Galatians 5:22 – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23 – gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Back in the 1980’s drug use became epidemic among young people, and teen pregnancy rates were skyrocketing. A relatively new disease called AIDS was on the rise—and gangs were turning many inner-city neighborhoods into battlefields. Well, someone came up with a simple solution to these risky behaviors: JUST SAY NO. The thought was we could solve all these problems if we could just teach young people to say “No” to drugs and sex and the violence that comes with it. The idea caught on, and with some help from 1st Lady Nancy Regan and the cooperation of the mass media—the Just Say No Campaign blanketed America with school curriculum, TV advertisements, and celebrity endorsements. Police Departments joined the effort and developed the DARE program that schoolchildren and parents all across the country are familiar with today: Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
It’s a simple strategy: teach young people the dangers of these risky behaviors, and then train them how to respond to temptation and peer pressure. Teens across the US heard adults telling them things like:
- “When you’re at a party, and someone tries to put a drink or a pill in your hands, just say ‘No.’”
- “When you’re alone with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and they’re pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do, just say ‘No.’”
- “When someone taunts you and you’re tempted to strike back, just say ‘No.’”
Sounds good doesn’t it?
There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work. Surveys and studies have revealed again and again that educational programs like this not only FAIL to REDUCE risky behaviors—but in some cases, they actually INCREASE them. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General officially placed the DARE program in the “Does Not Work” category.
The reason it doesn’t work is that it doesn’t go deep enough. Saying “No” isn’t something we do with our minds or our mouths. It’s something we do with our hearts. Saying “No” requires something deep inside that most teenagers don’t have: self-control.
And—of course teens aren’t the only ones with this problem. All people struggle with it. We all have a hard time just saying “NO.” I mean, have you ever lost control of you and been embarrassed or frustrated by your behavior? Have you ever eaten too much—or spent too much—or said to much—or played too much—or bragged too much—or procrastinated too much—or interfered too much—or worked too much—or complained too much or argued too much—or preached too much about doing too much of this or that? Can you think of a time or two or three in your life when you lost your grip on the reigns of self? Sure—we all have! Each of us has had to endure times of difficulty and frustration and defeat and realized later that we had no one to blame but self.
D. L. Moody, the great evangelist of the 19th century was once asked, “Of all the people you have come in contact with, who would you say it is that gives you the most trouble?” He said, “That’s easy, D. L. Moody.” We chuckle because we understand all too clearly that the one who consistently gives each of us the most trouble—the one we have to clean up after the most—the one we have to correct the most—is none other than our self. As someone once said, “If you could kick the person responsible for most of your troubles, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for weeks.” Maybe this is why pastors stand up to preach!
The truth is, self trips each of us up more than anything or anyone. I think this poem puts it well:
“An enemy I had, whose face I stoutly strove to know,
For hard he dogged my steps, unseen wherever I did go,
My plans he balked, my aims he foiled, He blocked my onward way.
When for some lofty goal I toiled, he grimly said to me, ‘nay.’
One night I seized him and held him fast, From him the veil did draw,
I looked upon his face at last and lo, myself I saw!”
Self can indeed be a problem in life can’t it?! This is why self-control is such an important spiritual fruit. I think all mothers would agree—raising children requires TONS of self-control!
And remember—as I said last week—these are RELATIONAL virtues—not just INDIVIDUAL ones. This is especially true when it comes to self-control because when we don’t bear this fruit—we aren’t the only ones affected.
Before we go any further, we should stop and agree on a definition—so what exactly is self-control? This week I’ve been reading several definitions of this virtue so “leaf” through my notes with me. Here’s a sampling of my notes: Some have attempted to define self-control with concrete statements like this. They say, “self-control is,
- The ability to break a Godiva chocolate bar into four pieces and eat just one piece.
- The ability to stop smoking and not tell anyone about it.
- When your conscience tells you something and you don’t ask for a second opinion.
- Not blaming others for your poor choices.
Speaking of that, on March 10, 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure known as the “cheeseburger bill.” The bill is designed to protect the fast food industry from potential lawsuits filed by overweight customers like these:
- Caesar Barber, 56, who pointed the finger at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Burger King—for his two heart attacks, diabetes, and weight problem.
