Just as surely as the flesh lusts against the spirit (Gal 5:17), and just as surely as “the good that I will to do, I do not do” (Rom 7:19), there are going to be friction points in our lives that challenge us to do the right thing. One of the most basic friction points is between what I ought to do and what I want to do.
This is illustrated by a young woman who was recently ticketed for driving while using her cell phone. She knew it was wrong, but the urge to read messages and check GPS gradually overtook her until it became a habit. Until she saw the blue lights in her rearview mirror …
Our urges propel us onward, tantalizing us with promises of pleasure, flooding our brains with the dopamine of immediate gratification. But those same impulses short-circuit our thinking and cause us to act inadvisably and take risks that fly in the face of reason.
We must train ourselves to slow down, think through the situation and consider deeper motivations. Is checking a text while driving worth the risk of having a wreck or possibly killing someone? We all know the answer to that, but our wants sometimes overwhelm our wisdom. It is amazing what good judgment can be suppressed in the interest of satisfying an urge.
On the subject of self-control Paul offers this reflection: “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). Even Paul experienced the pull of the flesh and its attempt to drag his spirit down to the level of mindless impulse. Paul doesn’t share the particulars of his struggle, but we can all relate to it through the lens of our own internal war.
Paul uses the biennial Isthmian Games as a metaphorical backdrop. While those athletes compete for a “perishable crown” (a garland of leaves worn by the victor), “we [compete] for an imperishable crown” (9:25). This eternal reward helped curb Paul’s tendency toward self-indulgence. Instead, he “disciplined” his body.
“Hupopiazo means ‘to strike someone on the face (under the eyes) in such a way that he gets a “black eye” and is disfigured as a result.’ … Paul, however, is not using the word hupopiazo literally; he did not literally beat his body black and blue. Instead, he is saying, as the word doulagogo (‘to bring into slavery, to discipline into subjection’) confirms, that he forcefully subjected his resisting body to his apostolic ministry and made it serve it. He did not momentarily subject the body; he brought it into complete subjection. Paul did not consider his body to be inherently evil as the Gnostics did. Rather, he considered it to be full of passions which must be carefully ruled lest they get out of hand” (Willis, A Commentary on Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians 308).
Even given the Lord’s visible and audible commission, Paul knew the possibility of drifting from his appointed work and losing his soul. Paul was honest about his weakness, and so must we be.
So how can we help ourselves in this daily struggle to think and act on a higher plane than sheer impulse? First, we must be honest about the risks. If we cannot control the urge to use our phone we must employ a deterrent to help us. Turn the phone off; leave it in a purse or otherwise out of reach; or, at the very least, use a hands-free device – anything to keep your eyes on the road and not in your lap.
Similarly, if you find yourself attracted to someone other than your spouse, be honest with the risk you are taking by indulging that attraction. Imagine the worst-case scenario and ask yourself: “Is it worth devastating my spouse and destroying the trust upon which our marriage is built? Is it worth losing my children’s respect and causing them confusion, insecurity, anguish and a warped view of marriage? Is it worth all the other damaging ripples that radiate from the act of adultery?”
If not (correct answer), then what must I do to protect myself against such temptation? If practical, cut off contact with that person entirely. Otherwise, resolve never to be alone with them. Do not follow them on social media; do not act flirtatious; do not confide personal secrets or struggles to them. On the flip side, remind yourself that following through will devastate your marriage and family and theirs. The church will be scandalized. Your “imperishable crown” will be forfeited.
Or maybe your friction point is uncontrolled spending. You know that the temporary high of acquisition ultimately leads to poverty, hoarding, marital stress, wastefulness and loss of self-respect. Yet the base desire of covetousness is cloaked by rationalization and denial. Again, the solution is to be honest and put the risk and reward in perspective. Build firewalls to control your impulses and retrain your thinking in a godly direction: Cut up the credit card; withdraw from Amazon Prime; don’t shop alone.
No one is above temptation, and those temptations run counter to our deeper values: “I find then … that evil is present with me, the one who will to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21-23). The woman who got ticketed for distracted driving said, “Maybe this is what I needed to help me get control of my phone.” We all need a periodic wake-up call to help us get back on track.