By Pastor Glenn Pease
In 1949 the Honorable Harold R. Medina was the judge who presided at the trial of 11 communists charged with plotting to overthrow our government by force. In his book Power To Become Lewis Dunnington gives an account of an interesting sidelight to that great trial. For 9 months the judge was plagued with every possible trick to cause a mistrial. Insolence and disorder were common in the courtroom, but judge Medina with great patience refused to do anything to cause a mistrial. Then the communists learned of a weakness he had. He was afraid of high places. He had had acrophobia all his life, but had kept it under control even though his courtroom was on the 22 floor of the courthouse, and his apartment was many stories up as well.
Nevertheless, it was a real fear, and the communists took full advantage of it. Shortly before the trial began Secretary of Defense James B. Forrestal had jumped to his death. You can imagine judge Medina's shock when he came to the courthouse and found pickets walking back and forth chanting, "Medina will fall like Forrestal." Only those with a phobia can appreciate the problem this caused for the judge. As this continued day after day he could not escape his fear, and it became an obsession.
He asked his wife, even on hot summer nights, to keep the bedroom windows closed. In court one day, after hearing the chant again, his head began to swim. He quickly recessed the court and went to a couch. He prayed as he never prayed before that he would gain control of himself, and escape the control of his fear. His request was granted, and with renewed confidence he returned to court and saw the trial to a conclusion, which put the communist behind bars. It was a victory for the nation, and a personal victory for judge Medina.
He had courage and he had knowledge, but without self-control all could have been lost. All the boldness and knowledge in the world will not keep a man from going down in defeat if he lacks self-control. The Apostle Peter knew this to be a fact from personal experience, and that is why he urges Christians to add to their courage and knowledge self-control. Lacking this virtue in his own earlier experience, he denied his Lord, and several times rushed ahead of Christ and needed to be rebuked.
Another Peter, Peter the Great, was a bold conqueror and a man of knowledge. He passed many laws for the protection of his subjects, but he was often subject to maniacal outbursts of anger. In fury he struck and killed his gardener and his own son. With great sorrow he said, "Alas! I have civilized my own subjects, I have conquered other nations, yet I have not been able to conquer and civilize myself. Anyone of us can be greater than Peter the Great, for the truly great ruler is the man who is king of himself.
This is a truth that has been universally recognized. If we turn to the Orient we read Lao-Tsze who wrote, "He is strong who conquers others; he who conquers himself is mighty." If we turn to the Greeks we read Aristotle saying, "I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self." If we turn to the Romans we read Seneca saying, "He is most powerful who has power over himself. If we turn to modern statesman, philosophers, and poets, they all agree that self-control is an essential quality for success. Shelly and one of his sonnets writes-
Man who man would be,
Must rule the empire of himself, in it
Must reign supreme, establishing his throne
On vanquished will, quelling the anarchy
Of hopes and fears, being himself alone.
Self-control is so essential to the success of any pursuit that it is even a virtue among evil men. Successful crooks are those who develop self-control. They have to be able to remain calm as the night watchman makes his rounds, and as they hide behind merchandise. They must have nerves of steel when the alarm goes off in the bank. As soon as a thief loses his nerve and lets emotion take over, he kills or gets killed, or makes foolish moves that lead to his capture. You cannot even be a successful crook without the virtue of self-control. Satan encourages his troops to add this virtue to their equipment, just as Christians are urged to add it to theirs. Whatever your goal, it is easier to reach it through self-control. Burns expressed this in A Bard's Epitaph.
Reader, attend! whether thy soul
Soars fancy's flights beyond the pole,
Or darkling grubs this earthly hole
In low pursuit.
No prudent cautious self-control
Is wisdom's root.
We would expect to find we would expect to find this root of wisdom in the wisdom literature of the Bible, and it is there in Prov. 16:32, "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." This was written in a day when taking a city could be a long drawn out process of out witting and out waiting its inhabitants. But Scripture agrees with thinking men everywhere that the greatest victory is to conquer and rule ones own spirit. Caroline Le Row in True Heroism writes,
But I will write of him who fights,
And vanquishes his sins,
Who struggles on through weary years
Against himself and wins.
Peter is not trying to be original when he urges Christians to add self-control to their character. He is not coming up with anything new for victorious living. He is calling for us to take up a universally recognized value essential to the doing of anything effectively. There is no need for something new when the old is the best thing available. You can't improve on what is an absolute essential. Nothing can take the place of self-control. The old word for it was temperance, and this you can improve on, for the word temperance has too limited a meaning today to give us the biblical meaning. Temperance refers to self-control in regard to alcohol, but the biblical word takes in control over all of the emotions and appetites of life. To be temperate in all things is to avoid all excess so that one's reason is always in full control.
