Monday, July 8, 2013


It would be safe to say that most of the people I minister to at the jail have in common one thing: impulsiveness. That is, they cannot seem to deny themselves immediate satisfaction of a need or desire. Some are mentally ill; you talk to them and you know that their perceptions and thought processes do not track with most people's. Some are addicted to alcohol or drugs; and if you talk to them long it is obvious that they are self-medicating to cope with other problems. Some are sociopaths, people with little or no empathy for others who see morality as arbitrary rules society sets up for the game we call life. Some are people who made one big mistake and will never make it again. But regardless of the underlying reasons, most have trouble controlling their impulses. They want and they take. They are opposed and they fight. They rarely pause to think about a course of action and its consequences before embarking on it. They are like a car without brakes or at least with very bad ones. They lack sufficient self-control.

But just because we do not find ourselves behind bars doesn't mean that we have perfect self-control. We all have our Achilles heel when it comes to this ability. We may be able to control ourselves around salty snacks but not chocolate. We may be otherwise a nice person but have trouble controlling our temper when crossed. We may be trustworthy with other people's money but not with their spouses. Even very disciplined persons have some area, some situation, some appetite or temptation where they lose control.

Self-control is a topic touched on by most religions and the subject of study by psychologists and social scientists. The Bible, too, has a lot to say on the matter. But the best known verse is the one about the fruit of the Spirit, where it comes at the end of a list of qualities that Christians should display if the Spirit is working in them. Our sermon suggestion slip says, “Of all the gifts of the Spirit self-control seems like a discipline instead of a gift. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness & gentleness seem to come much easier. Teach us how to gain that gift of self-control.”

The paradox is that Paul is talking about living by the Spirit. So if he is in charge, why do we need self-control? Shouldn't one's self not even be a factor?

Living in the Spirit is not like being possessed. God does not override our mind or will. We willingly give over the control of our life to him. But it has to be a daily, ongoing giving up. We can always rebel or grab the reins. Paul warns against quenching the Spirit. It's like working with anyone; you have to cooperate with the Spirit as you would a tech support person or a doctor. If you don't, there's very little they can do for you. So even if you turn your life over to God, you need self-control to stay with the program.

The Greek word for self-control and related adjective and verb occur just 6 times in the New Testament. Another word, usually translated “sober,” with a related verb often used as a synonym for being self-controlled, occurs 9 times. These words are used in contexts in which drunkenness and sexual immorality are being discussed as well as moral growth and the qualifications for bishop. There are other passages in the Bible in which neither word is used but the concept is central as when James speaks of taming one's tongue or when Paul talks of toughening his body the way a boxer or a runner does.

In fact self-discipline is a related concept. Good athletes not only abstain from some behaviors, foods and substances, they also must make themselves do things they'd rather not, like exercise hard for many hours. A disciplined athlete can beat one who isn't, even if the second athlete is a natural at the sport. I remember hearing the interview of a musician who was a child prodigy but who discovered that, as he got older, his natural advantage disappeared and he had to practice hard to maintain his gift. We all know people who have a talent—art or music or writing--but aren't disciplined enough to develop it or use it to its fullest potential. Sadder than a has-been is a could-have-been.

Patience is another concept related to self-control. In fact, the ability to wait for something is key to an experiment I've mentioned before: the marshmallow test. If you remember, in the 1960s Walter Mischel offered children a choice: they could eat a marshmallow sitting on a table anytime they wanted but if they waited 15 minutes till the researcher returned to the room with a second marshmallow, then and only then could they eat both. He followed up the children when the were in their 40s and found that those who couldn't wait for the second marshmallow were more likely to have problems in their relationships, handle stress less well and abuse drugs. The children who were able to delay their gratification were happier, healthier and more successful.

I expect that most everyone reading this is all in favor of self-control. Indeed, Christianity could be seen as based on delayed gratification: living the Christian life in this world leads to eternal life in the next. It means delaying some things, like sex until marriage, possession of something until one has paid for it, and calling oneself something like Doctor or Reverend or Navy Seal until one has earned it. It means moderation in things like food, alcohol and the expression of anger. It means denying oneself some things all together, like recreational drugs, murder, and all justifications for ignoring the needs of others.

Jesus made self-denial a key part of being a Christian by saying in Mark 8:34: “If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself and lift up his cross and follow me.” The Greek word for “deny” has connotations of disown, disavow and renounce and is used of Peter denying Jesus 3 times. As the great Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay wrote, “If a man will follow Jesus Christ, he must ever say no to himself and yes to Christ. He must say no to his own natural love of ease and comfort. He must say no to every course of action based on self-seeking and self-will. He must say no to the instincts and the desires which prompt him to touch and taste and handle the forbidden things. He must unhesitatingly say yes to the voice and the command of Jesus Christ. He must be able to say with Paul that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. He lives no longer to follow his own will, but to follow the will of Christ, and in that service he finds his perfect freedom.”

How do we achieve that self-control, that ability to maintain self-discipline and deny oneself?

First through prayer. We cannot achieve perfect self-control through our own efforts. We need to ask God to help us develop it. Which means we have to want it badly enough to ask for it continually. God does not give us every passing whim of ours. Self-control has to be a strong desire. We must really want it and want it enough to pray for over and over. We need to show God how serious we are about it.

