The Biblical Example of Temperance
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (I Corinthians 9:24).
The apostle Paul was very much concerned about disciplining his own life. In the passage listed above, Paul uses the illustration of an athletic contest—a race. That was a familiar thing to these Christians in Corinth. The Greeks had two great athletic events—the Olympic games with which we are very much familiar, and the Isthmian games which were held at the city of Corinth every three years. In fact, if you go to Corinth, you can still see the areas where the races were run. The starting blocks where the athletes started out the races are still embedded in the stones. And Paul uses this figure, because, to him, the Christian life is similar to races at these games.
These Corinthians knew that every athlete who participated in the races had to take an oath that they had been training for 10 months, and that they had given up certain foods in their diet to enable them to endure the race. They subjected themselves to rather rigorous discipline in order to win. But Paul says all that they were winning was a “corruptible crown.” In other words, they were running for a reward that over time would fade. It was traditionally a pine wreath, but in contrast, the apostle Paul says that we are running for “an incorruptible” crown, one that is of an eternal nature.
Paul sees life this way. Our aim is to run the race of life in order to be a useful instrument of God; to be used whenever and wherever he wants to use us. That was Paul’s objective. When he woke up in the morning that is what was first in his thoughts; that is, what set the tone of his day. He was ready to give up certain indulgences, if necessary, which may have been perfectly right and proper for him at a given time. But if they interfered with his objective to be what God wanted him to be, Paul said he would be happy to give them up. For him the great objective was to win the prize and to feel the sense of delight that he was being used by God.
In this figure of a race that Paul uses, it is obvious you cannot do that if there is no self-discipline. There is always something in life that will distract you if you let it. There are temptations to turn aside, to give up, to sit back and let life go on and enjoy yourself. But all those things will sabotage your Christian effectiveness. That’s what Paul is talking about. And so he says we need self-discipline, we need self-control.
It has been said that discipline is what we need the most in our modern world and what we want the least. So we have a country filled with students dropping out of school, husbands and wives looking for divorces, employees walking out on their jobs, and Christians who are becoming unfaithful. Many of them simply don’t have the self-discipline that it takes to see their problems through. They run from their problems, look for the easy way out, and quit when the going gets rough.
Solomon once said, “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small” (Proverbs 24:10). Days of adversity are going to come. We need to understand that and develop the self-discipline to handle them.
To help us understand the concept of self-control better, I want us to look at another verse. It is found in Proverbs 16:32: He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city. This gives us a very basic definition that self-control is “ruling your spirit.” In this portion of Scriptures the Bible compares self-control with one who conquers a city, and states that one who can practice self-control is better than one who can overthrow a city. Throughout history the world has made much out of military victories. From ancient times we have records of generals and the cities that they have conquered. As we move through time, we tend to make heroes out of generals. I think of two men who became presidents not because of their political abilities but because they were great soldiers—Dwight Eisenhower and Ulysses Grant. We give our warriors the highest honor and greatest power. But here in Proverbs 16:32 we are reminded that the simple, private victory of living in self-control is greater than all the great victories of any war. Let us consider why this is so.