Self-Mastery and the Imperishable Prize
Apparently, so did the apostle Paul. He used athletic metaphors in multiple contexts, including I Timothy 6:12 (“Fight the good fight of faith”) and 2 Timothy 4:7 (“I fought the good fight. I have finished the race.”).
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul drew from the ancient games to exhort and warn an undisciplined and contentious congregation. He reminds his readers of the elite athletes who trained and competed with singular purpose, with focused intensity, to win a perishable prize, a crown of withered celery. These athletes exercised “self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25, NASB). Paul’s point in this passage is clear: Christians, who “run” for an imperishable prize, also must exercise self-control.
What does Paul mean by self-control? His word enkrateia has a rich history in Greek philosophy. The root krat- means power or control. Enkrateia means power over oneself in the sense of persistence, endurance or restraint, mastery of one’s appetites and passions. Socrates included enkrateia as one of the chief virtues. Plato, Aristotle, and Stoic philosophers, from various angles, celebrated the man who could control, suppress or moderate his impulses and desires.
Paul uses the term in the classical sense, but with a significant and profound twist. For Paul, enkrateia ultimately is not an autonomous human achievement: enkrateia is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), a supernatural byproduct of responding by faith to grace (Eph. 2:8-9), and walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), as we are led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:19).
Christians are called to exercise enkrateia, but we cannot manufacture authentic enkrateia, any more than we can manufacture agape. The most we can do—without the Spirit’s power—is to implement or submit to a rule-oriented regimen, a life of “don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” (Col. 2:21). Paul clearly denounces this approach, although many Christians—ancient and modern—seem to prefer it.
In our day, as in Paul’s, many live without self-control. “Their god is their stomach and their glory is in their shame” (Phil. 3:19). These folks need enkrateia. In our day, as in Paul’s, many Christians are complacent, unfocused, and undisciplined. They are “like a man running aimlessly” (1 Cor. 9:26). These folks need enkrateia. In our day, as in Paul’s, many folks, Christians and non-Christians, try to live by myriad rules and prohibitions. These folks need enkrateia.
The Christian life is a struggle. That is why Paul called it a race and a fight. That is why self-control is essential. That is why we must, moment by moment, keep in step with the Spirit, who empowers us to “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 3:12).