Why are there are a plethora of passages throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament, that extol the person who practices self-control (also frequently translated “self-discipline”)?
In Matthew 16, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” One disciple responded, “Elijah.” We know that Elijah was a great prophet from the Old Testament, but to a Jew of the first century, Elijah was the archetype of a faithful disciple running with intense commitment to God. In 1 Kings 18 we learn that Elijah was the man who climbed Mount Carmel and challenged the prophets of a cult, climbed down to witness their punishment, went back up and prayed earnestly, climbed back down and then ran nearly 20 miles ahead of a chariot. Elijah was committed with his whole body to God. For someone to say that Jesus was Elijah, Jesus must have had that same incredible intensity and commitment to God.
Contrast this viewpoint of constantly running for God to the culture of the Greeks and Romans where leisure is one’s highest aim. Cities were filled with baths, coliseums, theaters, and other entertainment venues. To communicate the Gospel to the people of this culture, the writers of the New Testament used the image of running a race and practicing a training discipline to describe living a life for God.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Paul implores us to run our life for Christ, running hard and doing his work as much as we can. After we finish our race and meet our Master, he will look at us and ask, “Do you have anything left?” I want to respond, “No. I gave it my all. I gave it every breath I could and I have nothing left.” To give anything less would treat discipleship like a part-time job, when true discipleship is a discipline committing one’s entire self.
God of life, help me to be focused on you in the race of my life. I give all I am to you and will serve you with my whole being. Amen.