Character Matters: Self-Discipline

1 Corinthians 9:19-27
April 6, 2014

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

            I’ve never been much of a fan of the cartoon, The Simpsons, although the few times that I’ve watched it I’ve found it to be very funny. Early on the show was heavily criticized by evangelical Christians as a bad example to others because of Bart Simpson’s brattyness and brashness, as well as his basic disrespect of authority figures. Ironically, in recent years these same Christians have praised The Simpsons for being an example of families that stay together despite their problems. Still, those issues have had no influence on whether or not I watched the show. I don’t watch it because it comes on at a time when I’ve always watched other shows.

            Back in the early 1990s my wife, Diane (who was then my girlfriend, Diane) kept talking about how funny the show was. So one time when visiting her I watched it. The show opened with a scene that was me, or at least resonated with me. It starts with a snoring Homer Simpson, asleep on his couch, with an open bag of chocolates on his lap. His mouth is lined with chocolate smudges. The screen gets all wavy as we slowly enter his dream. The landscape is different shades of chocolate brown as he reads a sign saying, “Welcome to Chocolatetown… Population 1325.” Chocolate bunnies hop by, and he joins them, giddily hopping with joy. He stops as it begins to rain chocolate drops. Catching them in his hands he shovels them into his mouth. He then dances into town, where every building, streetlamp, the pavement, and the sidewalks are made of chocolate.

            He walks over to a streetlamp, leans down, and takes a huge bite out of the pole. Then a chocolate dog happily walks over to him and jumps into his arms. Homer cuddles the dog, and then takes a huge bite out of its back. The dog squeals, jumps down, and runs away whining. Homer is in his own personal chocolate heaven, especially when he pushes his nose up against a chocolate store window, where is says, “All Chocolate 50% off.”

            I identify with Homer. If I had my wish, heaven would be made of chocolate, not gold. And I don’t mean milk chocolate. I love dark, dark chocolate. Eating-wise, dark chocolate is my only real temptation. I don’t care that much about chips and pizza and pretzels and cookies and cake. I just LOVE dark chocolate. When I’m surrounded by dark chocolate, whether in chocolates themselves, icing, ice cream, or on Edible Arrangement strawberries, it’s hard for me to stop myself. Being around chocolate is the one place where I have to have a lot of self-control.

            For all of us self-control is hard because we each have something in our lives that is hard to control. For some it’s food, whether that is temptations from salty or sweet snack, carbs or fat. For some it’s substances—cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or even gambling. For some it’s media—cell phones, computers, emails, texts, FaceBook, Twitter, or just browsing the Internet looking for videos, articles, or anything else. For some it’s our mouths—saying things we shouldn’t, criticizing, swearing, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to wrong person. For others it’s something else. Whatever it is, all of us have something that causes us to lose self-control. Why?

            Actually the problem is our brain committee. Let me explain. Most people don’t realize that our brains are structured in a way that actually prevents us from having one will. Our brains are structured in a way that causes internal conflict. The easiest way to explain this is to describe the brain the way some brain researchers do. While this is an oversimplification, they say that our brain has basically three levels: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the human brain. The reptilian brain is the brainstem and autonomic brain functions. It’s where our natural instincts are. That’s the part of our brain that craves food, drink, and is a slave to drives. The mammalian brain is more like an animal brain. It is the part that can be trained, but it’s also where most of our emotions lie. The human brain is the part residing mostly in the cerebral cortex and the frontal lobes. It’s where logical, rational thought comes from, as well as conscious awareness.

            What these different levels of the brain do is that they actually cause us to have different impulses all at the same time. Our rational thought conflicts with our emotional desires and our instinctual drives. The different levels and parts of the brain interact much like a brain committee. Unfortunately, it’s a committee that doesn’t always work well together. Take dieting, for example. Here’s more or less what happens. Our rational, logical brain says, “We need to go on a diet.” Other rational parts of our brain agree to the motion. The animal and reptilian members of the brain committee protest, but to no avail. Still, they wait for their chance.

