“Why am I doing this?” It’s a question I often ask myself mid-run.
I was on mile eight and had about four more to go. My legs were already tight and the hill before me loomed large. As I made my way uphill my thighs screamed for more oxygen causing my heart to beat faster to supply it. My lungs burned as they tried to keep up. My legs, heart, and lungs were all sending the same signal to my brain, “STOP!”
In that moment I’m faced with a choice. I can give in to the cries of my body and slow down to a walk, which would almost immediately stop the pain. Or, I can tell my body ‘no’ and keep pushing through the pain to the finish line.
Self-Denial in a Selfish Age
We live in an age where self is king and the greatest act of treachery is to deny the king what he wants. Self-denial is a foreign concept in our culture, yet it seems to be at the heart of following Jesus. Consider Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). If we want to follow Jesus, he said we must deny ourselves.
Let’s be honest, we are not very good at denying ourselves are we? We often seem to lack the self-control needed to deny ourselves. If I desire I juicy hamburger, I can go through the drive-through and get it within minutes. I don’t even have to get out of my car or put nice clothes on. If I get the urge to buy something, I can go to Amazon and have it within a couple of days. Anything we desire seems to be at our fingertips. While this is a very convenient luxury, I wonder how healthy it is for our spiritual life and ability to become more self-controlled.
We Talking About Practice?
How can we practice self-denial in such a me-centered culture? How can we become more self-controlled if we are seldom forced to tell ourselves ‘no.’
Perhaps it’s healthy to put ourselves in situations where we have to practice self-control by denying ourselves. For me, running is something I do regularly and it constantly gives me opportunity to make decisions that disagree with my desires. Any form of exercise can be helpful for this. One of the spiritual disciplines that God has given us is fasting. Because of our dislike for denying self, fasting seems to have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps it’s a discipline we need to highlight once again, especially in today’s cultural climate.
We could list many benefits to fasting, but one is the opportunity to practice self-control. Our bodies crave food, and at least three times a day we cater to such requests. If you’re like me, sprinkled between three mealtimes are about twenty-seven snack sessions. My body has gotten used to such feedings and as soon as I miss one it lets me know about it. If I miss two, it’s hard to focus. If I miss a day or two, then everything in me is screaming out for a delicious meal. As I’m fasting, I have to tell myself ‘no’ when everything in me desires otherwise.
Fasting in Scripture is mostly from food, and I think that should be a regular part of the Christian life. However, we can also fast from other things which provide the opportunity to deny ourselves. Been watching a lot of TV lately? Been shopping too much? Has video games taken a much larger percentage of your time? How about social media? These are all things that might be beneficial to fast from for a time in order to practice telling our cravings, “no.”
Denying ourselves from food for a time might help us when we need to deny ourselves from the desire to gossip. Not giving in to the craving to pull out my phone and check social media might help me resist the craving to envy. Saying ‘no’ to my body when it wants to stop running might help me say ‘no’ when I’m tempted to give in to anger. The more we can practice self-denial, the more it will help us in our battle against sin.
You Are Not Alone
It would be nice if there were some invisible force that helped me on mile eight and gave me the strength I need to persevere, but that’s not the case with running. However, when it comes to the self-control needed to avoid sin, God has not left us alone. He promised to send a Helper and he has done just that.
Talking about self-denial and self-discipline today can cause one to think of you as some legalistic monk on the verge of moving to the mountains. To some, nothing seems more “unspiritual” than discipline. However, let us not forget that self-control is an often-forgotten fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
We are not alone as we seek to grow more self-controlled. Growing in this area is not a matter of doing so in your own strength, in fact it’s something you can’t do yourself. Thankfully, though, God has equipped you with all the resources of heaven to develop the fruit of self-control in you. He has given you himself. Believers are filled with the Holy Spirit and have the same power that spoke all things into creation, the same power that sustains all things, and the same power that raised Christ from the dead dwelling in them. God is willing to help us when we ask him. Yes, it’s hard to tell ourselves no when everything in us wants something, but our spiritual life depends on it and we have all the power we need to assist us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Elsewhere he encourages Timothy to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). With the Holy Spirit’s help, let us discipline our bodies, practice self-control, and train ourselves for godliness lest we give in to sin and become disqualified.