The fact that Peter urges Christians to add this virtue to their lives implies that people do not naturally possess it, but have a tendency to be a slave to their passions and appetites. The New Testament is filled with passages that indicate Christians can be swept along by their lusts and desires into disgrace and judgment. That is why they are constantly being warned to walk in the spirit and make no provision to fulfill the lusts of the flesh. That is why they are warned about connections with their old life of sinfulness. That is why they are warned about the false prophets who could lead them into a false liberty in which they would again come under the bondage of the flesh. The whole second chapter of this letter deals with the judgments of God upon those who lost self-control, and it warns Christians not to add themselves to the list by forsaking the truth of God in giving themselves over to the lust of the flesh.
The simple fact is, there is just no chance of living the Christian life without self-control. Depravity is written into the very nature of the fallen universe, and our tendency is ever downward. If our self does not cooperate with the higher laws of God, we will follow the laws that lead to degeneracy. Control of the downward tendencies is so basis to success that it even has to be applied in machines. Cybernetics is a field that is rapidly growing. Norbert Weiner, professor of mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coined the word cybernetics from the Greek word which means steersman, and from which we get the word governor. A governor controls the speed of a motor, or controls the operations of a state as a steersman controls a ship. Cybernetics is a science dealing with control of communications.
Cybernetics is a fascinating field for the Christian to study, for it is filled with facts that show biblical principles apply even in the realm of machines. There is a sense in which we can talk about sin and depravity in machines. Man creates a machine in his own image by giving it sense organs so it can distinguish light from darkness. He cannot trust his machine, however, to always do what he wants it to do. There is a mechanical tendency toward disorganization, which is equivalent to sin in the human realm. Man has to devise monitors to control the machine, or to warn him when it is being bad, and not taking orders. If an elevator was left to operate without controls, the light could come on pointing down, the door would open, and you could step into an empty shaft. That is the kind of dirty trick a machine will play on you if it is not controlled. So men are constantly devising control methods to prevent machines from being evil to their creator.
By evil we mean being out of harmony with the will and plan of a superior being and intelligence responsible for their existence. If only man could see that he is to God what the machine is to him-a creature gone astray, like a machine gone haywire and not responding in the way it was built to respond, and, therefore, in need of complete rebuilding. In Christ a man is renewed and brought back into harmony with his Maker, but without controls he will tend to go back again into the state of disharmony. Self-control is equivalent to the crew that maintains the machine. Self-control is what allows all the other virtues to operate smoothly and effectively. Take away the control and even good can lead to evil through excess.
Much evil is only good that has gone out of control. Food and sex are good, but gluttony and adultery are evil. Take self-control out of this list of virtues and Satan would be delighted to have you carrying the banner of the cross, for you could do more harm that way than if you were committed to evil. In 2:2 Peter says there will be believers who will follow the false prophets into licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. It is just like the case of an American soldier who rapes, plunders, and kills completely abandoned to the lusts of the flesh. He does far more harm to our cause than any enemy could do. So the profession Christian who lacks self-control, and displays lust and anger in speech and conduct does more damage to the cause of Christ than any atheist ever could.
Satan is an expert in psychological warfare, and if he can just get us to abuse some legitimate desire or emotion, he can bring us to defeat. This was the essence of the temptation of Jesus. Jesus could have so easily yielded to the desire for food, popularity, or power. Only by perfect self-control and total allegiance to his Father's plan could he escape the pole of this temptation.
Self-control means "Ruling with a strong hand." It means to govern yourself. You cannot determine what goes on in Washington, but you are the controlling voice in what happens in the dominion of your own life. It is you who determine if the will of God becomes the constitution of your life. It is you who determine if Christ shall be the true power on the throne. He will reign only as we surrender, and we can only surrender if we are in control of our own lives.
Norman Vincent Peale tells of being in a maze in a house of mirrors at an amusement park. There were many wrong ways to go and each time you chose a wrong way you would bump into yourself in a mirror. He says it was much like life where we are constantly colliding with ourselves as the obstacle to success and progress. It is not others or circumstances, but it is self that gets in our way. The key to happiness, therefore, is to yield ourselves to Christ who is the Way through the maze of life. We need to stop running into ourselves, but gain control so that all of our energies might be in harmony with His will, and all of our activities consistent with His plan.
Thomas Paine stirred up Washington's soldiers to boldness and the result was that the Revolutionary War was won. Julia Ward Howe stimulated the Union troops to believe God's truth was marching on, and with that knowledge they won the Civil War. But according to the Bible and all history these were the easy steps toward success. Sir Edwin Arnold speaking to a group of Harvard students said, "In 1776 you conquered your fathers. In 1865 you conquered your brothers. Will you permit and Englishman to say that your next victory must be over yourselves?" He hit the nail on the head, but he only suggests, while Peter demands that Christians conquer themselves if they expect to be of any use to God or man in the battle for good against evil.
Jesus died to save us from our sin that we might be good soldiers of the cross. For His sake and a needy world's sake let us discipline our lives and be self-governing. Let's add to our faith, courage, and knowledge-self-control. God, like any wise father, does not want His children to be totally dependent upon Him. We often think that to be filled with the spirit means that the Holy Spirit just takes over and does everything. The fact is, the goal is for you take over and choose to obey God, and He will then supply the power to do so.
