I am not sure if the saying was around before the days of Twitter and Pinterest, but “I was today years old” has become a fixture in online conversation and discovery. It simply points to any moment in time when you realize something that you had never realized before –something that now seems clear and obvious. We just can’t believe we had never noticed it before the moment we finally did. For example, did you know that the “L” in the Staple’s logo is an actual staple with the bottom part of the staple bent over? Or did you know that the “Ex” in the FedEx logo makes an arrow that is supposed to represent their goal of shipping and delivering? There is even a “today years old” twitter handle (@todayyearsoldig) if you would like to check it out.
Recently, I had one of those moments in my personal Bible study. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul admits to his own need for self-disciple. Painting the picture of an athlete in preparation for competition, Paul acknowledged the need to exercise “self-control in all things” (9:25) by making his body his slave (9:27). In the past, I have connected this statement with Paul’s acknowledgment of his own inward struggle of still doing what is right when his physical desires are leading him toward sinful activity (see Romans 7:14-25). From that vantage point the application is quite obvious –fight against the desire to sin so that you do not become disqualified in running the race and receiving the crown.
Upon further inspection (not to discount the need for avoiding sin and finishing our race with victory), I am not sure that is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 9. In fact, the context (which obviously has been there all along) would paint a slightly different picture of Paul’s point. Back in chapter 8, Paul encourages the Corinthians to develop a willingness to refrain from activities that might cause some of their brethren to struggle even if those activities were not inherently sinful or salacious. He warns that their liberty (i.e., spiritual freedom to eat certain meats) might “somehow become a stumbling block” to those who do not see the issue the same way (8:9). If they pressed their liberty over the spiritual safety of their fellow Christian, they would eventually sin against both their brother and their Master (8:12).
To further stress their need for compliance, Paul offers himself as an example of one who would, if the decision would spiritually benefit his brethren, (1) refuse to eat meat, (2) refuse the right to marry, and (3) refuse to take financial compensation for preaching the gospel (9:4-6). Although Paul had the right to do all of these things, he did not exercise those rights to ensure that he did not hinder the cause of Christ (9:12). In this refusal of rights, Paul made himself a slave (9:19) “for the sake of the gospel (9:23).
But what about when he was tempted to eat the meat that he said he wouldn’t eat? What about when he was overcome with sexual desire and needed a marriage relationship to rightly fulfill that desire? What about when he had to work countless hours making tents to personally support his preaching ministry and was tempted to just ask the Corinthian church for financial help that he was worthy of receiving? In short, he refused those desires. Paul practiced self-mastery. He could have given in. He had both a spiritual and personal right to do so. But for the sake of others and their spiritual progression, Paul refrained.
This type of self-mastery may be the most foreign to our current culture. You expect me to forego my perfectly lawful rights for no real, personal gain? Usually, self-denial is packaged too as being beneficial for us. We will gain or grow or learn. So, in hopes of becoming slimmer, being healthier, or going to heaven, we restrain ourselves. But Paul gave up food, money, and marriage just so he could help others and just so he could be their example! In that way, Paul was the embodiment of Jesus at the cross. Thus, Paul ends this discussion with this charge: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor.11:1).
The cross is almost an unbelievable story. A story of unselfish sacrifice that was purely for the benefit of someone else. What amazing love! What amazing restraint!
Friends, we are called to live and love the same way. Be careful that your pursuit and passion in this life is not to claim, defend, and exercise your rights. Be watchful that possessing and defending those rights does not triumph over the benefit and well-being of others. It will not feel natural and it certainly will not be easy. You might even have to daily discipline your own body, give up that which you are free to choose, and become your own slave just like Paul.
“I was today years old” when I realized that running with aim might cost me more than I ever thought it could. I pray that we have the faith and discernment to live other-centric lives in a self-centric world.
– Wayne Jones