Ah...self-control...I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say, “If only I had some self-control!” or “If only I were more disciplined!” What they want...what they need is self-control.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I said it!
The next two message may be the most important messages of this entire series. Without them our ability to produce the Fruit of the Spirit just falls apart. Self-control may be the most important of the Fruits...because without self-control none of the other qualities are possible.
Let’s walk through the list
Love- without self-control we can’t really demonstrate love. How many times has a relationship, built on love, been destroyed because of some one didn’t control their words? We cannot demonstrate love when say insensitive things to those whom we are to show love. We cannot demonstrate love when we lose control of our urges and cheat on our spouses. We need self-control.
Joy- Having joy means controlling the attitudes and thoughts that want to get us down. Depression is caused by many different things...chemical imbalances, medications, illnesses that take over our body...but so many times depression is simply a matter of thinking about the wrong things. We look at the dark side rather than good things in our lives. Joy mean controlling where we focus our attention...am I going to look at all the stuff I don’t have or learn to live joyously with the stuff I do have.
Peace- means controlling our urge to fight back. It means we control our desire to win at all costs...to be right...our desire to be heard.
Patience- means controlling our desire to be first or to not be inconvenienced or to have what we want when we want it.
Kindness- means controlling our desire to act out of our moods rather than react in response to a human being created in God’s Image. It means being aware of other people and treating as we would want to be treated.
Goodness- means controlling our desire to keep everything we get...
Faithfulness- means controlling our desire to quite...to give up...to do what we want.
Gentleness- means controlling our desire to swing either toward unrestrained anger or toward apathy and disengagement...to find the appropriate response
Without self-control...we simply cannot live out the Fruit of the Spirit. Each one requires us to control ourselves and what seems so natural because it is part of our broken, fallen nature inherited from Adam and Eve. If we are to make progress in the spiritual life, we must learn self-control.
We must learn to control our thoughts and attitudes.
We must learn to control our time and our schedules.
We must learn to control our actions.
But is it more than simply controlling ourselves. I would guess that many us tried that...tried harder to control ourselves.
You have struggled to control your appetites for years...and yet you face the bulging belly.
You have struggled to get your devotional life on track. It works for a while, you wake up or stay up and for a week or so...and then it starts to fade away.
You attempted to control yourself, but after awhile it just stops working.
The Dangers of Self-Control
There is a dark side to self-control.
Richard Foster writes,
“Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on our willpower and determination. Whatever may be the issue for us—anger, fear, bitterness, gluttony, pride, lust, substance abuse—we determine never to do it again; we pray against it, fight against it, set our will against it. But the struggle is all in vain, and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt or, worse yet, so proud of our external righteousness that “whitened sepulchers” is a mild description of our condition.”We believe with just a little bit more self-control we can control any problem we have, and when that fails to work we stop doing anything at all.
But here is the secret, Richard Foster writes, “When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God. It is a grace that is given…”
If we could manage our sinfulness and become better with self-control...we would have no need for God or his grace. For thousands of years the Jews attempted, through self-control and willpower, to live out the law, but, as Paul says earlier in Galatians 3:21, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.”
That is why Paul says in Titus 2:11-12, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age...”
The grace of God has appeared...and it is that grace that teaches to say “No!” and to live the self-controlled, godly lives...
Our need is for true, inner transformation and that comes through the work of God. So that even our self-control is enlivened and bolstered by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Self-control is not me learning to control my “self". It is allowing my “self" to be controlled by the Holy Spirit.
So how does this all play out in practice...
Self-Control means Strategic Distraction
In the 1960’s Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology gave what is now known as the Marshmallow test. His team of researchers would place a marshmallow in front of a kid and tell them they could eat the marshmallow at any time, but if they waited until the researcher returned to eat the marshmallow they would be allowed to have two marshmallows.
Psychologists assumed the children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it became obvious that every child wanted the extra treat. Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
The Bible puts it like this:
1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality.”
1 Corinthians 10:14, “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.”
1 Timothy 6:10-11, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.”
2 Timothy 2:22, “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense! Sometimes it means getting out of the situation.It means, as Walter Mischel says, to “avoid thinking about it in the first place.” Flee...get yourself away from the temptation.
You must learn to flee...to distract yourself. Self-control is not staring down the enemy and winning...it is finding creative ways to take yourself out of the hot situation that causes all the problems. Walter Mischel goes on to say, “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
When I was about to graduate from Seminary, one of my professors gave us a quick but helpful talk. He had just read some statistics about internet pornography usage by pastors. He told us...if you can’t find a way to control...get a sledgehammer and bust up your computer. It may not cure inner problem, but it certainly means you won’t be using the internet as an easy access point to indulge.
