By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the things that made Lincoln so great was his marvelous self-control. The nation was coming apart at the seams with a civil war that had everybody's emotions operating at extremes. To add to the tension, some army contractors were ripping off the government. This made Lincoln very angry. Seward, his Secretary of State wrote a scathing letter to a thieving contractor, and showed it to Lincoln. "Not half strong enough" said Lincoln. Seward was delighted. He wrote another letter that scorched the paper. "There" said the president, "that serves him right!" "Very well, Mr. President, I'll mail it at once", said Seward. "Oh no", said Lincoln, "don't mail it, throw it into the waste basket."
Lincoln knew he could not afford to alienate any more people if he was going to win the war. So he controlled his desire to blast those taking advantage of the situation for personal gain. If Lincoln would have sent all the nasty letters he wrote, he probably would have lost the war. His self-control is, in great measure, the cause of why we are a free nation. It is not enough that Lincoln was a good man, for had he not been a self-controlled man, all his goodness could have been in vain.
This last fruit of the Spirit is not at the end, as a sign that it is the least important of the nine. It is, in fact, essential to keep all the others from being perverted. Every virtue can become a negative thing if it is not controlled. Even love needs the balance that comes with self-control. Christians are to love members of the opposite sex in Christ. This caring, loving spirit, however, can cross the line and lead to love, not just in the spirit, but in the flesh. The number of Christians who have crossed that line by lack of self-control are legion. It is the fruit of self-control that tells a believer when they are getting out of balance, and letting the flesh be their guide rather than the Spirit of God.
If love can go bad because of lack of self-control, then so can all the other fruits. Joy out of control can lead to extremes of wildness that are pagan. Peace and patience can be so extreme that it leads to lethargy and indifference to a hurting world. Kindness can lead one to be so sugary sweet that people gag on it, and avoid it as being superficial. You find this once in awhile in a waiter or waitress, who you know is going overboard in sweet talk, hoping for a greater tip.
The point is, everything good can become bad if it goes to excess. The Mississippi River is one of the best assets of our nation, but when it overflows we have the worst floods in the nation, and it is a curse. It is a good thing out of control, and a good thing out of control is a bad thing. That is why self-control is the key to keeping all of these fruits of the Spirit from going bad. They never rot and go bad as long as they are linked to self-control.
The movie Jurassic Park is based on this theme. It was an awesome world of great wonder until the control system was lost-then it became a nightmare. The Christian life can be a world of wondrous beauty, but then it can turn ugly if self-control is lost. History is filled with examples of the beautiful Bride of Christ becoming an ugly hag because she lost self-control. There have been periods of history when the fruit of the Spirit dried up, and the church looked more like the bride of Frankinstein.
Great have been the numbers who have fallen because of lack of control of their sex drive. But many more have become ugly by the loss of control of their tongue. James 3:6 says, "the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell." All of us carry a portion of hell fire around in our mouth, and if we lose control of it we can be as destructive as a fire-breathing dragon spewing out flames of gossip and slander that turn reputations to ashes in seconds.
We need to realize there are enemies ever banging at the gates of our lives, but they have little power unless we throw them the key by loss of self-control. This last fruit is no mere caboose that can be taken off the train with no ill effects. This final fruit is vital to keeping the whole train on the tracks. It keeps all the other fruits fresh and appealing to both God and man.
Self-control is the inner strength that determines what external stimuli will be allowed to move you to action. The reason Christians are motivated by external stimuli to do things out of God's will is because they lack this fruit of the Spirit. We all know the story of David and Bathsheba. David allowed the sight of her bathing to invade his inner life and take over the control of his actions. His plan that evening was not to disobey the will of God, but he lost control, and let his future be planned by other forces.