We cannot pass the buck and say God has not supplied the power. You must take charge and do the will of God. Then the power will be supplied. God only gives power when you obey. Obedience is not His business, but it is yours. You are in charge of what you do with your life, talent, and time. How many times have you said to your child, "If you really want to do it, I will help you, but I won't do it for you." This is God's plan as well.
Paul exhorts the believers in I Thess. 5:14 that the insubordinate who will not control themselves are to be warned. You can be a Christian and still be undisciplined. In Luke 21 Jesus tells of the great trials that believers will face, and He says in verse 19, "Possess ye your souls." In other words, you be in charge of yourself, and don't lose control. If you are not in control you can be deceived, led astray, and tossed about by every wind of doctrine. A Christian who is not in control is in danger of being motivated by forces other than the Holy Spirit. When you are in charge, you choose the way of truth and light, and are empowered by the Spirit. If you are not in control, you do not always choose the right path.
It is only you and I who can obey the commands to submit to God and resist the devil. It is our wills that must obey, and we must choose to do it or not. I will not do for my children what they must do to be responsible people, and God will not do for us what we must do to be responsible Christians. A father said to his boy who kept standing up in the pew, "Sit down." The boy would not obey and so the father finally grabbed him and forced him down on the pew. The boy looked up at his father and said, "I am sitting down on the outside, but inside I am still standing up." Submission is when you sit down on the inside and the outside because you choose to obey.
You must have mastery over yourself in order to obey the many commands of the Bible. You must have self-control in thought to obey Phil. 4:8, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report, think on these things." Without self-control of our thought process we will be dragged about by the world's promotion, and we will think on the things of temporal value and miss God's best. Christians who cannot control there moods are often at the mercy of the weather, news, and circumstances, because they are not in control of their thought process.
We need self-control in our speech to obey Col. 4:6, "Let your speech be always with grace, that you may know how you ought to answer each on." Never lose your temper except when you do it on purpose. There is a time for rebuke and sharp words, but they should be premeditated and not brought out impulsively by circumstances. II Tim. 2:24 says, "And the servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men..." Only the self-controlled person can obey God's Word. Practice helps.
A man stood by as he watched another man get blasted. Afterward he asked him how he could be called a skunk, a bum, and a crook, and just stand there and smile. The man replied, "I am a baseball empire, and I have had a lot of practice." Practice may not make you perfect, but it will make you better than you are. Learn to speak only what you choose to speak so that you are always in control of that unruly member of your body, which is the tongue. Who is in charge of your speech? You are suppose to be in charge under all circumstances. James 3:2 says, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body." Many people pride themselves on their frankness. They say, "I can say what I think." But the Bible says so does the fool. "A fool utters all his mind." Frankness is only a virtue when coupled with intelligence and tact. Otherwise it can be a sadistic vice that brings only suffering.
Titus 2:12 says, "We should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world." This demands self-control. The Philadelphia Youth Study Center has this slogan-"The difference between the delinquent and the non-delinquent youth is the pause between the temptation and the act." Those who respond to the impulse of the moment, and who cannot control their response to temptation, will become a problem to themselves and to society. All unacceptable behavior is the result of loss self-control. Paul said, "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." To be controlled by food, drink, sex, or any power is to lose the freedom of self-control, and thus, the freedom to do only that which pleases God.
The evil of so much of what Christians condemn is the fact that it deprives people of self-control. Do you think alcohol would be a problem if people could drink and still have full control of their body and mind? It is the loss of self-control that makes drugs of all kinds dangerous. Loss of self-control puts you at the mercy of other forces, and Satan can take full advantage of this. You are responsible to always be in control of your car, and the Bible makes it clear that you are also responsible to be always in control of yourself.
What you are responsible to do you can always do if you discipline yourself. In 1941 Fritz Kreisler was forces by an accident to lay aside his violin for many weeks. When he finally went to tune it his fingers were so stiff that playing seemed impossible. He later reported, "But my desire was so intense, and I told myself-these are my fingers, and these are my slaves. I am the general, I order them to play and I will them to action. You know-the played." He could have said I can't and quit. He would have been defeated, but instead he took charge and controlled himself to press on to success. We can all do what God expects us to do if we are in control of ourselves.
It takes time to learn self-control. But even the animal kingdom recognizes the importance of control. Cranes by nature love to cackle and make noise as they fly, but the sound of their voice arouses the eagles to attack them and make them pay with their lives for their noisy chatter. The older cranes who survived these attacks learn to pickup a large stone to fill the cavity of their mouth before they fly. This stone forces them to fly in silence, and thereby avoid of danger their loose tongue brings upon them. Danger is a great motivation to learn self-control.
Fines are also effective for people. If you go to visit the Oregon Caves National Monument, the guide will say, "I hope you enjoy your trek through the caves. Please do not destroy or take any of the rock formations. Actually we have had very little trouble with this. I don't know if it is our visitors great love for nature or the 500 dollar fine, but we are grateful for your cooperation." The Christian, however, is to be one who strives for self-control in all areas of life because it is pleasing to God and makes Him a channel God can use to bless others.