Wise Habits: Self-Control
My granddaughter and daughter were in in downtown Chicago Sunday night…I’m sure you have seen the news…
It was chaos right outside their hotel
They normally stay in the Ronald McDonald House…a place where parents and sick children are able to stay, very near the world class children’s hospital.
It’s a wonderful place but they were unable to stay there this year.
But it was attacked, windows broken, bullets in the front door…parents were huddling inside with desperately ill children.
The security measures held, fortunately.
Think of the terrible stress and the dangerous threats that exist when security measures do fail.
In ancient times (and in many places today) walls around cities formed a key protective barrier against enemy threat.
When the walls failed…when they were breached…the enemy was free to do as he pleased.
When the enemy is free in your midst…you have lost all your freedom…you my lose your life.
Let me read Proverbs 25:28
Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.
If you read that like “urban decay”…houses and buildings in disrepair…you miss the point.
Read it like this…There are enemies surrounding your home, intent on destroying you and your family…and if you do not control your own passions, emotions, impulses…you are not safe…you are not free…you are in grave danger.
When there is no self-governance (you telling your own passions and emotions the truth and what to do)…then there is no freedom in your life.
Paul told Titus, his trusted friend and frequent traveling companion to remind the Christians on the island of Crete that before becoming Christians they had been “enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.” Titus 3:3
Humans have long had this backwards…we have often not understood that giving ourselves over to pleasure is slavery not freedom.
Many, believe the opposite of that.
Self-control is freedom…to be able to say “no” to all that your passions might demand is to live in liberty.
While pure Self-indulgence (what people often call freedom) is bondage…to say “yes” to all that your unbridled passions want is to give up liberty.
Again…Paul writing to Titus…
Titus 2:11, 12 “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age…”
It is the madness and folly of sin that continues to convince people that freedom is doing whatever your desires command you to do.
This hasn’t worked yet, it cannot work…it is not how we are designed to work.
*I wish every young man and young women in our church could transport into an alternate future for just a day…a future where they have done whatever their passions dictated…and they are looking back on their life and can see the wreckage and feel the despair.
Then they could come back to their lives as they are now…and live going forward with that memory of the future that doesn’t have to become real.
Self-control would more likely look like the path of freedom.
It is very often too late that we discover that to pursue freedom from the constraints of Christ is to find the bondage of a broken life.
Christ can redeem that life…but the brokenness may remain.
I had a dream many years ago, vivid, real…where I had had an affair in the past and now, in my dream “present”, I was telling with my wife and children.…I woke up in a terrified sweat.
The dream had none of the temporary pleasure that often accompanies the sin itself…it was all about the aftermath, all loss and destruction.
The dream was a gift…I didn’t live it in the real world…but I was able to briefly see what it feels like to be over-run by the enemy in a city whose walls I had broken down.
*Don’t get stuck…if there is the aftermath of lack of self-control in your life…God’s grace will meet you where you are…and take you forward.
Today we continue to look at wise habits…a parallel theme to wise habits is “self-control”
Self-control has been esteemed in many cultures…and it is in ours…but only in certain ways.
Often it is full of pride and self.
Self-control is often a means of self-exaltation…it’s about “me” looking disciplined and in control.
In addition, self-control is often applied in ways that ultimately serve our own purposes…not those of God and others.
The Biblical expression of self-control is not in opposition to God’s “grace”…it does not deny our powerlessness apart from him.
It is a part of a “Spirit-powered” not “self-powered life.”
One part of the fruit of the Spirit , or evidence of God’s work in our lives…is “self-control”
The Spirit at work in us…shows up in our ability to “control ourselves.”
This can seem to be a contradiction… do we live by “God’s grace” or exercise “self-control”…the answer is “yes”!
Many have the biblical theology of God’s grace down in their heads…but fail to exercise self-control…biblical anthropology…the theology of human choice.
There is no contradiction… “Jesus is my Lord…I submit to him…and now my passions are to submit to me.”
There is new power and purpose for this thing called self-control.
The power is the Spirit of God in me and the purpose is the glory of God and the good of others through me.
Let’s go to the book of Titus in the NT…a letter that describes the destruction of “self-out of control” and the freedom of “self-under the control of the Spirit.”
TITUS is a letter written by Paul to his good friend, you guessed it, Titus
Titus was a Greek follower of Christ, who Paul had led to faith.
He became a man known for his love, character, and wisdom
He was first a leader in the church at Corinth, Greece.
Paul later left him on the large Greek Island, Crete, to help straighten out the church there…it was in danger of being submerged into the Cretan culture rather than being a part of transforming that culture.