- Gregory Rhymes, a 15-year-old high school student, who joined his mother in blaming fast food restaurants for his obesity.
Rhymes’s mother stood before a judge and stated she “always believed McDonald’s was healthy for my son.” Gregory weighed nearly 400 pounds. The purpose of the “cheeseburger bill” is to stop these kinds of silly lawsuits—lawsuits filed by people who blamed others for their problems—when the issue was their lack of self-control. I’m reminded of Brian Bill who defines a self-controlled person is “one who holds himSELF in.”
And then, I like what Lewis Smedes says. He says that self-control is like the “conductor of a symphony orchestra. Under the conductor’s baton the multitude of talented musicians play the right notes at the right time at the right volume so that everything sounds just right.” Our orchestra and choir and praise team are self-controlled because of the skilled leadership of Bill Archer. To be self-controlled, is to not be controlled by our sinful desires and passions and appetites and ego. Rather, it is our ability to direct or conduct them. It’s the proper judgment as to what desires or passions we should say “yes” to and which ones we should say “no” to and when. As Jerry Bridges puts it, “Self-control is the exercise of inner strength under the direction of sound judgment that enables us to do, think, and say the things that are pleasing to God.”
Proverbs 25:28 gives us another word picture to help us deepen our understanding of this garment of grace. It says: “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” In ancient times the walls were a city’s primary line of defense. This is why Nehemiah wept when he heard that the walls of his beloved Jerusalem were in disrepair. To him this news meant the bad guys were getting in, they had free run of the city. Since the walls had crumbed, they were in control of Jerusalem.
For the Christian, self-control is our “wall”—our wall of defense when it comes to the sinful desires that can run rampant and lead us away from the things of God. In fact, let’s pause in our study and do a little more intense self-examination. What “walls” have you allowed to come down in your life? Where is the enemy getting in? Where does he have free run of your life?
Here are some possibilities to consider:
- Has lust broken through? Is it reeking havoc in your marriage?
- Or, has your wall against ambition crumbled such that career has become more important than family?
- And what about your greed wall? Have your desires for more, leveled the wall that controlled your spending?
Here’s another possibility.
- Has your “wall” of trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness crumbled such that you find yourself grumbling and complaining all the time?
Or, how about this one?
- Have you allowed your wall against anger to fall down so that you lose your temper such that it gets out whenever it wants?
This week I read about a 6′ 3″ 270 lb University of Kansas football player, named Dion Rayford who went through the drive-thru lane at Taco Bell for lunch back in 2001. He paid for his order and then realized they had shorted him a chalupa. In the ensuing discussion, Rayford got so angry about this that he tried to climb through the 14 by 46-inch drive-through window and in the process he got stuck. The manager called the police. The police pulled up to the drive-through and laughed hysterically as they discovered the legs and back end of the football player kicking in midair. Police Sergeant George Wheeler said, “When you take a big guy and put him through a small space, something’s got to give.” Once they got him out, Rayford had to write a letter of apology, serve 12 months of probation and pay $579.17 to cover the damages to the drive thru window.
Well, what’s your “drive-thru window?” What’s the area of your life where the walls have fallen down and you’ve lost control such that you constantly find your self caught in embarrassing behavior?
By the way—a lack of self control can indeed make us feel bad, can’t it! Did anyone have an inner wince of empathy pain for that football player as you remembered a time when you lost control and did or said something foolish? I bet we all suffer from painful memories like that!
When we regain control and are able to think clearly and look back at the damage our lack of self-control caused, well it hurts doesn’t it! It’s embarrassing. You don’t have to kick yourself because you already feel pain and regret! It feels much better to keep self in check than it does to give it free reign. Maxi Dunham refers to this and says, “The purpose of self-control is that we may be fit for God, fit for ourselves, and fit to be servants of others, it is not a rigid, religious practice. It’s not discipline for discipline’s sake. It is not dull drudgery aimed at exterminating laughter and joy. It is the doorway to true joy, true liberation from the stifling slavery of self-interest and fear.”
