MY BODY MY SLAVEPrint This Page.
First Corinthians 9:23-27 says, "And I do all things for the sake of the gospel that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run on a racecourse all run, but one receives the prize? Run in this way, that you may lay hold. And everyone who contends exercises self-control in all things; they then, that they may receive a corruptible crown, but we, an incorruptible. I therefore run in this way, not as though without a clear aim; I box in this way, not as though beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest perhaps having preached to others, I myself may become disapproved."
Verse 23 says, "I do all things for the sake of the gospel." This shows us that this passage is about the way of a gospel preacher, a servant of the Lord. Verse 27 says, "I buffet my body and make it my slave." This is a fundamental requirement that a servant of God imposes upon himself. Verses 24 through 26 show us how Paul buffeted his body and made it his slave.
We wish to immediately make it clear that Paul was not speaking about asceticism when he said that he buffeted his body and made it his slave. He did not agree with those who, under the influence of asceticism, teach that the body is an encumbrance which we must seek to get rid of. Ascetics believe that the body is the source of sin, and that one must treat it severely before the problem of sin can be resolved. But the Bible does not teach that the body is an encumbrance, much less a source of sin. The Bible tells us that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19) and that a day is coming when this body will be redeemed and glorified. We should never bring in the thought of asceticism when we speak of "buffeting the body." If we introduce such thoughts into Christianity, we are making it another religion altogether. This is not what we preach. We repudiate the thought that the body is a hindrance or the source of sin. We readily acknowledge that the body can lead us to sin, but the body is not the source of sin. We can still sin no matter how drastically we deal with the body.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul confronts Christian workers with the problem of their bodies. Verse 23 says, "And I do all things for the sake of the gospel." This means that he was standing on the ground of a gospel preacher when he spoke this word. What did he do for the sake of the gospel? Verses 24 through 26 show us what he did. In verse 27 Paul points out that what he did was a buffeting of his body. According to the Greek text, the word buffet means to batter the face until it bruises. To buffet one's body and to make it one's slave means to put one's body into subjection and to "hit" it so much that it obediently becomes one's slave, yielding to the will of the gospel preacher. (This, of course, does not mean a literal buffeting of the physical body, which is like the "severe treatment of the body" spoken of in Colossians 2:23.) Paul said that he did this "lest perhaps having preached to others, I myself may become disapproved." This shows us that for every servant of God, buffeting the body and making it one's slave is a basic way of life. Every servant of God should walk by one basic rule—his body has to be brought into subjection. If his body is not brought into subjection, he cannot serve God. How did Paul resolve the problem of his body? He buffeted his body and made it his slave. Verse 27 is the subject, while verses 24 through 26 are the explanation of the subject. In verses 24 through 26 we see how Paul buffeted his body, and in verse 27 he stated the subject. Let us consider this passage point by point.
Verse 24 says, "Do you not know that those who run on a racecourse all run?" Paul illustrated his point with the example of a runner in a race. A Christian's service to the Lord and labor for his Master can be compared to a race. Everyone is running in this race; this is compulsory. No one can exempt himself from it. "Do you not know that those who run on a racecourse all run, but one receives the prize? Run in this way, that you may lay hold." Only one of the runners in a race receives the prize. But if we all run, everyone can receive the prize. This is the difference between their running and our running. Paul used the illustration of a racecourse. This illustration leads to verse 25.
Verse 25 says, "And everyone who contends exercises self- control in all things." This is Paul's emphasis: In order for a man to contend, he has to undergo training. He has to exercise self-control in everything. He cannot eat as he wishes or skip eating as he wishes. He cannot sleep as he wishes or skip sleep as he wishes. All athletes who compete in games are strictly disciplined during their training. They are strictly regulated as to what they can eat and what they cannot eat, when they can sleep and when they should wake up. Before a game begins, they have to follow strict rules such as not drinking or smoking. Once the game starts, there are stricter rules to follow. This is why verse 25 says that everyone who contends exercises self-control in all things. Some may think that it is hard to drop their smoking, drinking, or favorite pastimes. But when a man prepares for a race, he has to strictly control his own body. "Everyone who contends exercises self-control in all things." What are the things he has to exercise self-control in? He has to exercise self-control in the demands of his body. He cannot allow his body to have too many demands or to have too much freedom. In running a race the body is reserved for only one thing—the race. It is not for eating, clothing, smoking, drinking, or sleeping, but for running. Many runners have to abstain from sweet and starchy food. This does not mean that these foods are harmful or useless; rather, they do not help a runner in his race. In order to be a runner, a person has to exercise self-control in all things. Verse 27 speaks of buffeting the body; that is, the body is brought into the discussion. The body has to be under control; it has to obey. All of the faculties of the body are reserved for just one thing—running, the kind of running that will win first prize.