Crete is a 3000 square mile mountainous island…with year-round snow on the highest peaks while the southern tip reaches into the North African climate zone…with palm trees and warm climate.
With its good harbors and a strategic location in the Mediterranean it was an important island during Paul’s day…a strategic place for the gospel.
It was also known for having a culture of treachery, greed, sexual immorality.
These things were not just tolerated…they were celebrated.
The Greeks had a word that meant to be a liar it was “Cretizo”
All cultures have their share of evil because they are made up of people…but some have elevated evil to a kind of “good.”
Like the prophet Isaiah wrote (chapter 5) “woe to them who call evil good and good evil”
A book by Don Richardson called “Peace Child” describes a people group on New Guinea who valued convincing someone from another tribe that you were their friend then after years of deception…murdering them and eating them.
This was an extreme example of calling evil good.
When Richardson first told them the gospel story, they thought Judas was the hero…that’s how upside down their culture had become.
Many of them eventually came to Christ…you can look up the story…it is quite amazing.
The point is that cultures can become so corrupt that evil becomes good…evidently this was the case for Crete.
In fact, their most famous poet and philosopher, Epimenides, said of his own people (and Paul quoted him in his letter to Titus)
“Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”
You might have read that and said “Wow, Paul…that seems harsh.”
But realize that a Cretan might have said to Paul “Thank you, appreciate the compliment.”
So, Paul left Titus on the Island to deal with some corrupt teachers who had taken charge of the church there…these teachers were living more in line with Cretan than Christian values.
He sent a letter, we now call “Titus” to encourage and instruct him on his work.
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— (faith in action) a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior, To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. 1:1-4
- The message of the gospel is about the new Creation promised long ago…before time itself…But it is available now.
This gospel hope…is based on the promise of God…the God who does not lie…important point for the church on Crete.
-The Cretans worshipped the Greek God, Zeus, who was supposed to have been born on the Island.
-Zeus, was a liar, a manipulator, and a seducer of human women.
-High power, low character…makes for a terrible god
You become like the god you worship…they valued these traits of their god.
But the gospel is from the true God…who is eternal and keeps his promises.
All power…and perfect character
He does not lie…nor should his people lie…or value lying.
He then gives Titus his task, in line with God’s strategy for changing the world.
- Replace these false teachers with new leaders, mature Christians…who live and teach the good news of Jesus.
*Then this life of Christ will be reproduced in the lives of his people.
- The church on Crete had blended Christian and Cretan values and the results were wrecked personal lives and homes.
As result of this: The gospel was discredited and therefore the message was not compelling to unbelievers..
Why would it be.
The gospel has the power to shape culture (any culture) but it won’t happen if those who claim the name of Christ either hide from culture or become submerged under it.
There have been three primary ways Christians have tried to deal with the reality or tension of living as citizens of heaven and citizens of earthly cultures.
- Christ above culture
- Christ below culture (assimilation)
- Christ in culture (connected to culture/committed to Christ)
I don’t believe, that the world is changed, through boycotts, culture wars, or assimilation…but through transformed people living in the world but not of it.
*This was the strategy of Jesus…read about it in the great book “The master plan of evangelism” by Robert Coleman.
Or a more recent book, To Change the World, by James Hunter.
This kind of life…the “in not but not of the world life”…requires power and wisdom beyond our own abilities.
We can pull off the “in the world life” and we can pull off “out of the world life” on our own power and wisdom…but…
To be able to withstand the pressure to conform to culture and stay engaged with it…takes real power, power from God.
To be able to understand what to means to reject what is corrupt in culture and to embrace that is good in culture…takes real wisdom.
Both Power and wisdom are available in the gospel.
Paul is encouraging Titus to help turn the church in Crete around:
Not that they would reject their culture in wholesale fashion.
Or that they would accept their culture as it was.
But they would have the power, the wisdom…the Character of Christ in order to be in their culture and not over-powered by it.
*To look and live like Christ…in their own culture.
Christ was able to change the world because he was not addicted to it…you cannot change that which you addicted to…the addiction to prestige, power, and pleasure…the addictions to the world we live…render us powerless to change it.
So, with Proverbs 25:28 in mind…self-control as the protective barrier for our lives.
And with an understanding of what was going on in Crete…
Let’s look at some more of Paul’s letter to Titus and see how “self-control” was such a valuable part of being “in but not of culture”
Or to state it another way… “Self-control brings liberty that makes the gospel look compelling in a world enslaved to their it’s own desires.”
First, let’s look at the places where Paul urges believers to live lives of self-control:
1:8: Elders, or church leaders were to have self-control
2:2: Older men, who were not elders were to have self-control
2:5: Older women, were to demonstrate self-control and teach the younger women to have self-control
2:6: Young men, were to have self-control
All this empowered by God’s grace in the gospel…that teaches us (leads us into) a life of self-control.