And I would agree! In fact, I would say that most of the painful problems in our society today stem from the fact that we seem to embrace a selfish freedom—that actually encourages a lack of restraint in life. “Anything goes!” is the mantra of our culture—which is why we have so many problems. Anne Widdecombe refers to this failed way of thinking and says, “Let’s face it, we are not a happier society as a result of the liberalization of the seventies. We should invite people to recognize that the Great Experiment has failed. You cannot have happiness without restraint”
Okay—let’s get back to our leafing through my notes when it comes to defining this virtue because there is one more I want us to consider. You see, in his book, Hidden in Plain Sight, Mark Buchanan takes it a step further. Like the other people I’ve mentioned thus far, Buchanan says that self-control is indeed keeping our desires in check, but he also says it’s more than that. He says, “Self-control, is a trained capacity to think clearly about what matters most. It’s a disciplined attentiveness to what God has done and is doing. Self-control is really about paying attention. Before it’s the strength to hold yourself back, it’s the ability to see, without distortion or illusion, what’s really going on, and the wisdom to act in light of it.” He goes on to cite three places in life, three times we really need this caliber of self-control.
(1) First, we need self-control when we struggle with the temptation to sin.
This may seem obvious but hang with me. Turn in your Bibles to 1st Peter 1:13-16 where it says, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He Who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
The word “therefore” in verse one connects these four verses to the passage before, where Peter described the great salvation God has bestowed on us. Back in verses 9-12, Peter reminds us how precious our salvation is and how long mankind has yearned for it as they listened to the prophets tell them of God’s promise to send a Redeemer.
Buchanan writes, “Salvation is the name of all you’ve ever wanted. All your longings, some vague as rumors, some sharp as skewers, are answered in the gift of God’s eternal welcome.
Whatever you called by other names, sought in other places, hunted by other means, wanted for other ends, was really and always salvation. Salvation feeds your soul’s deep craving. Holy men in times past defied kings to proclaim it. Heaven’s seraphim and cherubim chafe to peek at it. The Holy Spirit puts in some men fire in the bones to proclaim it and it came to you! So, be self-controlled.”
Did Buchanan help you to understand Peter’s warning? When tempted to sin, when enticed by your desires or ambitions or worldly hungers to do things that would break they heart of our Heavenly Father—he says self-control comes from our being attentive to what God has done. It is prompted by our memory of the grace He extended to you on the cross of Christ. That memory—-that awareness—should motivate you and me to be self-controlled and live holy lives. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians, “we no longer live for self but for Him Who died for us.”
Quoting Buchanan once again, “The purpose of self-control is to make us holy. Self-control guards a treasure—God’s great salvation. And it produces a jewel, God-like holiness.”
In Romans 6:2ff Paul says, “Before Christ came we were slaves to sin. Now we have been freed from it! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
I’m reminded of a classic cartoon that appeared in Leadership magazine that showed two couples seated in a living room engaged in Bible Study. One of the women is speaking. “Well” she says, “I haven’t actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.” Paul would scoff at that woman because in Romans 6 he is saying, sin used to control us but Jesus died for our sin in order to free us from its grasp—if we know that how can we continue to sin against Him? How can we not die to sin? How can we just “faint” to it and give over control of self to our sinful desires? Max Lucado puts it this way, “How can we who have been made right with God not live holy, righteous lives?! How can we who have been loved, not love? How can we who have been blessed not bless? How can we who have been given grace not live graciously?” Indeed how? Once we experience God’s grace, how can we not let grace drive us to live holy, obedient lives?
Craig Barnes, former pastor of National Presbyterian Church in D. C., writes, “When I was a child, my minister father brought home a 12-year-old boy named Roger, whose parents had died from a drug overdose. There was no one to care for Roger, so my folks decided to just raise him as if he were one of their own sons. At first it was quite difficult for Roger to adjust to his new home—an environment free of heroine-addicted adults! Every day, several times a day, I heard my parents say to Roger: ‘No, no. That’s not how we behave in this family.’
