As we gradually gain more insight into ourselves, we are able, with God's grace, to find ways to resist habitual sin and grow in self-control. We gain strength bit by bit, like an athlete striving for the prize, as Paul said. Gradually we reclaim more and more of ourselves and offer it to God's transforming light. Thus the Holy Spirit works within us, sanctifying us from the inside out.

From the earliest centuries, Christians have identified certain practices that have been helpful to the "athlete in training." Here are some of them:

  • Fasting. People are beset by different temptations, but everybody eats. Restricting foods—not necessarily a total fast, but simply declining favorites for a time—can be a way of strengthening the "willpower muscle" to be ready when needed to handle a bigger temptation. An athlete doesn't lift weights just so he can lift more weights. Those healthy muscles are ready for any situation he meets. Turn down a doughnut today, and tomorrow you might be able to resist calling the driver in front of you an idiot.

  • Bite your tongue. Yes, not calling someone an idiot is a frequent theme in Scripture and early Christian writings. Both place great emphasis on controlling anger, perhaps as much as on sexual continence. Jesus said the penalty for calling your brother a fool was "the hell of fire." That includes people who can't hear you, like politicians on TV. It's not the harm to them that's at stake so much as the surging, disorienting pride in your own heart.

  • Mind your thoughts. Jesus said that to commit adultery in the imagination is the equivalent of committing it in fact. Nearly all sins begin with thinking about sin. Control the thoughts and you have a good head start on behavior. You may not be able to keep thoughts from appearing, but you can decline to entertain them; birds fly overhead, but you don't have to let them nest in your hair. Paul counsels that we think about things that are true, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy, so you might want to read some Dickens tonight instead of watching that sleazy sitcom.

  • Practice humility. Humility is not the same as resisting the urge to show off (which is modesty) or denying that you have gifts and talents (which is lying). Humility is remembering that you have a beam in your eye. In every situation remember what God knows about you, and how much you have been forgiven. You might think you can fool people, but no matter how charming you appear, spiritually you have spinach in your teeth. Account yourself the "chief of sinners" and be gracious toward the failings of others. Overlook insults and be kind to those who misuse you. Be swift to admit when you're wrong. Ask others to forgive you, and forgive them without asking if you want God to forgive you.

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  • Pray constantly. Try always to recall that God is with you, dwelling in you. (This helps a great deal in controlling thoughts.) For more than 1,500 years, some Christians have tried to form the habit of praying, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" all the time, a kind of background music to other thoughts. It not only helps one resist more turbulent thoughts and deeds, but also creates a kind of mental foyer in which thoughts and impulses can be examined before they're allowed inside.

  • Ask God to help you repent. We really don't want to do this and we find a million excuses to change the subject. Read stories about repentant saints, like John Newton, the slave dealer who wrote "Amazing Grace," or the once promiscuous Mary of Egypt. Those are reasonable models for you, not ivory-tower saints. Keep thinking of yourself as the Prodigal Son. Think over your deeds and conversations each evening and look for areas to improve. Read Psalm 51 before bed every night. Someday you may actually believe it.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Whatever Happened to Repentance?We’ve come to think our faith is about comfort. It’s not.

A Bible study based on this article is available in Christianity Today's Current Issue Bible Study Series. This unique series uses articles from current issues of the magazine to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Visit the author’s Web site at

See Frederica Mathewes-Green’s post-9/11 article, “Judgment DayGod promised that calamity would follow disobedience. So why are we quick to dismiss it as a reason for the September 11 attacks?”

The Paraclete Press site has an excerpt of Mathewes-Green’s The Illumined Heart. The book is available at

Mathewes-Green is a regular columnist on Beliefnet.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, former columnist for Christianity Today, wrote her final column for the magazine in October. Her columns included:

Unrighteous Indignation (Oct. 5, 2000)
A Clear and Present Identity (Sept. 5, 2000)
Every Day Is Casual Friday (July 18, 2000)
Get It? (May 18, 2000)
Sex and Saints (Apr. 11, 2000)
Psalm 23 and All That (Feb. 15, 2000)
The Abortion Debate Is Over (Dec. 28, 1999)
The Thrill of Naughtiness, (September 6, 1999)
Escape from Fantasy Island, (July 12, 1999)
Men Need Church, Too, (May 24, 1999)
My Spice Girl Moment, (January 11, 1999)
Moms in the Crossfire, (October 26, 1998)
Gagging on Shiny, Happy People, (September 7, 1998)
Whatever Happened to Middle-Class Hypocrisy? (July 13, 1998)
I Didn't Mean to be Rude, (May 18, 1998)

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