            A week of good, solid dieting ensues. Then comes the following Friday—weigh-in day. You’ve spent the whole week being good, eating healthy, avoiding all the things that normally lead to a binge, and then you step on the scale. You’ve lost 4 pounds. You feel good. It’s then that the rest of the brain committee begins to speak…

            “Ohhhhhh,… you’ve done SUCH a good job. You deserve ice cream. Or maybe a muffin. I know,…  a cinnamon roll from Panera. It’s okay. You’ll eat a salad first. It will be healthy. And then the cinnamon roll will be your reward for all your hard work. You deserve it…”

            The next day, after your binge, you’re determined to get back to the diet, and the logical, rational part of the brain committee tries to retake control. But then the rest of the committee chimes in again: “Come on, you can take the day off. You’ve worked so hard. Just relax. You can always go back to the diet tomorrow… “ Soon there’s not more dieting and you’ve regained the four pounds plus an extra pound.

            Our brain committee not only keeps us from dieting, exercising, quitting, and changing, it also keeps us from growing spiritually. Growing in faith takes self-discipline. It takes spiritual practices. I’ve come to the conclusion that in many ways church is like dieting and exercising. We all know that eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, and other kinds of disciplines actually make us healthier. But we have a hard time doing them because our brain committee can’t agree on it. In the same way, going to church makes us healthier in every way. There’s been enough research to show this. Researchers have consistently found that just by going to church you are healthier than a person who is just like you who doesn’t.

            Being part of a church is a discipline. Getting up on Sunday mornings and going to church is a discipline that makes you happier, but just as it happens with eating a healthy diet and exercising, there are parts of our brain committees that tell us to stay home, sleep in, hang out, chill: “You’ve had a hard week. You don’t need to go to church. Stay home and rest. It won’t hurt you. You’ll feel refreshed. You’ll feel better.” But the reality is that you won’t feel better. You won’t notice the difference, but going to church will make you better. Still, it’s a discipline.

            The church offers all sorts of opportunities to grow healthier, but that doesn’t mean we always take advantage of them. In this church, we have small groups, centering prayer groups, a labyrinth, Sunday worship, adult education classes, and all sorts of ministry and mission opportunities, all of which are disciplines that help us grow spiritually as we also help others grow spiritually.

            The reality is that this church and any church can only offer opportunities, but it’s still up to each of us to take responsibility for taking on a discipline. The key is that we have to exercise enough self-control to actually engage in a way that makes our lives better.

            Ultimately part of the teaching of Christianity is that we need to develop a series of practices that help us to sense God, hear God, and follow God. Those practices can change over time, but the important thing is setting up a discipline that helps us grow in God. I’ve done this for much of my adult life, and it’s made a difference.

            My self-discipline really started in earnest when I was in my late 20s. I began to practice what is called contemplative prayer, which we often call centering prayer here. It’s a form of prayer in which you don’t ask God for anything, or even try to hear God. Instead, you sit in silence trying to still your mind and simply be open to God. The idea is to calm our thinking so that in life we can be more open to God. I began practicing it in 1989, starting just with five minutes of silence. Over time I extended it to 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes. Within the next few years I was able to sit in silent prayer for 45 minutes to an hour.
            I did this as a basic practice until we had twins in 1999. Because both Diane and I were sharing the feedings, and only getting about 6 hours of sleep a night, my centering time turned into sleeping time. I’d try to sit in silence, but I’d fall asleep. So my prayer discipline changed. I started walking the labyrinth regularly. I turned walking into prayer where I’d make sure I walked everyday somewhere with lots of trees and life, and I would turn that time into prayer. The lesson is that the discipline doesn’t always matter as much as that we have a discipline.

            Basically, self-discipline is a key to growing spiritually and to discovering God throughout all of life because disciplines put our lives into balance.

            We need to take responsibility for practicing spiritual disciplines that help us grow closer to God. This doesn’t mean you have to become like a monk to be a mystic, cloistered away immersed in lives of prayer. You just need to develop a set of disciplines, that teach us self-control, and that ultimately help us to serve God in all of life.

            The apostle Paul is the example of this. In our passage he said that he has become “all things to all people.” In essence, he had enough self-control and self-discipline, coming out of his life of prayer, that he could adapt himself to others. He could be a Gentile with Gentiles, a Jew with Jews, weak with the weak, and strong with the strong. He had a sense of self-control because he had a life filled with God.