‘No, no. You don’t have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want.’ ‘No, no, Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family.’ And in time Roger began to change. Now, did Roger have to make all those changes in order to become a part of this family? No. He was made a part of the family simply by the grace of my father. Did it require effort for him to change? Sure it did. It was tough but he was motivated to change the way he lived by the gratitude he felt for the incredible love he had received.”
Fellow Christian, our Holy God sent His only Son to die for our sins and free us from sin’s grasp. He adopted us into His family. Isn’t that enough motivation to embrace this fruit? Doesn’t that make you want to resist temptation and strive for holiness?
(2) And then, we also need self-control when we endure trials and tribulations.
Look at 1st Peter 4:7 where it says, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled—so that you can pray.” In this verse and others like it, God uses Peter to remind us that this world is indeed coming to an end. One day soon—in the way God looks at time, where a day is as a thousand years—one day soon, “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” (2nd Peter 3:10) Peter says that we deal with the tough times—the struggles—that come from living in these last days by PRAYING.
Now, I don’t know when Jesus will return. I don’t know when this old world of ours will end—and we’ll move to that new Heaven and new earth, but I do know that final day is coming—and I also know that day is nearer now than it was yesterday—and I know something else. I know that, every day on this fallen, and dying world you and I go through experiences that make us feel like OUR world is ending. The shootings, the terror bombings, the disasters of nature—a culture that has discarded the sanctity of human life—and embraces sexual behaviors that God forbids—I believe God is saying here that we should respond to the nightmares of life with clear, self-controlled minds that prompt us TO PRAY. To be honest though, usually the thing I am LEAST likely to do in these crises of life is to head for the prayer closet. My first response in the storms of life is usually to rant and rave and storm about. Many times I lose control and fret and panic—when what is needed most is for me to calm down and then bow down and talk to God.
Buchanan writes, “To pray well when the sky falls, takes exceptional clearness of mind and enormous self-control. You have to slow. You have to breathe. You have to stop walking by sight and start walking by faith. You have to willfully set aside for the moment, the danger right before your eyes. You have to remember, Our Father is in Heaven, He is on His throne. You remember this before you worry about where to get daily bread or how to dodge temptation or how to forgive a wrongdoer.”
Of course, none of this comes naturally. Our instinct is to fight or flight. Our impulse is to panic, flail about, sulk or bolt or yell at someone. The last thing we’re inclined to do in the face of what feels like the end of all things is to pray. So try it. Pray before you react. Before you post an angry divisive something or other on Facebook—PRAY. Pray before you throw your laptop out the window when it loses three hours of your work. Pray before you give into panic when you get that first college tuition bill. Pray before you slide into despair after hearing a doctor’s diagnosis and prognosis—pray.
Think of it this way. When you were a kid and you had a problem—didn’t it make you feel better to talk to your dad about it? Didn’t you feel comforted in the presence of that wonderful man who had the resources to help you and an unconditional love for you that always prompted him to do so? We need to respond to those times in life that feel like the end of the world in the same way. We need to pray, we need to talk to our heavenly Father. This is a time we need to, stop panicking, embrace self-control, and talk to God.
Do you remember the story of King Jehoshaphat? He was one of those rare Godly kings of Israel—one of the true good guys in the long list of their monarchs. Yet, 2nd Chronicles 20:1 tells us that bad came his way that threatened to end his world. It says, “The Moabites and Amonites with some of the Meunites came to make war on Jehoshaphat.” This was a vast army—one that could end life as Jehoshaphat and his people knew it and yet his first response was not to lose control and rant and rave. No, look at verse 3 where it says, “Jehoshaphat feared—and set himself to seek the Lord.” That’s self-control people! So, when your world seems about to end, “Don’t fret about anything, pray about everything.” (Philippians 4:6) When you feel like everything is falling apart, “Come boldly before the throne of grace, that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) So we need self-control in times of temptation, and in times of trials and tribulations,
(3) And Buchanan wisely points out we also need self-control when Satan attacks.
