King Solomon's Mines: Self control

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Just Say No?

I have a friend. His name is Jimmy. Everyone likes Jimmy. He is hard working, generous and has a great sense of humour. But Jimmy has a problem.   

Recently someone swerved in front of him on the freeway. Jimmy rammed his foot down on the accelerator and chased the arrogant driver. When the culprit stopped at a red traffic light Jimmy slammed on brakes behind him, leapt out of his car, charged towards the offender, punched his window, bludgeoned his bleeding arm through the shattered glass and pummelled the terrified driver. But vengeance was short lived. Suddenly Jimmy clutched his chest and fell to the ground. Within an hour he was undergoing a quintuple heart bypass.

Jimmy has a problem with self control. Most of us do. It may not be anger but often it’s  something  just as destructive - fear, bitterness, gluttony, jealousy, pride, lust, substance abuse, self pity, greed.  

Proverbs 25:28 compares self-control to city walls and warns us about the dangers of allowing our appetites and desires to master us: “Like a city that is broken down and without walls [leaving it unprotected] is a man who has no self-control over his spirit [and sets himself up for trouble]” (Amp). In ancient times walls were erected around cities to protect the citizens from enemy invasion, dangerous wildlife and other unwarranted entry. When these formidable structures were overthrown the people were left vulnerable – like we are if we don’t control our emotions and desires. When we allow our selfish impulses to master us we open the door for lying, insults, hatred, illness, embarrassment and we can cause severe  damage in the lives of others (Proverbs 21:23).

What is an answer to winning the battle over our destructive appetites?

Self-discipline?  Will power?  Try harder? Just say “no”?

The New Testament provides us with a critical clue as to how we can win the battle for self control: Self control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is not our hard work, our self discipline1 or our determination but self-control arises from the Holy Spirit. He is the source. The word ‘self-control’ means ‘to grip’ or ‘to take hold of’. The Spirit gives us the inner ability to take hold of ourselves and live lives that are not dictated by our selfish emotions and desires (2Timothy 1:7 ESV). Even just saying ‘no’ is something we cannot do in our own strength. Titus wrote that the grace of God teaches us to say ‘no’ to worldly passions and to live a self-controlled life (Titus 2:11-12).

But the Spirit doesn’t just help us to restrain a bad habit. The Spirit works in us to transform us and replace selfish impulses with the exciting, dynamic life of Jesus Christ. Self control is when we choose (the Holy Spirit doesn’t take away our free will) - moment to moment - to live from Him as our source and not to live from our appetites. As we do this our behaviour becomes His expression. An electric light bulb expresses electricity - we express Jesus Christ.   

How can we live self-controlled lives? Jesus showed us what a human being was always intended to be. He was not controlled by his appetites because He was totally dependent on His Father. In the ultimate spiritual battle when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert we receive an insight into what self-control looks like. Jesus was tired, alone and hungry after fasting for 40 days. Sensing vulnerability Satan seized the moment and tempted him with the very thing he craved most – food. But Jesus countered: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” In Jesus’ words we discover a key to training our spirit that is indwelt with the Holy Spirit.  

Internal Storage

In Psalm 119:11 the psalmist elaborates: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” God’s word needs to be hidden in our hearts. It is not enough to store it in a notebook or in a computer programme. It needs to be inside of us. The word “hidden” was used for treasure or supplies that were hidden or stored away for future emergencies. We  store God’s written word by practising something that may sound strange to modern ears – biblical meditation. Meditation is pondering, reflecting, listening, internalising and turning scriptures over and over in our minds like a dog chewing on a bone. Meditating enables us to store God’s word in the place which has the greatest influence upon our lives – our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). Ignoring the Scriptures will allow old patterns of wrong thinking and destructive out-of-control habits to continue to exert authority over us. But if we immerse and saturate our minds on the scriptures and let them take root in our hearts, His word begins to become a
part of us and naturally comes out of our mouths and colours our actions.

In Ephesians 6:18 Paul likens God’s word to a sword: “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. Paul was probably thinking of a soldier’s smaller sword which he always carried on him - ready to use at any moment. The Spirit is able to make the scriptures vividly come alive in our minds (John 14:26) by reaching into that reservoir of verses we have stored up in our hearts through meditation and helps us in our moment of need by dropping a word into our minds or supernaturally reminding us of a verse or promise.  

God has created us with a multitude of temperaments, emotions and desires. They must all be brought under control or they will end up controlling us. Self-control has been likened to the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Under the conductor’s baton the multitude of talented musicians can play the right notes at the right time at the right volume so that everything sounds just right. Likewise, our appetites and longings have their proper place. Self-control is the Holy Spirit’s baton in our hearts under whose skillful direction everything stays in its proper place and comes in at just the right time. To be self-controlled is to be Spirit-controlled.

Prayer:  Father, I deeply desire to live a self-controlled life. But I cannot without you. Thank you that you have already given me everything I need to live a life pleasing to you (2Peter 1:3). Please empower me with inner strength through your Spirit (Ephesians 3:16) to be a responsible person so that I am able to respond to your enablement!  Set a guard over my mouth (Ps 141:3) and strengthen me to make no provision for my flesh (Rom 13:14). Enable me to act decently and be who I really am – your child (1John 3:1). I surrender to you. Live in me and through me in this moment. In Jesus name.

1 Don’t confuse self discipline with self control. Self-control arises from the presence of the Holy Spirit within us but self-discipline is usually something that is imposed from the outside - a diet, an exercise etc. It is usually a rule for a brief period that we feel we have to do. So we grit out teeth and can’t wait for it to be over! Many religious rules are like that. Instead of the Holy Spirit berthing the desires from within, it is decided for us by religious authorities what God wants - what we can and cannot do (you must pray 15 minutes a day, you can’t wear this or read that etc). If it’s a sin or temptation and we try to overcome it with self discipline we just suppress it - but it’s not dealt with.