In this tragic story of lack of self-control is another man who illustrates perfect self-control. It was Uriah the Hittite, the husband of Bathsheba. David brought him home from the battle front to sleep with his wife, so he would think the child was his own. But Uriah was one in ten thousand, and he refused to sleep with his wife when other soldiers were out risking their lives. David even got him drunk, but he would not change. He was so self-disciplined David could not manipulate him by any external stimuli. David had him murdered to get him out of the way. Uriah was a man of such self-control he could not even be tempted by legitimate enticement to pleasure if he thought it was more noble to refrain. Here was a soldier who was superior to his king in self-discipline. The king let the enemy in, and he betrayed his God, his people and himself. Here was a soldier who would be faithful to his commitments even if it meant self-denial of legitimate pleasure. He, not David, is our example when it comes to self-control.
All Christians fight some battles in this area of self-control. John Timmerman in his book, The Way Of Christian Living, tells of his pathetic battle with smoking. It is a battle thousands fight, and they lose, because they lost self-control. Like many others, he quit over and over again, but soon he would lose control and be back at it. He writes,
"And believe me, I have tried every technique. I have a medical journal
with full-color pictures of diseased organs! I have a drawer crammed
with motivational literature, stop-smoking pills, nicotine chewing gum,
and other things. It's laughable; it's sad. Is it beyond my control? I'll keep fighting until I find out. I would like to tell a happy story here of how I was able to give it all up and praise the Lord. But I can't tell that story. Yet. The sad fact of fallen nature is that self-control is a ceaseless battle, and we are not always victors. Perhaps we can't defeat the problem entirely, but we can fight to control it. This one thing is certain: if I had not started, I wouldn't have this trouble stopping."
That last sentence is the key. If he had not lost self-control in the beginning he would not be fighting so hard to regain control of his life and habits. The purpose of self-control is prevention. If we prevent the enemy from getting a foothold in our life, we are free and in control of our actions. It is easier to keep a bad habit from starting that to stop it once it gains control of your life. It is the job of self-control to keep enemies out of your life. Let this fruit get weak, and you are fair game for the enemy of your soul.
Self-control is what keeps the mind ever alert for the infiltration of enemy forces. A self-controlled person is one who does a lot of self-examination. They do not just drift and respond to whatever comes along. They listen to their body, and if they feel a strong attraction to another person, who is not their mate, they do not add fuel to the fire and quench the Spirit, but, rather, they add the fire of the Spirit and quench the flame of lust. They fight fire with fire. They are honest about their lust and are determined to control it within the bounds of God's will. Those who lose control and disobey God, often do so because they are not honest about their potential for sin and folly. The Christian who says I know I can fall is the one most likely to avoid a fall. The one who pretends temptation is no problem is the one at high risk. Self-control demands that we be honest about our weaknesses, and admit them before we face temptation.
Almost every failure to be Christ like can be traced to a lack of self-control, but, on the other hand, almost every success at being Christ like can be attributed to the power of self-control. When Jackie Robinson was signed up as the first black man to play in the major leagues, he was warned by Branch Rickey that he would be persecuted. What will you do, asked Rickey, when someone without provocation hauls off and hits you in the face? Jackie said, "I have another cheek-isn't that right Mr. Rickey?" That was how he won over all the opposition. Had he lost his temper he would have lost his place in history. By self-control he not only won for himself, but he won for all blacks who followed him. The only way he, or anyone else, can obey the Sermon On The Mount, is by the power of self-control.
Harold Kushner, America's most famous Rabbi, tells us why the Jews abstain from food, drink, and sex on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The primary reason he says is to demonstrate man's capacity to control his natural instincts. It is natural to eat, drink, and have sex, when you feel the hunger for these things. But those who want to obey God recognize that God's will often goes against the grain of those natural feelings. God said do not eat of the forbidden fruit, but when Eve saw how delightful it was, and good for eating, she let her appetite and desire rise above her loyalty to God, and that was the origin of sin. Sin is primarily a loss of self-control. It is letting the desires of the body take precedence over the will of God.