Verse 25 continues, "They then, that they may receive a corruptible crown, but we, an incorruptible." The runners exercised much self-control for the sake of a corruptible crown. Should we who are after an incorruptible crown not exercise much more self-control? The corruptible crown refers to the Greek garlands of flowers, which lasted only for three to five days. A runner had to go through long periods of training before he could have a chance to win such a corruptible crown. Paul said, "They then, that they may receive a corruptible crown, but we, an incorruptible." We should pay attention to Paul's comparison. The Greek runners ran on the racecourse, while we run in the world. Their running was an exercise of the body, while our running is our service to God. In their running, only one received the prize, but in our running, everyone can receive the prize. Their prize was a corruptible crown, but our prize is an incorruptible crown. These are different contrasts. However, one thing holds true in both races—exercising self-control in all things. Self-control is necessary in both cases. They exercised self-control to win the race, while we exercise self-control to preach the gospel. The goals may be different, but the discipline imposed on the body is the same. One has to exercise self-control in running the race, and as Christians we also have to exercise self-control in our Christian life.
Verse 26 says, "I therefore run in this way, not as though without a clear aim; I box in this way, not as though beating the air." This means that Paul was not running in an aimless way; he knew where he was going. He said that he buffeted his body. This means his boxing was not beating the air; he was beating his own body. We should consider verse 26 together with verse 27. Verse 26 tells us that Paul was not without a clear aim. He did not run in whatever way others directed him to; he had a definite direction in his running. Neither was his boxing a beating of the air. Then in verse 27, he immediately points out that he was buffeting his body. He was hitting his own body. We pointed out earlier that buffeting means a kind of hitting, one which produces bruises all over one's body. It is not ordinary hitting, but a kind of severe beating. Ordinary hitting does not produce bruises. Paul dealt with his body in a harsh way so that his body would come under his control. He did it to make his body his slave. This means he would not allow his body to become loose. He brought it under his own control.
The goal for such an exercise is to make the body the slave, while the means is the buffeting of the body. We buffet our body so that it may become our slave. Brothers and sisters, if we do not overcome in this matter, it would be better for us to wait for three to five years and learn this lesson before we attempt to touch God's work. Every servant of God must learn to bring his body under his control. The Bible shows us that a worker of the Lord is like a runner. He may take great pleasure in the work, but it will have little value if his body is not under his control. Service to the Lord is not a simple thing; it is not merely a matter of preaching sermons from a platform. There is no such thing. Paul shows us here that only those who will buffet their bodies and make them their slaves can serve the Lord. If your body cannot obey, you need more training from the Lord. Do not think that a little aspiration will qualify a person to serve the Lord. God's workers must buffet their body and make it their slave. If their body will not obey them, they are of little use to the work.
What does it mean for our body to become our slave? In order to understand this, we must first understand what the demands of the body are. We shall only mention a few practical examples—food, clothing, rest, sleep, comfort, and special care in times of sickness. All of these things are demands of the body. Making the body our slave means that, through long periods of buffeting our body during ordinary times, we are able to put it under our control at the time of a race. If we are easy with our body at ordinary times, our legs, feet, lungs, and every other organ will not come under our control at the time of the race, and we will not be able to meet the demand of the race. In order for our body to obey, there is the need for long periods of training. If there is no such training, it will be impossible to steer the body on the spur of the moment. If we lack such training at ordinary times, and if we have never buffeted our body or dealt with it, it will not submit to us at a time of need. When we set out for our work, we will find that our body does not obey us. We will not be able to meet the demands of the body, and we will have no control over our body.
