During this month of May, we are considering some of the things God wants His people to have. Two weeks ago we considered mercy. Last week we considered the desire to bear witness for Jesus. Next week the topic will be courage. For today, the theme will be discipline, concentrating in this message on self-discipline.
With self-discipline in mind, let me set the stage by giving each of us the challenge to have discipline in all areas of life, including, among other things, what TV programs we watch, how we spend our money, the type of clothes we wear, the company we keep, how we handle whatever business we do. There are of course other areas in which we are to have discipline, but those things represent much of what we do day-by-day in our lives.
Let me add this. Last week’s message was on telling others about Jesus. The emphasis was on telling by what we say. Today’s message expands our telling to ways we live our lives. We need to make sure everything we do displays our faith in Jesus.
One more preliminary comment. Remember the point of the messages this month is not to make anyone feel bad if we are not yet all we should be concerning how God wants us to live. However, it should be our goal to be merciful and have the desire to tell others about Jesus. It should be our goal to be more and more courageous and more and more spiritually disciplined. Let’s continue to work on all those things, benefitting from the Bible, including from the passages we will consider in this message, some that teach the need for discipline and two that give us examples of men who were self-disciplined.
The first passage for today was written by the apostle Paul. It is I Corinthians 9:24-27. In it, Paul compares the Christian life to athletics.
Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?”
I will admit I have always had a bit of a problem with the beginning of today’s first passage because on the surface, it seems to indicate there can only be one winner in a race. That is of course true in athletics, but for the Christian race, only one winner? No. Paul’s point is to teach us that we are all to work as hard in our Christian lives - in our discipline in things like what TV programs we watch and what clothes we wear and how we handle whatever business we do - as athletes work in preparing for athletic races.
That point is at least hinted at in the next few words. “In a race, all runners compete.” Applying that to our Christian lives, we are to run like runners do. We are to train to do that, “that you may obtain the finish line.” As every athlete exercises self-control in all things, we are to do the same spiritually.
And this. Athletes train in hopes of receiving “perishable wreaths.” Winners back then were awarded wreaths for their heads. The wreaths were made of flowers, which of course wilted quickly, especially with the heat coming off the head of the winning athlete. But for us who live the Christian life, our reward is “imperishable” - the steadfastness of God’s blessings now and the promise of Heaven later.
Do spiritually what athletes do physically. Train, which includes self-discipline, which Paul himself did. as the passage continues, “I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air.” Of course we can all be successful when not facing an enemy, but thinking about being disciplined is not enough. We have to meet our problems. As Paul added, “I pommel my body and subdue it.” He did that by resisting his own human nature. He did that by enduring all sorts of physical and emotional attacks.
He did that so he could get stronger “lest, after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
Self-discipline is something God wants His people to have. As strongly as athletes are disciplined physically, we are to be spiritually so we can attain the imperishable award of God’s blessings now and always. That is the teaching of Paul in I Corinthians 9.
As hinted earlier, such discipline might not be a feature you or I have fully developed at this time. That is why another passage from Paul is so very important. Philippians 3:12-14. Paul wrote, “Not that I have already attained this or am already perfect.”
Whew. We know Paul was a tremendously strong Christian. He did indeed, as this message’s first passage proclaimed, pommel his body in an attempt to be spiritual. We know he was tremendously successful in his ministry, converting many, many people to Jesus and starting many, many congregations.
It can be easy to look at Paul and want to give up, knowing, at least speaking for myself, there is no way I could ever match him. But as he himself wrote, not even he was perfect. What hope that gives me.
However, equally important is this. “One thing I do. I forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal.”
Have any of us ever messed up in the area of discipline? Have any of us ever fallen short of God’s ideal in how we spend our money or with the company we keep? I dare say each of us could think of maybe a few times when that has happened. If so, may we take Paul’s challenge to forget what lies behind. There is nothing any of us can do to change what has happened in the past, but we can, from this time on, do better.
Which is what Paul challenged us to do with the words “strain forward to what lies ahead.” What lies ahead? Living more disciplined lives. Disciplined according to God’s standards.
We are to strain. We are to work hard. We are to be devoted, dedicated to following God’s word. That is to be part of us pressing on toward the goal.
What goal? “The prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
How else can the straining and pressing on be explained? How about what is written in yet another passage by Paul, this one Romans 5:3-5.