The Jews, therefore, practice abstaining to show man has been given the power of self-control. He can choose to obey God, and deny the body. The image of God is seen in man's ability to control his instincts. Animals do not have this ability to choose voluntarily not to respond to their instincts. Pagans practiced giving in to the natural instincts-just go with the flow-if it feels good do it. This has become popular again in our modern world.
The Bible teaches that man is no mere animal. He is made in the image of God, and he can control his instincts. Was it natural for David to have lust for Bathsheba? Yes it was, and it would be the response of the vast majority of men. But millions of men would resist that response and remain faithful to their mates. Why? Because they have the power ot choose not to be controlled by their instincts, but to be in control of them. If there was no choice, there would be no sin. But what David did was a sin because he had a choice.
What Kushner is saying is valid for Christians as well as Jews. We need to discipline our bodies and not let them control our behavior. But this natural self-control often fails us in times of strong temptation. We need the fruit of the Spirit self-control to be victorious at such times. One of the greatest victories of life is to be in charge of your own life. That is true freedom. If we consistently do things that we do not like, we are slaves to our own habits and desires. Self-slavery is the opposite of self-control.
Gary Warnar, writing in the Christian Herald, tells of victory over himself as a fencer and racketball player. He was so competitive that he wanted to knock the lights out of the opponent who would beat him. He could not accept defeat, but would always demand a rematch to get even. He was a slave to his compulsion to win. You would think this would be a virtue, but when it controls you, as it did him, it is a vice.
His testimony is not that he learned to love losing, but that he no longer had to win. He could accept defeat, and still enjoy the game. His self-esteem did not depend upon winning. He was free because he was in control of his emotions, and not at their mercy. Self-control is the ability to deny yourself what it desires, if that desire is not consistent with what you know to be the will of God. Since the desires of the flesh can often cloud our thinking, we can't depend upon natural self-control. We need the fruit of the Spirit self-control to be assured of victory.
The founders of our nation knew that self-control was the key to freedom. They built checks and balances into the government, so no branch of the government could get full control and lead us back into a dictatorship. Slavery of one sort or another is always the consequence when self-control is lost. The battle may be with chocolate, ice cream, power, sex, or any number of desires that can run wild, and like an uncontrolled river, flood your life and destroy all the balances of the past. This happens to Christians who depend too much on their own natural self-control.
The natural parallels of the fruits of the Spirit, that are valued by all men, are also valued by Christians. But the natural man is fallen, and so even his virtues are corrupted and inadequate for the pressures of this fallen world. The Christian, to be superior to the natural man, must have the fruit of the Spirit. It is a case where the good is not good enough. You need the best to be a truly successful Christian.
This study of the fruits has made it clear why Christians fail so often to be Christ like. They are not open to be led by that same Spirit that led Him. Trying to live the Christian life without the fruits of the Spirit is like trying a make a cake while leaving the flour and sugar out. Some ingredients may not be missed, but others are essential. The fruits of the Spirit are essential to the effective Christian life.
In her book, Divine Discipline, Dr. Rhonda Kelly, who works with autistic children, uses the movie Rainman, to make her point. Dustin Hoffman plays a role of an autistic adult. He had an inflexible daily schedule, which included watching his favorite T.V. program at exactly 5:00 P.M. He had to do it. Travelling with his brother, he demanded they stop at the house of a stranger to watch his program. He was a slave to his schedule. Dr. Kelly says she sees this in all kinds of people who have inappropriate social behavior, and she sees it a lot in Christians people who are still slaves to old ways of thinking, and old habits. She knows what this slavery is all about, for she was a slave to food and to clothing. This made her a compulsive shopper. By the grace of God she gained self-control, and she wrote her nearly 200 page book to tell Christians this truth--the key to freedom is the fruit of the Spirit, self-control. Clearly, this last, but not least of the fruits, is vital to our success as Christians. May God motivate us to be willing soil in which the Holy Spirit can grow all nine of these precious fruits.