatever preparations are necessary to win the race, the athlete must do. And Paul says emphatically, “Run in such a way that you may win it.” The race here is not to lose a couple of pounds or pay your taxes on time: the race is to salvation and eternal life. Live your life in such a way that you may win salvation and eternal life.
This gets a little theologically thick, since we believe that one cannot earn salvation – it is the free gift granted us by Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. Yet it also seems clear that we are called to live a life worthy of saving. Christ might choose to save the unrepentant sinner for reasons of His own, but Paul is saying make it as hard as possible for Christ to reject you. And you do that by living a life abundant in the fruit of the spirit. And to do that, you will need to “exercise self-control in all things.”
I am not sure we can seriously play the parlor game of New Year resolutions by saying “In 2022, I will exercise self-control in all things.” We certainly live in a world (as Paul did) where saying such things opens you up to ridicule. But I think it is fair to say that much of the world’s woes are caused by too many people not exercising any self-control. When your goal is to live a life worthy of salvation, exercising self-control in not only mind and body, but in your soul as well, you not only do something pleasing to God, but you might also help make this a better world along the way.
Finally, I will let Paul exhort you to this way of living in this passage from 2 Timothy:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.