We should not think that a certain measure of spirituality is all that is necessary to engage in the Lord's work. There is still the matter of the body. Paul showed us how real this problem is. I am not asking whether we have a healthy body. I am asking whether or not we are the master of our body. Will our body obey us? If our body will not obey, we cannot serve God in the gospel. This kind of training cannot be completed in a short time. Some spiritual problems can be solved in an instant, but the buffeting of the body requires three, five, or even ten years. Those who have developed a habit of loose living need all the more to impose a strict discipline upon themselves.
For example, the body demands sleep under ordinary circumstances. Sleep is not wrong; it is not sinful, and the demand is surely legitimate. God has divided the day from the night to provide man with the opportunity to rest. It is right for man to sleep. If a man does not sleep, how can he work? But in order for us to buffet our body and make it our slave, we should not insist on sleeping when there is the need to be awake. This is what it means to make our body our slave. Suppose I have scheduled eight hours of sleep every day. It is right for me to take care of my body in this way. But in order to buffet my body and make it my slave, I will act in such a way as if I am beating myself and forcing my body to follow my instruction. I will train myself to such an extent that if I decided not to sleep today, I could do so. When the Lord was in the garden of Gethsemane, He took three of His disciples aside and said to them, "Watch with Me." When He found them sleeping on His return, He said to Peter, "So were you not able to watch with Me for one hour?" (Matt. 26:38, 40). The Lord wanted them to watch with Him, but they fell asleep. They could not watch with our Lord for even an hour. Is it wrong to sleep? No, sleep is legitimate and necessary. But if the Lord requires us to watch with Him and we cannot overcome this "legitimate" need, we will hinder His work. If any of us cannot give up our demand for sleep, we cannot serve God. This does not mean that a servant of God has to go without sleep night after night. This would be the life of an angel. We are not angels, and we need a good night's sleep every day. But for the sake of learning to follow the Lord and to buffet our body, we should learn to forsake our sleep for a night or two when necessary. This is what it means to make our body our slave.
What does it mean to run the race? Does a man run every day and every minute of the day? Walking is ordinary, but running is something extraordinary. Walking is a daily demand; normally, we walk step by step. Running, however, is not a daily thing. On a racecourse we have to quicken our pace. The normal capacity of the body can support our walk, but in running the body is called upon to put forth extra effort. The normal capacity of the body has to be stretched in order to take care of the extra need. At such times the body needs to obey. In running, the body is asked to supplement its normal functions with extra energy. Running imposes additional demands on the body. The demand on our body is not as strenuous during normal times of walking; it only becomes strenuous when the body has to run. In the same principle, we may need only eight hours of sleep during ordinary times. But if our work requires that we work four more hours one day, we should be satisfied with only four hours of sleep. This is what it means to run the race. To run the race means to meet the extra demands. When the three disciples failed to watch with the Lord, He pointed out the trouble to them: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (v. 41). What good is there in having a willing spirit if the flesh is weak? A willing spirit and sleeping flesh amount to the same thing as an unwilling spirit and sleeping flesh; both amount to nothing. It is not enough for the spirit to be willing; the body has to be willing as well. If the body is not willing and insists on sleeping, it is no longer one's slave. If the body is not a slave, it would be futile to claim that the spirit is willing. This is not to say that the body is the source of sin or that it is an encumbrance. We are saying that, for the sake of serving the Lord, there are extra demands on the body at times, and the body should rise to meet these demands. This is what it means to make our body our slave. We must train our body not just to meet ordinary demands but to have an extra supply when there are extra demands.
When the Lord was on earth, Nicodemus came to Him by night. The Lord could receive him without succumbing to tiredness. A few times He spent whole nights in prayer. All these activities interfered with His sleep. We are not advocating that God's children should make a habit of spending nights in prayer. But if a man wants to serve the Lord, it is a shame if he never spends a night in prayer. It is wrong to constantly spend the night hours in prayer. If you are doing this, you are heading the wrong way. But it is a strange thing to serve God for ten or twenty years without having once prayed all night long. We are not advocating the extreme way. We are not telling people to pray throughout the night all the time. Making a habit of praying all night long is damaging to the body and even to the mind. We do not agree with those who do not pray during the day but who give up their sleep at night for prayer; this is not normal. But if a worker of the Lord never gives up his sleep for prayer, there is something wrong with him also.