Look at 1st Peter 5:8, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” You know, the fact is we do have an adversary in this world—especially if we are trying to live holy lives. Buchanan writes, “Satan likes a fruitful Christian as much as God does, but for different reasons: God to delight in; the devil to devour.” So, as Peter puts it, we must be alert because the devil prowls, like a hungry lion, looking for a Christian with his or her guard down. When he attacks we must put on self-control.
This spiritual fruit keeps the devil from getting a foothold. Remember—the devil loves to attack in the panicky times of life when our world seems about to end. He loves to attack us in those times when we are weak and susceptible to temptation. He loves it when our walls of “self-control” have crumbled or fallen because then he can easily get inside to wreak havoc. Peter says the best defense in these times is resistance. If you turn and run, the devil will only give chase and over take you. If you give in to fear, he’ll only intensify your panic. In the tough times of life, we have to remember Whose child we are and that Satan is a defeated enemy—and in that conviction stand firm in our faith.
How many of you have seen the movie 42? It’s a remake of the 1950’s movie that starred Jackie Robinson himself. I’m old enough to remember seeing that first film on TV. There’s a scene that shows the first meeting between Jackie Robinson and the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Rickey was asking Robinson to be the first man of color to play professional baseball. Rickey says to the great athlete: “What do you think, Jackie? Do you got guts enough to play the game no matter what happens? They’ll shout insults at you. They’ll come into you spikes first. They’ll throw at your head.” Robinson responds: “They’ve been throwing at my head for a long time, Mr. Rickey,” Rickey says, “Suppose I’m playing against you in the World Series, and I’m hotheaded. I want to win the game. So, I go into you spikes first. You jab the ball in my ribs and the umpire says ‘out.’ All I can see is your black face, that black face right over me. So, I haul off and punch you right in the cheek. What do you do?” Robinson calmly thinks for a moment, then answers, “Mr. Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks.” Robinson turned the other cheek countless times in his career. He was a model of courage and humility—and self-control
Now—how was he able to do that? Well, Robinson’s example is the answer. He said he got down on his knees many nights—especially during the early years—asking God for the strength to continue resisting the temptation to fight back—or to say something he would regret. Jackie Robinson got the power to control himself in the face of the demonic attacks of racist people from God. It is the same with you and me. We don’t get it from just saying no to self—but from just saying YES to God. As someone once said, “If God is your co-pilot, swap seats!” He has to be in charge. We have to give Him the controls of our life. I think John the Baptist said it best: self must decrease, Jesus must increase.
For the Christian self-control is actually self-denial. As Jesus said, “Whoever would come after Me must deny Himself, take up his cross, and follow.” (Matthew 16:24) We let Jesus lead our self because He is the perfect example of this virtue in action. Consider the written record we have of His amazing self-control! Think of how He responded when betrayed by a friend. Jesus poured his life into Judas for three years and then Judas sold him out. What did Jesus do? He didn’t take a swing at Judas or berate him in front of everyone else. He didn’t excommunicate him on the spot. There were no reprisals; no revenge seeking, no outburst. Prior to His crucifixion Jesus was repeatedly beaten and humiliated and ridiculed. Yet, in spite of all this, as a sheep before her shearer is silent so He did not open His mouth. He didn’t let His impulses run away. He didn’t curse His captors—He prayed for them! He exercised the kind of self-control that made onlookers says, “Who is this guy?!” We can’t control self on our own—we need the power of His Spirit living in us. Let me ask—-is Jesus living in your heart—or are you trying to get through life in this fallen world on your own strength? If you’re my age you may remember back when cars didn’t have power steering or power brakes, well I think that must be similar to what it feels like to live life without Christ. Without Jesus’ power—well, it is a real struggle just to keep on the right “roads” and to stop when you need to. If that describes you—-then you need to know that Jesus wants to come in to your life. Won’t you invite Him in? And if you’ve already asked Jesus in, are you letting Him lead? Are you giving Him control of all of your life? Is there some fear or temptation you’re dealing with on your own? Right now would be a great time to correct those kinds of mistakes. Bow your head and give it over to Jesus. Give Him the driver’s seat. Commit to let God lead and control.