Question: "What does the Bible say about self-discipline?"
Answer: Self-discipline is essentially the same as self-control, one of the nine fruits of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23. The KJV translation uses the word temperance in place of “self-control” which, like self-discipline, generally refers to our ability to control or restrain ourselves from all kinds of feelings, impulses, and desires, which includes the desire for physical and material comfort. Now, even though self-control is the last of the spiritual fruits mentioned by Paul, and even though it is a term not used extensively in the Bible, self-control is clearly an indispensable attribute of the Christian life, especially as our unredeemed flesh sometimes causes us to succumb to the persistent tug of our sinful desires.
The apostle Paul calls us to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). And in his letter to the Romans, he exhorts us to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” and not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:1-2). Yet most Christians would agree that subordinating the constant pull of these worldly desires in order to please our Lord is not always an easy thing to do. Paul discusses his own inner conflict and struggle with sin in his letter to the Romans, “What I want to do I do not do…the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing…it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:15-20).
It is clear that our seemingly insatiable human appetites and needs can easily lead to sinful excesses if not controlled. Especially in affluent societies, the lack of self-discipline is rampant, leading to problems like obesity, alcoholism, drug use, and debt. The enticements of the material world have caused many to yearn for and acquire material goods far beyond their needs and their ability to pay for them. Indeed, the nations of the world have fallen into the same trap, borrowing trillions of dollars to finance bloated budgets that result from the inability to exercise self-discipline. For Christians, without self-discipline, our appetites for comforts and pleasures can easily become our master and lead us into sin or otherwise hinder us in our spiritual walk. If the spiritual does not govern the physical, we can become easy targets for Satan due to our lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Paul discusses self-discipline in his letter to the Corinthian church. As the Greeks had the Olympic games and the Isthmian games, they were very familiar with the rigors of athletic training, especially if one wanted to win the “prize” or the “crown.” Paul analogizes living a disciplined Christian life to an athlete in training: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Corinthians 9:25). When Paul says “I beat my body and make it my slave,” he is saying that his body is under the dominion and control of his mind, not the other way around. Paul is showing us how self-control is needed to win the race that is before us and to live the life that is “holy and pleasing to God.” For Paul, the “race” was winning souls for Christ, a goal which he states four times in verses 19-22.
It is important to understand that self-control is a work of the Holy Spirit, not a work of the individual. After all, Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of the Christian. As we are merely the branches upon which the Vine (Christ) hangs the fruit He produces (John 15:1-8), it is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that gives Christians the power and ability to exercise self-control so that we will not be mastered by the “cravings of sinful man.” As Paul said, “God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but a Spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Indeed, Christians are controlled not by the sinful nature, but by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9), who helps us in our weakness (v.26), which makes us able to say “no” to sin.
The wise King Solomon wrote many proverbs for the purpose of helping us to live a “disciplined” and prudent life (Proverbs 1:3). Certainly, we will be more victorious in our Christian walk when we exercise our Spirit-given self-control, that which helps us respond in obedience to the commands of Scripture and allows us to grow in our spiritual life.