So, we know that being useful in our relationship with Jesus requires faith, virtue, and knowledge. But how do we consistently do anything positive with those? We need something else. In this fifth part of our series, Being Useful, we talked about what this next thing is. Thanks for reading.
Staying on Track
When I was growing up, I had the great fortune of going to a church with a whole bunch of godly men to watch as examples of how to do the Christian life well. It was a gift that has kept on paying dividends in the years since. There’s a call to our great men in there, but that’s for another sermon. One of these men was named Martin Coleman. Martin was an engineer and was one of those guys who could do or build pretty much anything. My parents and his kids are about the same age and his grandkids are just a little bit younger than me. We all grew up together as pieces and parts of one big church family. That’s part of the reason I so love what we have here at First Baptist—which, incidentally, was the name of that church too.
In any event, when Martin retired, he was the kind of guy who everybody was going to want all the time for everything. And he would have done it if he could have too. He was the kind of guy who was not only really capable wherever he directed his energies, he was a godly man with a great heart of service; one of those who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. In addition to all of that, though, he was really wise. And it was his wisdom in realizing the potential of what lay ahead of him that has had such an impact on me—when I’ve followed it. Martin decided that when he retired he would do one thing per day. It could be a long thing or a short thing, but he would only do one. And he stuck to this too. If you went and asked him to do something on a day he already had something planned, he would work with you to figure out when else it could be done, but he wasn’t going to do it that day.
And, lest any of you be shocked at this, consider the wisdom here. What this did was to keep him from ever over-extending himself. Now, he didn’t spend the rest of his time just loafing around the house. He had other things going on including investing himself in his family and his church, but he developed the discipline of saying, “No.” Why is this so wise? Well, think about this in light of how so many of us think about being a faithful follower of Jesus. The standard approach is to just say, “Yes,” to as many things as we can, isn’t it? Being faithful involves being a “yes-man” or a “yes-woman.” Why? Because we don’t want to let Jesus down by letting down people around us who are in need. And so we get busy. In fact, many of us get so busy that we find on occasion that we are too busy for Jesus Himself because we are so tied up with serving Him. You want to know the truth about this idea that faithfulness depends on saying, “Yes,” all the time? It doesn’t. Being faithful involves saying, “No,” too. In fact, being really faithful to Jesus is sometimes going to involve saying, “No,” a whole lot more often than we say, “yes.” But, in order to say, “No,” we’ve got to have something else in place in our lives.
This morning finds us in the fifth part of our series, Being Useful. Many of you already know the big idea here pretty well. In our lives, we want to experience significance. We want to do something that other people notice. We want to have an impact on the world around us. We want, in short, to be useful. We want that in our lives generally, but for we who would claim Jesus as our Lord, we want it in our relationship with Him specifically. Well, with the help of the apostle Peter, we discovered in the first part of this journey that this kind of significance doesn’t come via the channels the world tells us to take. With Jesus, significance comes from character, not achievement. This character comes on the back of some life habits that become ingrained in our rhythm. Guiding us on this whole journey thus far has been something Peter said about these characteristics. He said in 2 Peter 1:8 that if we “possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep [us] from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
As for what “these qualities” are, that’s what we’ve spend the previous three weeks talking about. The first on Peter’s list was faith, which is the foundation point for everything else. Faith is trusting so much in God’s character and His word that we are willing to adjust our lives to it even when that’s hard to do for some reason. There is no better way to please God than this, or as we put it then, making God happy starts with trusting Him. The way this works itself out in practice is through our pursuit of virtue—that is, qualities and habits that help us to better reflect the character of God in our lives. But, living lives of virtue doesn’t come out of nowhere. We pursue things because we genuinely believe they are right and true to pursue. But, that only happens when we have our minds in the right place to start with. In other words, virtuous living starts with virtuous thinking. Even that, though, only is possible when we have a well of knowledge to draw from. Virtuous thoughts have to come from somewhere and if our knowledge well is full of junk, virtue is going to tend to be the exception to the rule when it comes to our behavior. While it’s got to go beyond mere trivia, if we are going to know Jesus well in the context of a relationship, we’ve got to know some other stuff too.