Okay, leaders, old and young men, old and young women…everyone through the gospel power…were to live in God’s grace with self-control.
Other character traits of Christ were encouraged…but why was “self-control” so prominent in his letter to Titus?
Probably because it was so lacking from the culture of Crete…and from our culture, I think.
Since it was lacking…it was necessary to highlight it as a key aspect of the transformed life of the follower of Christ.
In addition, without self-control…we are unable to consistently live in ways that allow for the other qualities of Christ to be manifest in our life.
Stop here for a moment: What do you think, or hear when I say “self-control?”
- Physical disciplines only…mind, relationships
- I’m good…I have a lot of it
- I must try harder
- Good idea, but I’ve largely given up on it
We all have varying degrees of self-control
Unless you are talking about a baby or a person who has come to utter ruin…all people, in various levels of consistency…at least sometimes…tell their desires, emotions, passions “no.”
We live on a continuum…and those on the low end of self-control suffer more for their inability or unwillingness to control their own desires and impulses
Self-control, like all of the character qualities of the life of Christ…is for Christians a journey…continually closing the gap on where we are and where we want to be.
The idea is that we should continually inspect our trajectory (continually guard our hearts)…to ensure that our life direction is good in this area.
If Christ is my Lord…he has delegated authority (and power)…for me to tell my desires, passions, emotions… to get in line.
I am responsible…and I am able…to train my habits to follow Christ.
So…lust, anger, fear, selfishness, pride, self-indulgence…all the ways our own passions, emotions, desires, try to rule over us…we are to take control of them, be taking control of them…because Christ rules over us.
So, this is…in fact…“try hard, effort”…Paul uses warfare and sports analogies…to indicate that we are to give “full effort” to self-control.
But it’s not just pure “self-effort”…this is Gospel power and wisdom at work in our lives…our part is to be continually vigilant to guard our hearts…keep Christ as Lord.
Two weeks ago, I noticed that the wood stair stringers on my deck had some rot…the deck is 20 years old.
Fast forward and I ended up spending a couple of full days replacing the stringers, steps, railing…not something I had planned on doing.
As I worked, I thought about the law of entropy…things tend towards disorder when left to themselves…decks, relationships, hearts, lives.
So, we must give continual attention and effort to these things…
Our hearts like our houses are not staying the same…there are forces working against them…water, sun, wind.
Satan, sin, the world…apathy.
Self-control is something that empowers ongoing effort and action to fight back spiritual and relational entropy and apathy.
The question is…if “self-control” is necessary to empower action…what empowers self-control.
It seems like a vicious cycle… “I need self-control to live a life of freedom…but where do I get the self-control to live with self-control?”
Where do I start with this thing?
Paul doesn’t speak to Titus in the way he might have heard growing up as a greek boy.
The self-control of Titus’ youth would have been “try hard, now try harder…fail!”
The self-control Titus would teach on Crete, that he learned from Paul, would be of a different flavor.
Try hard…because you are loved and accepted by Christ.
Be self-controlled…because you want to love Christ and others with your life.
You have been given power and wisdom in the gospel…apply it to your life.
Here’s how Paul said it to Titus.
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men. (these are tangible acts of faith, self-control that Christian demonstrate in the society they live in.)
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. (Before we followed Christ…were in slavery to our passions and pleasure)
The result of this…
We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. (terrible, but descriptive picture…of their culture and ours)
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
(There it is…there is foundation for self-control…start with the Kindness of God.)
This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
*Stress the grace of God in the gospel…so that those who have trusted in God will be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good (self-control
So, what do I do…to grow in self-control?
Yes, take action.
Yes, try hard.
Yes, enlist help from others.
But Stress these things in your heart and life…think deeply and often about them.
The facts of the gospel…God saved you and you had nothing to do with it…it was all grace.
So…you have nothing to boast about.
Your life, apart from Christ…would be wrecked, relationships would be wrecked.
Start with grace and gratitude…then go, by his power, and control yourself…in order to make Christ look good and to position yourself to more deeply love others.
This is your opportunity to live in liberty.
We all know the bondage of selfishness and self-indulgence…we all know that living outside the limits of Christ’s love is a lie…there is no liberty there.
Focus on grace…choose gratitude…then engage God’s power for self-control…for the glory of God and the good of others.
When you fail…mess up/fess up/move on…self-control is empowered by grace and failure is covered by grace.
It’s all grace…and God grace empowers full, joyful effort.
This is how the world is changed…always has been…always will be.