Maybe you find yourself moving in an unhealthy direction with someone who is not your spouse. You flee that relationship. You stop opening their emails...deleting them immediately. You unfriend them on Facebook. You ignore their calls and delete their messages without listening to them. You find ways to get yourself away from the temptation.
Maybe your temptation is to overeat. Pay attention to what triggers it. Are you bored? Go find something to do away from the possibility of food. Are you depressed? Get professional help to treat your depression or call up a friend and go hang out with them.
Are you impatient? I have heard that slower, smoother music while driving makes you less aggressive...I may need to try that. Taking some deep breaths. Leaving a bit earlier so you are not in a rush.
Can’t control your temper? Try counting...just not around me.
Can’t control your spending? Cut your credit cards into tiny pieces. Stop looking at catalogues and shopping websites.
So often we try to stare down the problem...we think self-control means facing down the enemy. The best self-control means knowing when to get out, knowing how to distract yourself, and even, when possible, to not get into the tempting situation in the first place.
Self-Control means having a defined goal.
So often we fail to live God-pleasing lives because, really, it isn’t our goal to do so. We may say it is with our words, but our actions and, if we are honest, the deepest desires of our hearts do not reflect it.
We want the American dream...big house, 2.5 kids, a nice car, and a steady job with regular promotions.
We want comfort and health...no sickness and no set-backs.
There are a thousand different things in our lives that fight to be our ultimate goal.
But when you have a steady direction...a goal...a purpose...a desire to see something happen...that changes everything. Suddenly your ability to stay self-controlled is enhanced...like self-control on steroids!
Just think about it for a minute. Some of you are in customer service jobs. Do you remember the last time you wanted to verbally tell off one of your customers? They are on the phone, or, worse yet, standing across the counter from you...angry, upset, and yelling. You wanted to give them a piece of your mind...may even give them a solid right hook...
And you didn’t. You smiled. You spoke nicely. You calmly controlled your response.
Why didn’t you choke the life out of that belligerent jerk? Because you had a goal. You didn’t want to lose your job. Maybe it was a more positive goal...you understood they weren’t mad at you they were mad at the situation or the way the company had treated them and you would be mad if you were in their place...so your goal was to help them.
When we have a goal self-control is easier.
We want to fit into that nice dress for our 10, 20, 30, 40 year reunion...self-control is a bit easier.
We want to keep our jobs...a bit easier.
When the ultimate goal of our lives is to please God...to live a godly life that reflect Him to those around us...self-control becomes a bit easier.
Paul talks about his own push to be self-controlled in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
I strike my body and make it my slave...all in service of his ultimate goal.
What is the real goal you are aiming for? Is it to live out the Fruit of the Spirit? Is it to live a life that pleases God? If it is, then spiritual self-control, while not perfect, certainly gets a boost.
Self-Control Requires Practice
In another research project, Walter Mischel, lead researcher on the Marshmallow test, “gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, compared with that of children in [wealthier areas].
He says, “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.”...the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice.”
So often we want to be spiritually healthy and have God-pleasing lives right off the bat...but quick-fix solutions is not how God does it. Spiritual transformation...moving from a self-centered, sinful human being to living out the Fruit of the Spirits...takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice.
The spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, fasting, worship, fellowship, silence, etc) are meant to form us into people who hear God's voice and do His will. They give us opportunities to practice
Fasting may be our most powerful and least used weapon in the modern church. In fasting we learn, we practice, denying ourselves what we really want when we want it. I want food...I’m fasting...I practice telling my body “No!” I am fasting from television or media or digital devices...I practice telling my inclinations, “No!”
So when the time comes for something much bigger...I have learned in the small things, through fasting, to tell myself, “No!” I have learned that I don’t need that to survive. I will live and can live quite happily without it. I have denied myself in the past of food, or caffeine, or sugar, or media, or any number of other things and I was fine.
We practice everyday by seeing each moment as an opportunity to grow...that time spent in a really long line is an opportunity for us to control our impatience...to practice breathing...and to wait. That person behind us in line is an opportunity to control our need to keep everything we have and be generous. That person who says something mean to us is an opportunity for us to practice love...kindness...to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Proverbs 25:28 reminds us, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”
The image here is life where the enemy can come and go as they please...take whatever goods they want...ravish the city...steal its children...use and abuse it.
When we lack self-control the Fruits of Spirit are an impossibility for us. It is the difference between a child clunking around or an unskilled person randomly hitting notes...and someone who, through years of practice, has mastered the ability to connect the notes into a song.
Guitar...have someone chunk across the guitar...this is what a life looks like that lacks self-control...
But when you allow the Holy Spirit to come in...when you practice the disciplines that build your self-control muscles...when you have a life that has learned the art of Holy Spirit empowered self-control...it sounds like this...[have someone play with skill].