That all finally brings us back around to this morning. As we keep building on what we’ve learned, we’re going to add yet another piece this morning. If we’re going to build this well of knowledge, there are some things we’re going to have to say, “No,” to so that we can say, “yes,” to others. There’s a word for this. It’s called self-control. Self-control is one of those things that we like to talk about and like to think about, but whose execution isn’t always quite so vigorous as its conversation is. The truth is that self-control is a discipline. But, where it counts most, self-control can be a bit of a deceptive discipline. What seems both to the people around us and even to ourselves to be remarkable self-control, can really just be well-ingrained habits. We’re doing this or that not because of our incredible powers of self-control, but rather because we are simply running on autopilot. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as we’ll talk more about in a little while, but only where it is a precursor or pointer to the real thing. Or, we can develop self-control in something really insignificant in order to make ourselves feel better about being miserable at it in other places. For instance, I never bite on a Blow-Pop (you know, one of those suckers with bubble gum in the middle) until I’m all the way down to the gum. But, if you offer me sweets of some kind, the odds are pretty good that I’m going to say, “Yes,” no matter how full I am. In other words, while I may have a lot of self-control when it comes to Blow-Pops, when it comes to sweets more generally, I have about as much self-control as a toddler.
For better or for worse, though, many of the places where we have the opportunity to exercise self-control are more significant than sweets when we’re already full. And there are probably no better words in all of the Scriptures when it comes to exercising self-control than what Paul wrote in the first letter of his we have preserved to the believers in ancient Corinth. Corinth was one of those wild places in the ancient world. It was situated right between two major seaports and tended to regularly see the full slate of what the world had to offer. Now, imagine how much trouble someone coming out of a Vegas-like culture that allowed and even encouraged the indulgence of any whim or flight of fancy that caught their eye and into the church. As Paul pitched it, the church wasn’t some place where there were going to be a whole lot of rules, but as we have already talked about, there was a particular kind of lifestyle that came along with being a follower of Jesus. Now, all of a sudden, they couldn’t just do something because it tickled their fancy. They needed some guidance and Paul gave it to them.
Listen to this from 1 Corinthians 9:24: “Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
So, what’s going on here? Well, a lot. But there are three things in particular that I think are worthy of our attention. Let’s start with the first one. At the beginning of this little section, Paul is using the imagery of runners in a race. This would have been a familiar idea for the believers there in Corinth. The city played host every other year to the Isthmian Games in honor of the god Poseidon. Given the difficulties of travel, many of the athletes would have been regional. The believers there would have seen athletes in training and the kinds of things they did to keep their bodies in shape for their competitions. They had perhaps grown up going to see the games being played as well. So, when Paul said, “Don’t you know” how this works, they would have indeed known exactly how it all worked.
But, of course, Paul wasn’t talking about the games. He was talking about life. You see, contrary to the way so many of us are tempted to live, life is going somewhere. It is not aimless. It is not a wandering in the woods. It is a marathon with clearly defined boundaries and a well-defined end goal. And there is indeed a prize at the end of this race. What’s more, it is not a prize simply available to everyone. Today, we like for everyone to win. If you join in the game, you can count on getting at least a certificate of completion. Not so with life. There are no participation trophies for this race. Only the winners will enjoy the prize. And winning is defined as being in Christ.
That last important part aside for a moment, think for a minute about what it means that life is going somewhere. What does it mean that a race is going somewhere? It means that every step you take matters. Each one is either advancing you toward or away from that goal. In his famous essay, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis wrote about this idea that we are always moving toward some kind of a goal in this life. Using the words “god” and “goddess” to refer to our glorified resurrection bodies he said this: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”
Just like in elite athletic competition, every single decision we make matters. Everything we do is significant. There are no meaningless actions or thoughts or words. Even things we might otherwise deem truly trivial, are moving us along the path to become more or less like Christ. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, but that doesn’t mean those things will use themselves. We must use them or not. And if we do not, these qualities Peter talks about won’t ever even begin to manifest themselves in our lives and we will be forever useless in our knowledge of Jesus.
There is a prize to this life—eternal life—and we want to win it. That’s a truth for followers of Jesus to keep in mind. What about for people who reject the idea of eternal life entirely? Well, if they go on to reject the supernatural as a category, we can still talk. What we do today affects tomorrow. It’s simply the law of cause and effect. We cannot escape the consequences of our decisions forever. They will catch up to us eventually. Our best bet is to make decisions today that will have positive consequences for tomorrow. And, if the person allows for the supernatural, we can point them to the fact that every human culture has had some kind of a story that includes a life after this one. More than just being a common error of religious speculation, this points to a common human memory that there really is something after this life even if we don’t know exactly what it is. It only makes sense that the decisions we make in this life will continue to play out then. Why not make the kind of decisions now that will play out to our favor then? Why not play to win? But how?
