We all could use a healthy dose of self-control these days. As I was telling my good-for-nothing, money-grabbing, self-indulgent, womanizing, utterly out-of-his mind brother-in-law the other day.
Oh. Excuse me. Sort of got out of control there.
(Apologies to my three brothers-in-law. Just illustrating a point.)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
The Greek word translated “self-control” is enkrateia, and usually refers to mastery over one’s desires and passions. (We pastors throw in the occasional Greek word just so our people will know that we know it. Whether it does any good or turns people off is another question.)
The best picture of self-control any of us will ever see in a lifetime is Olympic athletes. They discipline their bodies, they deny themselves social activities and foods everyone else is enjoying, they rise at unearthly hours and go to bed with the chickens–and they do it for four long years between major competitions–all for the privilege of standing on that world stage for a few moments and competing. The rest of us stand in awe.
Self-control. What a concept.
Self-indulgence–saying “sure, whatever you want” to our passions and hungers, our urges and desires, our impulses and temptations–is more what we are about.
The evidence of a lack of self-control can be seen in a hundred ways everywhere we go: in the overweight people all about us, in the speeders and risk-takers on the interstates, in the daily newspapers’ accounts of fights and shootings, and in the mirror.
The mirror, did you say? Yep. I see it in myself. You too, I’ll bet.
Is this a good place for a confession about the lack of self-control in my life? Probably. But, if you will forgive me, I will forgo it. After all, there is nothing at all unique about my own laziness, my love for a large bowl of ice cream, my resistance to take the Bible down and read it, my preference for a ball game on television than walking down the street and ministering to my neighbor.
You and I are much alike.
We need a healthy dose of self-control.
The good news is the Lord is at work in our lives right now producing that strength.
The great Apostle Paul knew more about self-discipline and self-control than he lets on. He was so focused, so driven, and so effective in his work for the Lord, we could wish he had sat down at least once in his life with a biographer to tell his story.
Here’s what Paul said to the Corinthian church on the subject. By the way, those Greeks knew a thing or two about athletic competition, having originated the Olympic games themselves. I discipline and subdue my own body so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (See I Corinthians 9:24-27)
Those who are under the control of the Holy Spirit will be able to control their own passions and desires.
That is so because the strength to control ourselves comes from the Spirit, not from our flesh. He enables us to do things previously beyond us.
Control our temper.
As a young husband, I was in a heated argument with my wife about something. I distinctly recall being so angry that I knocked a hole in the wall with my fist. That was so out of character for me–typically the last guy on the block to want to fight–that it frightened me. Over the next few weeks, the Lord and I had many a talk about my temper and how to control it. He directed my attention to Galatians 5:23 and assured me the remedy was not to focus on my temper but on Him. As I grew in Christ, the Spirit built me up in this area.
Control our mouth.
I grew up with what is sometimes called the “short person syndrome.” Until I was in my early teens, I was the smallest boy in the class and made up for it–I thought–by being louder than anyone else. At 15, I began to grow and eventually ended up with the “normal” height of just under 5 feet 11 inches. The problem was, I still had the syndrome. I was still the attention-seeker who strove to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral. Not good, particularly for one called by God as a minister to others.
The stories I could tell you of the trouble my mouth got me into. But I’ll spare you.
In time, I began praying Psalms 141:3. Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.
To this day, I pray that almost every day of my life. One never outgrows, I expect, the tendencies of youth. But he can (ahem) control them.
Control our eyes.
Wives notice. You’re driving along a busy street amid heavy traffic. And then, there! Your eyes cut to that lovely young lady on the sidewalk. Isn’t she a dream! You looked just for a moment, but you were caught.
No amount of explanations or rationalizations will convince your wife that what you did was harmless and natural. To say “all men do it” only adds to her frustration. Better to confess and apologize, then send up a brief prayer for the Father to help you guard your eyes.
A young teen I know asked her mother one day, “Mom, when did men start being so fascinated by women’s breasts?” (I’m certain she was just making that discovery, and it was disconcerting to her.) Her mother said, “In the Garden of Eden, honey.” At the very beginning. Whether it is part of original sin or was present in the pre-fall Adam is not for us to say.
Job confessed, “I have made a covenant with my eyes not to look on a young woman” (Job 31:1). We’re told by scholars that this was a commitment to inner purity toward women, and does not mean he refused to look their way.
Control our thoughts.
This is the reservoir out of which our words, our acts, everything flows. That’s why the Lord Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Everything originates there.
To change our ways, start with the thoughts.
“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” said Solomon several times in the Proverbs.
When I was in the 7th grade, a substitute teacher who evidently taught some of our class in Sunday School, called on the students she knew to recite familiar passages of Scripture. That was the first time I’d ever heard anyone my age quote the 23rd Psalm. And this one: Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).
That’s another one I pray practically daily. Guard my words and guard my thoughts, Lord. I will be needing your attention to this all day long.
As life changes us, so do the controls upon us need to adapt.
I think of King David as he began to ease into retirement. He was pleased with his record to that point, no doubt. But one night when there was nothing much on television, he stood at a window gazing upon his city and noticed a woman taking a bath across the way. Had he turned and walked away at that moment, he could have saved himself a lot of grief, Bathsheba a lifetime of complications, Uriah his life, the nation years of pain, and the Kingdom of God a barrage of ridicule from the heathen.
Since life changes at each stage, the controls have to adapt, too.
From the sixth grade through high school, I rode the bus to school every morning and evening. Many times we would have wished the bus had gone faster, and probably it would have except for one thing: it came equipped with something called a “governor.” As explained to us by Lee Spain, the driver, that little piece of equipment kept the bus from traveling over 35 miles per hour.
Need a governor upon your heart, your mind, your mouth? You do. The good news is you have one.