Preparing to compete in the Olympic Games takes a great deal of training and self-discipline. The Isthmian Games that took place near the city of Corinth were very similar and were well known to Paul’s readers. Therefore Paul knew that they would understand the symbolism he used to make his point in I Corinthians 9:24-27.
There was no legal requirement, then or now, that anyone should have to run a race or compete in any other athletic competition. Why then did people do it? Why did people put so much time and effort into training for the events? Once an athlete committed to competing in the Isthmian Games, they were required to go through a ten-month training program. Olympic athletes generally invest much more time than that. Obviously they see some value in exercising that much self-control. Living the Christian life is like running a race, or preparing for an athletic event. We don’t need to do it; we can choose not to, but if we want to and if we see value in doing so, some self-control will be needed. The good news is that in the Christian race there is more than one winner.
Paul saw the value of exercising self control in his Christian life; he had a more important goal in mind than that of his own comfort. He knew that by living in a way that was pleasing to God he would be qualified to tell people about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Because of that grace, we have freedom, but we should not use our freedom to live selfishly. Living to satisfy our own desires can send the wrong message to those who don’t know Christ and cause them to be confused or to reject belief in God. This is what Paul meant by subduing his body so that he would not be disqualified. If we have accepted Christ’s sacrifice and His gift of salvation, we no longer live under religious laws, but under grace. This of course does not mean that we should give in to sin. (Romans 6:15) By having self-control, we can focus on more important, more eternal matters and be an example to others of the qualities that are found in Christ.
Like all other elements of the fruit of the Spirit that we have discussed in this series, the way to have more self-control is to have more of the Holy Spirit. But to have more of the Holy Spirit we need to spend more time with God, in Bible study and prayer. For most of us, that takes some self-control.
Gentleness is not something that I’ve ever been known for. I have to say that as I get older, I have mellowed considerably, but I’m still not sure I would be described as gentle. When I was younger, and I felt wronged, I would always fight back; I didn’t know how to just let it go. My husband calls this my heightened sense of justice. The fact that gentleness didn’t come naturally to me, however, was no reason not to work towards the goal of being more gentle, for the Bible instructs us to. We are told to be gentle (Ephesians 4:1-3, Titus 3:1-2, James 3:13, I Timothy 6:11, Proverbs 15:1, II Timothy 2:24-26, Philippians 4:5) just as Christ is gentle. (Matthew 11:29)
In the early verses of Matthew 10, Jesus sent His disciples out to the people of Israel to preach that the kingdom of heaven was near. He gave His disciples the authority to heal the sick and to cast out unclean spirits. He instructed them about what to take with them and what to do when they entered or left a town, and He warned them that it would be dangerous for them. In the Bible in Basic English translation, Matthew 10:16 is worded this way: “See, I send you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves.” Other versions use the word harmless or innocent in place of gentle, but the point is still the same. To be gentle means to be pure and innocent. Even though they were going to face persecution from the world around them, the disciples were not to retaliate. They should not be naïve about the dangers, but they should not contribute to them either. The most they could do would be to shake the dust from their feet as they left the town. (Matthew 10:14) Let it go!
With gentleness, as with all the elements of the fruit of the Spirit, it is good to pursue the goal of having more in your life, but the only sure way to have more of the fruit of the Spirit is to have more of the Spirit. If you have a problem with gentleness, or more specifically not enough of it, pray. Ask God to fill you with more of His Spirit so that you may have more of the fruit.