How many of you remember Bo Jackson? In his short MLB career for the Kansas City Royals, he was a human highlight reel of the highest order. Had it not been for his dual career with the Oakland Raiders—yet another good reason for Kansas City Chiefs fans to hate them—he would have had a long, hall-of-fame worthy career. He did things like this.
He makes that look easy, doesn’t he? I mean, I watch that and think: I could do that. I haven’t actually tried it, mind you, because somewhere along the way my more logical brain takes over and says: “No you can’t, either.” But I’ve sure thought about it. Elite athletes make it look easy, but the truth is that what they do is incredibly difficult and requires a great deal of skills which have been developed as the result of much dedication and hard work. It is only possible because of the rigorous training they’ve put themselves through.
Well, look at what Paul says next again: “Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything.” In everything? Really? Yeah, in everything. We had a chance several years ago to tour the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. It was a pretty fascinating look at what it takes to succeed at that level of competition. Olympic athletes live incredibly regimented lives. Everything is scheduled from when they get up to when they eat to when they exercise to when they rest to when they go to bed. Every meal is planned out in great detail and with the purpose of giving them the nutrients needed to accomplish their goals. In order to say, “Yes,” to the life they’ve chosen, they have to say, “no,” to just about everything else. There’s a reason only a very few ever achieve that kind of elite status. Even great talent isn’t enough by itself to succeed there. It takes just what Paul says: Self-control. In everything. But they have decided the goal is worth it. Winning that prize is worth the sacrifices they’re making in order to have a chance at having it.
Here’s the thing, though: Our prize is better. Our prize is bigger. Or, as Paul wrote, “They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown.” When you won in the Isthmian games, you received a crown of…wait for it…celery. Later that was updated to include a crown pine leaves. Do we need to even make the point that a crown of celery is perishable? At least if you got hungry, you could snack on it. That would probably have been bad form, though. We compete, we strive for the prize of eternal life. Isn’t that prize even more worth having? Isn’t that prize more worth the sacrifices we’ll have to make in order to win it?
So, how do we do it? We exercise self-control just like these elite athletes do. In order to say, “Yes,” to the prize of eternal life, we have to say, “No.” We have to say, “No,” to a whole bunch of other things. We say, “No,” to ourselves. We say, “No,” to the opportunity to gain what we should not have using means that will leave us worse than we started. We say, “No,” to distractions from the path of righteousness. We say, “No,” to spiritual junk food that will leave us malnourished and lacking what we need to push through the challenges that life will invariably bring our way. We say, “No,” so that we can say, “yes” to the life that is truly life.
But, come on, it’s hard to say, “No,” all the time, isn’t it? We do it once because we’re all geared up for it and it feels good, but we don’t really believe in it. It’s like when we decide to diet on December 31st. We turn down dessert for the first couple of weeks, but we don’t really believe in it. Over time, saying, “No,” again and again when we don’t really believe in it begins to weaken our resolve. We go from, “NO!” to, “No,” to, “no,” to, “…no?” to, “well, this one little slip won’t hurt anybody.”
You see, self-control isn’t something that comes in a moment. It doesn’t come with an extra helping of grit and concentration. Self-control is like a muscle, and one that is only built by repeated use, first in the small, and then in the gradually larger as we go forward. The self-control to say, “No,” to sin only exists because along the way we have learned to say, “no,” to mere distractions. More importantly, the self-control to say, “Yes,” to God only comes because we have learned to say, “no,” to all the other things vying for our attention.
And though there are many, let me give you one really good reason that we strive for this as followers of Jesus. I choose this one because Paul does. Did you catch what he said there at the end of the passage? He stays focused, he doesn’t waste his time on meaningless pursuits, he trains himself in righteousness relentlessly, “so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
If you are a follower of Jesus, failure in all of this can quickly put us in the category of hypocrite, and deservedly so. If we proclaim truth to others but do not live by it ourselves, we send the message that the truth may be worth someone’s profession, but it is not worth their life. That’s a pretty serious thing. That kind of message says the church really isn’t worth the effort. It says the Christian life really isn’t worth the time and energy it takes. It says Jesus really isn’t worth our lives. That’s not being useful to Jesus, yes? Indeed, that’s a big part of where Paul himself was going with this. These four verses sit at the tail end of Paul talking about the lengths he was willing to personally go to make sure an unbeliever was able to hear the Gospel message in a way that penetrated to the inner parts of his heart. When our example doesn’t match our confession, we do just the opposite. If we’re going to win this race called life, we’ve got to embrace self-control; we’ve got to stay on track. If we’re going to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track.