Paul wrote, “More than that, we [that is mainly Paul, but there were some other Christian leaders he was referring to as well] rejoice in our sufferings.”
We have already discussed the sufferings of Paul. The battles he had with his human nature and with physical and natural enemies. He had much suffering in his Christian life.
But he rejoiced in his sufferings. Why? It is because suffering, he wrote, “produces endurance.” Endurance describes the ability to overcome the troubles of life.
Endurance is important because it, Paul added, “produces character,” which comes from a word describing metal that has been passed through fire so everything impure is purged out of it. We have heard, for instance, of sterling silver. That refers to perfectly pure silver. Speaking spiritually, having character - spiritual purity - means that when we endure troubles, we develop character.
Notice the use of the word “develop.” We may not have perfect character yet, but it is something we are to work on.
And it continues. When we have character, it produces hope."
Consider this. Troubles can stop anyone. It is easy to let that happen. But the better way is to allow our troubles to help us grow to the point of endurance. To have the discipline for that to happen.
Then we can stop with endurance, but we are to have the discipline to move on to developing character.
And we are not to stop there, either. We are to develop such character that we will have hope. Christian hope.
I read this. Two people can meet the same situation. It can drive one to despair and spur the other to spiritual maturity. It is maturity toward which we are to strain and press.
Why is it important to have hope? Spiritual hope? It is because hope is based on the imperishable God.
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Whenever any of us suffer, may we have the discipline to move from that to endurance, character, and hope. Let’s not be discouraged if we are not yet able to make that journey. Instead, let’s do like Paul did in forgetting past failures, while straining forward and pressing on toward spiritual growth. Let’s be as dedicated to that as athletes are as they strive to win physical races. All of that is important as we continue to work on developing spiritual discipline, which is something God wants us, His people, to have.
How about examples of people who had spiritual discipline? I have two to share. Both are from the Old Testament. They popped into my mind because they faced temptations that are around even now. Let’s think about how two men in the Old Testament had the discipline to stay true to God.
One is Joseph, told about in the Book of Genesis.
Very briefly as background, Joseph had a pretty easy life growing up. He at least seemed to be the favorite of his father. That, along with maybe a bit of an arrogant attitude, made his brothers unhappy with him.
At one point, their unhappiness with Joseph led them to sell him to some traveling traders who took him to Egypt, where they sold him into slavery. Joseph became the property of Potiphar, an officer of the leader of Egypt.
That was of course a very bad thing for Joseph, but apparently he had the spiritual discipline to move from suffering to endurance and from endurance to character and from character to hope. So successful was he in that process that he soon was appointed the overseer of Potiphar’s house. Everything Potiphar had, Joseph was in charge of.
Everything, that is, except Potiphar’s wife, which turned out to be a problem since Potiphar’s wife took a liking to Joseph. Such a liking she tried to seduce him. Day after day she said to him, “Lie with me.” It went on so long that eventually, Joseph did all he could to avoid being in her presence.
Think of it. Joseph was still young. His hormones were strong and active. Plus, he had been mistreated by his brothers. Did he not deserve some pleasure? And he was important to his owner, so why not take advantage of that?
Joseph could have yielded to the seduction and tried to justify his actions. Even today his reasons for yielding can seem logical.
But Joseph did not yield. Listen to what he said in his refusal to yield. He said to Potiphar’s wife, “My master trusts me. How can I betray that trust? How can I do such wickedness?” And this, which speaks of his spiritual discipline. “How can I sin against God?”
Wow. The pressure on Joseph - the temptation he faced - was very strong. And again, had he given in, he could have tried to justify his actions. But he did not give in. He knew having an affair with Potiphar’s wife would be wrong, not only to his master, but to God. His desire to stay true to God was stronger than the physical urges he had.
A strength that continued the day he suddenly found himself alone with Potiphar’s wife, who grabbed his clothes, trying to draw him to her. Even then, Joseph did not yield. Not even after the clothes he had on - probably a robe-like garment - came off. When that happened, he ran out of Potiphar’s house.
Again think of the temptation facing Joseph. Had he yielded, maybe what happened next would not have happened, but Potiphar’s wife, then a scorned woman, accused Joseph of trying to attack her, which resulted in prison for Joseph.
Later, Joseph was released from prison and he returned to a position of importance, but maybe Joseph could have avoided that trouble. However, having an affair with Potiphar’s wife would have been a sin against God. Joseph had the spiritual discipline to overcome the seduction and survive the temptation.