Running in a race is not a daily thing, but exercise is a daily thing. We have to exercise to the point that our body will no longer rebel against us but will be subject to us. If we have never exercised in this way and our body is never put under control, sleep will become our first priority when we set out for our work. Our sleep will become our master. If others do not touch our sleep, we can do anything. But as soon as others touch our sleep, we cannot do anything. It is imperative that a servant of God exercise himself to make his body his slave. To make our body our slave means that when the Lord has a need and a demand, and when circumstances call for it, we can put aside the demands of our body temporarily. We can direct our body to provide the extra supply, to ignore its need, and to be under our control and rule. If we cannot do this, we love ourselves too much and are useless in the Lord's work.
The same principle applies to the matter of eating. Many times our Lord went without food for the sake of His work. He did not make His eating a priority. But this does not mean that our Lord never ate. He could eat well at ordinary times. But when the need was before Him, He could forsake eating. This is to put the body under subjection. We are not so dependent on food that our work has to stop if we have to go hungry. Unfortunately, in the Lord's work, many cannot function without food. We undoubtedly need food, and we have to take care of our physical body, but the body must be trained to go without food when special circumstances call for it. Remember the occasion when the Lord sat down at noon beside Jacob's well to rest while the disciples went to get some food in the city. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and the Lord asked her for a drink. At the same time He opened up the matter of the living water to her. In the end the woman did not give Him anything to drink. It was high noon, the time for a meal and a drink, but the Lord patiently explained to this spiritually thirsty and suffering Samaritan woman the word of life and the meaning of the living water (John 4:5-26). This shows us how one can carry on God's work without the interruption of food. If we arrive at a certain place and cannot do anything until we have had a meal, our body is not serving us as it should. We should not be extremists, and we should not skip our meals all the time. But when there are special demands, we should be able to forego our eating. Bread is not the most important thing. We should be the master of our body. When we need to go without a meal, our body should obey us. We should not be overcome by our body's insistent cries for food. This is what it means to make our body our slave.
In Mark 3 the Lord was surrounded by such a multitude that He had no time to eat. His relatives reacted by seeking to drag Him away from the crowd, for they said He was beside Himself (vv. 20-21). Yet the Lord continued with His work. He was not beside Himself, but the multitude had their pressing needs. He was able to forego His food and drink for the sake of the work. If we can never forego our own needs when the work demands our immediate attention, we will have little effective work. At critical times we have to push ourselves a little to the extreme; we have to be somewhat beside ourselves. When the need calls for it, we should be able to bridle our body and ignore the demands for food and drink. We should not consider these demands to be mandatory.
The Bible plainly states that Christians should fast when occasion requires. The meaning of fasting is to temporarily put aside the legitimate demand of the body. Sometimes a special need calls for serious prayer. At these times we should fast before the Lord. We do not advocate fasting three or five times a week. But if a man has been a Christian for eight or ten years and has never fasted once, something is not right. The Lord spoke of fasting in His teaching on the mount. If we have never fasted, we lack something in our experience. The purpose of fasting is to make our body our slave.
Another demand of the body is comfort. We dare not find fault with a worker for enjoying a measure of ease in his living. But when his work calls for his sacrifice, his body should not ignore the call of the work if the comforts he was accustomed to are not provided. If our body will not respond to our call, we cannot work for the Lord. Some brothers and sisters move around often, not because of the Lord's command, but because they are unhappy and uncomfortable with where they live. We can say that comfort has become their way of life; comfort is leading them by the nose. Such ones cannot be of much use in the hand of the Lord. God's servants should learn to thank Him for easy conditions when the discipline of the Spirit so orders them and when the Lord makes provisions for them. But when the Lord's provisions turn the other way, and they are stripped of ease and comfort, they should be the master of their body and continue with their work. We are not for a life of extremes. Under ordinary circumstances, we may enjoy better conditions. But when the Lord's need calls for it, we should be able to bear what others normally cannot bear. Some brothers and sisters can only live a comfortable life. As soon as their standard of living is slightly lowered, they are finished. Such ones are of little use to the Lord. In running the race, we have to make our body our slave. We must be able to live under any circumstance. Making our body our slave means that we will not be affected by our circumstances when the work calls for our attention. It means that we can carry on our work even when we have to live at a substandard level. If we are unable to do this, we will retreat as soon as our conditions fall below our accustomed standard. This does not mean that those whose lot is inferior will better withstand harsher environments. Many poorer brothers collapse physically as soon as they are given a lot that is inferior to what they are used to. They love themselves too much, and they have never made their body their slave.