But how? How do we do it? Well, for starters, we have to get beyond merely talking about it. Like we said before, it’s pretty easy to talk about self-control, or to exercise self-control in the inconsequential things of life but never get around to doing it where it matters most. And lest I let you off thinking otherwise, exercising self-control isn’t easier for the people who do it more often. If you’re someone who gives in a lot, you’re not struggling with self-control much at all. You’re just giving in. The person who has the real challenge is the one who is committed to consistently saying, “No,” to one thing—even something good—in order to say, “yes” to something better. Remember how our resolve tends to weaken over time? The more controlled person has simply developed the spiritual muscle memory to be able to lean into it by instinct rather than trying to reach for something that isn’t there. In a clutch moment of a baseball game, you don’t want someone green who can throw really hard, you want someone who has a lifetime of self-control behind him to be able to place the ball with incredible precision.
But again, how? We start by listening to the basic rumble strips and guardrails of our lives. You know what those are, right? Guardrails are the metals rails that keep your car from going off the highway. They don’t put those right at the white sidelines. They put them a little way off, but before you go sailing off the edge of the cliff. They are there to give you a good bump to alert you that something isn’t right. And the rumble strips are those dents just outside of the lane lines that let you know you are leaving the lane and heading for the guardrails. The combined effect of these is to make sure you know any time you start to leave the road. Listen: if we’re going to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track. Life comes preloaded with these. When relationships get difficult or financial stress begins pressing in or anxiety begins to take hold in unexpected times; when we are tired all the time or angry over silly little things, these are all the rumble strips and guardrails God has built into our lives. When we start to experience these, we need to take the hint, stop, and ask what’s going on. Are we being drawn into territory that is going to lead us away from the path of Christ? Are there some places where we need to double down on our efforts at self-control to keep on track? If we’re going to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track.
You know what helps with this? Not going off track in the first place. If you’re in a race, and the thing begins to go long, what will get you through when those temptations to stop early or take shortcuts that won’t really move you forward any faster come is not necessarily self-control, but autopilot. Autopilot is like self-control credits that you stored up in the self-control bank before you found yourself in the place of trial or temptation. If we build good habits from the start, self-control becomes a lot easier to manage in the heat of the moment. We tend to operate our lives in a certain rhythm. If we can keep that rhythm infused with habits that point us toward, rather than away, from Christ, we’ll be able to better stay on the right track. If we’re going to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track.
Another thing that helps an awful lot with this effort is to not try to do it by ourselves. Self-control is much easier to exercise when we have someone else looking over our shoulder, calling us to account when we start to veer off course. You need to get an accountability partner. This is someone who has the permission to speak with the Holy Spirit into your life in times both good and bad. It is someone who has the permission to call you out when you are not on the right track. This kind of a relationship is terrifying to enter into at first. Being that vulnerable with another person is just nearly petrifying for most of us. After all, if they really knew what was going on in our hearts, they wouldn’t think of us in the same terms they do right now. One of the places we visited in Tennessee this past week was a Titanic museum. It was terrific as a whole, but one of the most fascinating factoids was that the levelers—the guys shoveling coal into the boilers ten hours a day—were fighting fires in the engine room from the day the ship first left port, but were under strict orders not to let that information leave the engine room lest it distress the passengers. We’re like that ill-fated ship: Dodging icebergs while fires are burning on the inside, all while proclaiming ourselves unsinkable. If someone got a look inside all the illusions would strip away illusions and we’d be a whole lot uglier. And yet, if we’re going to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track. Nothing will help us so much as a partner to do just that.
There’s just one more thing we need, and this is really more important than everything else we’ve talked about so far. At the end of the day, meaningful self-control isn’t something we can muster on our own. It’s not something we can muster even with an accountability partner. The only way we’ll ever really be able to say, “No,” to ourselves with the kingdom of God in our sights is with the indwelling power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Only when we are leaning on the strength and power the Spirit gives will we have what we need to say, “No,” to all the things that will vie for our attention and devotion. If we’re going to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track. Setting out to do that without the Holy Spirit is like setting out on a road race without a transmission or steering wheel on the car. It’s just not going to happen. But, when the road starts to get long and the weariness begins to set in, there’s something else we’re going to need as well. We’ll talk about that next time. See you then.