Physical temptation is still around today, sometimes physically, sometimes with pornography. Can such temptation be overcome? Yes. Joseph is an example. May we have the same discipline he had so we, too, can survive and not sin against God.
The other example is Daniel, later in the Old Testament.
Very briefly, Daniel was one of many young men of Israel who were captured and taken to Babylon to serve King Nebuchadnezzar. Like Joseph before him, Daniel was able to move from his suffering to endurance and character and hope. The result for him was that he was given more power in the king’s court than others. That made him unpopular with those others, who concocted a scheme designed to get him into trouble with the king. The scheme was Daniel’s enemies tricking the king into making a law that for a month, no one could pray to anyone except the king.
Guess what. Daniel, who, back in his homeland, had prayed to no one but God, had continued to do that as a captive in Babylon.
Guess what. Even after the new law was announced, Daniel continued to pray to God.
And not only that. Joseph did not hide his praying. Three times each day, as always, Daniel opened his windows toward Jerusalem. In his open windows, in full view of everyone, in the hearing of any who walked by his house, he prayed, not to the king of Babylon, but to God.
Him doing that was soon brought to the attention of the king, who had no choice but to carry out the penalty for breaking the law, which was for Daniel to be thrown into a den of lions.
What a temptation Daniel faced to just go along with the new law, or at least to pray to God out of view and hearing, or, when arrested, to promise to never pray to God again. To promise that in exchange for his life. Like Joseph, Daniel could, according to the world’s standards, have tried to justify doing that. After all, it was his life at stake. But Daniel did not yield to the temptation.
As it turned out, Daniel did not die. He was thrown into a den. There were hungry lions in the den. However, through the blessing of God, not one scratch or tooth mark appeared on Daniel. The lions left him alone.
Daniel, too, returned to importance, but again, what a temptation Daniel faced. The temptation to save his life. To do that by no longer praying to God. That temptation is also still around since praying is sometimes considered politically incorrect. Can such temptation be overcome? Yes. Daniel is an example. May we have the same discipline he had so we, too, can survive.
Whenever we suffer, may we, like Daniel and Joseph, have the discipline to move from that to endurance, character, and hope. May we not be discouraged if we are not yet able to make that journey. Instead, let’s forget past failures and strain forward and press on toward spiritual discipline. Let’s be as dedicated to that as athletes are as they strive to win physical races. All of that is important as we continue to work on developing spiritual discipline, which is something God wants us, His people, to have.
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Before our closing, I have three things to share that summarize what today’s Bible passages teach.
Kop Kopmeyer is a recognized expert on success. He is known for four books he wrote about success, each one containing 25o principles of success.
One day Kopmeyer was asked, “Of all the one thousand success principles you have discovered, which do you think is the most important?”
His answer? “Do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not. He added, “There are 999 other success principles, but without self-discipline, none of them work.”
Henry Fosdick, a pastor in the early- to mid-twentieth century, is quoted as having said this. “No stream or gas drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, and disciplined.”
And this by George Stahnke, writing in a recent Focus on the Family email letter. “As followers of God, we live our lives representing His character in our interactions with people. To deal unjustly with anyone for any reason is to misrepresent God. How can people know God can be trusted if we, His people, are not trustworthy in our dealings with them? To act unjustly, to be dishonest and deliberately cheat another person, is not only sinful. It is a disgusting thing to the Lord.”
Thinking of that, one more time, the call of God is for discipline in all areas of life, including what TV programs we watch, how we spend our money, what clothes we wear, the company we keep, how we handle whatever business we do.
May we work, strive for, press on toward the discipline in all parts of our lives that will be pleasing to our God.
The closing for today is a reading taken from the hymn Higher Ground. We will read together two of the verses that will remind us of Paul’s challenge to strive for spiritual discipline. The benediction will be based on the chorus of the hymn.
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I am gaining every day,
Still praying as I am onward bound.
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
I want to live above the world,
Though Satan’s darts at me are hurled.
For faith has caught the joyful sound -
the song of saints on higher ground.
Lord, please lift us up and let us stand by faith in You. Faith seen in our mercy, our desire to tell others about You, our courage, and, as we have discussed today, our spiritual discipline. Help us to be disciplined. To grow in that quality. Amen.