Another example is our clothing. While we should eat well and clothe ourselves, we should not give undue attention to the matter of clothing. John the Baptist was a person with little concern for his attire. The Lord Jesus said of him that if anyone wanted to see an elegantly attired person there was no need to look in his direction; the place to look was the royal palace. Unfortunately, some Christians have set too high a standard in the matter of clothing. They cannot go on without maintaining such a standard. We hold that it does not glorify the Lord for us to wear ragged garments; they are not a glory to the Lord. We should, whenever possible, be clean, tidy, and suitably dressed. Nevertheless, when a need arises, we should be like Paul, who, even though he was in hunger and thirst and nakedness, continued to serve the Lord (1 Cor. 4:11). If God's servants will exercise themselves at ordinary times, their body will be under their control, and their work in the Lord will not be affected by an issue such as their clothing.
Another example is sickness. In times of sickness or weakness, the body makes heavier demands than usual. Many workers of the Lord love themselves so much that they excuse themselves from work as soon as they are slightly sick. How could Paul ever have written his Epistles if he had called a halt whenever his eyes were hurting? At least he would not have written the book to the Galatians, for that book was written at the time when his eyes were very weak. This is why he said, "See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand" (6:11). If Paul had to wait for his eyes to get better before he could make his tents, he would never have made any tents, because it surely requires eyesight to make tents. Yet he worked during the day and made tents during the night. He did not stop because of his eyes. If Timothy had to wait until his stomach was well before he would go on with his work, there would have been no one to continue Paul's ministry, because Timothy's stomach never became well. On the one hand, it is necessary for us to take reasonable care of our bodies. But on the other hand, when the work requires us to sacrifice a little, we must never spare ourselves. When our work calls for it, we should set aside the demand of our sickness and take care of the demand of the work. It is true that sickness demands rest, but when the work calls for sacrifice, even a sick body has to heed to its call. We have to buffet our body and make it our slave. This is a basic requirement in the work. If we cannot direct our body, with what means shall we engage ourselves in the work? If a servant of the Lord is seriously sick and the Lord has not imposed a special burden upon him, it is right for him to take care of his sickness; the church should know what to do with him, and the other co-workers should also know what to do with him. But if a need exists in the work and the Lord's command is clear, he cannot be bound by his sickness. Sometimes, there is no time for sickness; we must put aside temporarily the care of our sickness. This is a lesson we all must learn.
This principle applies not only to sickness but to pain in general. Sometimes we are in so much physical pain that we feel that our body can no longer bear the torment. At ordinary times, we should provide suitable rest and therapy to the body and take care of its needs. But when the Lord's work demands and commands us to do something, we have to do it, even though our body may still be in pain. Our body should always obey us. Sometimes we have to lift up our eyes to the Lord and say, "Lord, my body has to obey me this one more time. I cannot satisfy its need this one more time!"
This principle should equally be applied to sexual desires. It is not mandatory that we gratify our need for sex. We should learn to give His service the priority over everything else.
Let us consider Paul's story. In 1 Corinthians 4:11-13 he said, "Until the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked and buffeted and wander without a home; and we labor, working with our own hands. Reviled we bless; persecuted we endure; defamed we exhort. We have become as the offscouring of the world, the scum of all things, until now." Please pay attention to the words in verse 11: "Until the present hour." This means that these conditions were still present at the time of his speaking. It shows us that Paul's body was under his control all the time. Nothing was ever allowed to hinder his service to the Lord. In chapter six of this same Epistle, from verse 12 through the end, he referred to two matters—the matter of food and the matter of sex—and he made it very clear that we are not servants of the body. Whether in the matter of food or sex, there is no need for us to become slaves to our bodies. In chapter seven he shows clearly that a man does not have to be a slave to his body in the matter of sex, and in chapter eight he shows that a man does not have to be a slave to his body in the matter of food. What then does it mean for us to buffet the body and make it our slave? It means that we buffet our body and "hit" it to the extent that it comes under our full control. Brothers and sisters, in working for the Lord and in our service to Him, we often have to restrict the demands of the body. When a need arises in the work and the body is called upon to deny its cravings, can we be strong enough to deny them? Of course, all human cravings are created by God and are given to us by Him. There is nothing wrong with the legitimate demands of the body. But are any of these demands preventing us from serving our Lord?
