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.
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