Brothers and sisters, do not think for a moment that you can relax your rein on the demands of the body. You have to realize that laxity and discretion are two entirely different things. You must exercise discretion to care for your body, but at the same time, you must take full control of your body. To buffet the body does not mean that you starve all the time. It means that you can go on without food even when your stomach is empty. At the same time, you should still take care of your body. However, if you are involved in God's work, yet are very inflexible with your eating, you will not be able to go on as soon as the food falls below your accustomed standard. We are not for asceticism, and we do not agree that the body is the source of sin. We acknowledge that God is the One who has created in us our physical needs. We readily agree that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But at no time are we under any obligation to follow the needs of the body. This does not mean that we have to be without clothing, food, and sleep all the time. If at all possible, we should clothe and feed ourselves properly and rest properly. Our eating can be the result of our buffeting the body, or it can be the result of not buffeting the body; the two things are entirely different. The problem today is that many brothers and sisters are very loose with their body. If we cannot put our body under strict control, as soon as we face any trial in our work, we will grumble, complain, or run away. We have to exercise endurance before the Lord. We should say, "Lord, my troubles can never match the troubles You faced when You were sojourning on the earth." The Lord lowered Himself from the loftiest height and descended to the lowest depth. Today we have not lowered ourselves from the loftiest height nor descended to the lowest depth. We should say, "Lord, we can never come up to what You have done." We must learn to accept all the restrictions imposed upon our body.
Some people have allowed their body to go unchecked for a long time. These ones need to spend more time to learn the proper lessons. We hope that they can be useful in the work within a short period of time. But if they do not deal with their problems and cannot overcome them, they cannot participate in God's work. Those who have never buffeted their body or made it their slave will fall back as soon as they are put in a race. We must remember that the work of the gospel is like a race. If we have never exercised ourselves and our body has never been under our control, we will fail and not be able to run when God puts extra demands on us. Running is an extraordinary demand that one imposes on his body. We can never be loose with our own body. All the great servants of the Lord are under His strict rule; they all exercise strict control over their own body. If we do not rule over our body, we will fail as soon as we are challenged by additional needs. All extraordinary and valuable works are performed under extraordinary demands. If we cannot work under extraordinary demands, how can we be useful in any way? We should not be loose. We should not allow our body to relax. We have to tightly hold the rein and put our body under strict control. We must be able to give up our sleep, give up our food, and give up our comfort when we are called to do so. We have to persist in the work and insist on our body being our slave. Today we take our body along with us to the work, and even when our body is sick or in pain, it still has to obey us.
Paul said, "See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand" (Gal. 6:11). He was doing more than what his capacity allowed him to do. We can sense our brother's feeling here; he was forcing himself to do what he could not do. Throughout the ages, this is how the Spirit is expressed. If a servant of God is in good health at ordinary times and experiences no hardship in the environment, sleeping well and eating well, yet finds his body uncooperative when the need arises, he is not a useful servant of the Lord. Paul said, "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest perhaps having preached to others, I myself may become disapproved." In other words, he was afraid that others would receive the gospel while he would miss the reward and the Lord's commendation: "Well done My servant." Remember that a man who loves himself cannot serve God. Those who are loose in their living and who cannot discipline themselves strictly cannot serve God. If we want to learn to serve the Lord, we have to exercise ourselves, control ourselves, and rule over ourselves every day. If our love for the Lord is strong enough, we will not be led away by the demands of the body. If our spirit is strong enough, we will not allow our flesh to remain in weakness. When the resurrection life in us multiplies, it will give life to our mortal body. We have to be brought on until our body will obey us and us alone, until it no longer frustrates us. When this happens, we will be able to serve the Lord in a good way.