Next we must practice it. Every athlete or musician or photographer or actor or mechanic or nurse or anyone wanting to improve his skills must practice them. He must put them to use again and again to strengthen and train his muscles and reactions. She must work to get faster or more accurate or to develop a lighter touch or a better eye or a steadier hand. A good athlete wants to do something so often that a good deal of it is automatic, leaving him to concentrate on adjusting to the specific conditions he finds himself in.

Next one must learn strategy. Recently researchers replicating Mischel's experiment paid more attention to the strategic thinking the children did when faced with the dilemma of eating one marshmallow now or waiting in order to enjoy 2. Good athletes also learn strategies for helping them achieve their goals.

For one thing, keeping your goal before you helps maintain self-discipline. If you keep your goal of getting into the Olympics present in your mind, it will be easier to resist temptations to break training, stay up late or stay out carousing or cheat on your diet or skip practice. A Christian who wants to be more like Jesus needs to pray regularly, read her Bible daily, worship weekly at the very least and act on Christian principles always, thus keeping Jesus before her all the time.

Other strategies to maintain self-control coming both from the Bible and from research are things like changing the stimulus when tempted. Some children in the marshmallow experiment turned their backs to the one marshmallow to avoid seeing it. Certainly turning one's attention from a temptation is a common and effective strategy. Eve in the garden got fixated on the forbidden fruit, contemplating its beauty, taste and imagined benefits. In fact, it was found that how the children viewed the marshmallow could help or hinder their abstention from gobbling it down before the arrival of the second one. Those who thought about it abstractly, its shape or texture or how it looked like a cloud, were better able to hold out. Those who thought about its sweetness, stickiness or tastiness, concrete and sensory features, were apt to fail. Thinking coolly about the object of temptation can help tremendously.

How one regards something is important in sustaining self-control. Doing something one needs to do is harder if you think of it as work and easier if you think of it as fun or a game. Athletes often compete with each other or themselves during practice or exercise sessions trying to get better times or lift more weight or hit more balls or pitch faster. Accomplishing a task might be easier if you switch your attention from the amount of effort needed to seeing how fast you can do it or how many bags of trash or boxes of unneeded items you can fill or by enlisting family and friends to make it more pleasant and/or supply needed moral support.

Rewards and punishments can help. People have kicked habits like smoking by using rubber bands, both to make the cigarette pack harder to open and by wearing them on their wrists and snapping them hard when the urge to smoke strikes. For folks unable to get themselves out of bed in the morning, there are alarm clocks with wheels that run away and must be retrieved from the other side of the room or under the bed to be turned off. People have found that losing weight is easier if you set aside one day where you can eat whatever you want. It makes it easier to stay on their diet when they know that in 6 days or less they will be able to reward themselves. Obviously this incentive only works with things you need to moderate and not with those things you need to give up entirely like drinking or smoking. For those things, you might reward yourself by keeping track of how much you save by not buying cigarettes or drinks and using the money to get yourself something. There was one woman who came up with a unique disincentive for herself. She made a contract with herself that should she fail to kick her bad habit, she would have to give a substantial amount of money to an organization she hated, like the Klu Klux Klan. It worked.

Another strategy when tempted is to do something else. Go for a run or a walk or clean out the garage or call a friend. Having an accountability partner helps, someone who has agreed to be the person you can call or ask to come over when the temptation is strong. Telling people that you are giving something up rather than keeping it secret is a way to have others support you and keep you honest. 12 step programs work this way.

The best way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. Say a prayer; there are lots of beautiful and inspiring ones. Read a psalm. Instead of smoking, munch on celery and carrots (not too many carrots, though; you can turn orange!) Instead of drinking, go to AA meetings and help others. Get a hobby that requires concentration and gives you a sense of accomplishment. Volunteer. Give of your time, talents and treasure.

Self-control is one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. But fruit growers know that what is planted needs to be watered, nurtured, fed and cared for if you want healthy fruit. Sometimes you have to trim and prune away bits of your life that draw nutrition and energy from the fruit. And don't forget how much light it needs. Keep your habits out of the darkness and in the light if you want good things to grow.

And we have reassurances from God that we will have help. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (New Jerusalem Bible), “None of the trials which have come upon you is more than a human being can stand. You can trust that God will not let you be put to the test beyond your strength, but with any trial will also provide a way out by enabling you to put up with it.” The key is trusting in God's promise and faithfulness and looking for the way out. Too often we keep looking at the temptation to the point that it looms larger in our imagination than it really is. It is rare that one will be urged to do something bad at the point of a gun. Usually it is a matter of just saying no to someone else or yourself and standing your ground. You may have to retreat, get out of the situation the way you came in. You may have to hunker down and wait till things pass. Call your friend or partner and tell them you need their support now. Use your strategic thinking. And keep your eyes on the prize, the goal of being the person Jesus wants you to be. Remember he has been tempted in every way we are and managed not to fail. Call on him to flood you with his Spirit.

And if you do stumble, get up and try again. Learn from your mistake and do better next time. Ask for forgiveness and then put it behind you. God has.

The hardest limitations to overcome are the ones we put on ourselves. We think we can't and so live out a self-fulfilling prophesy. As it says in 2 Timothy 1:7, “God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” They are connected. God's love is his power and if we love him back we find the self-control to live worthy of his love and calling. Love allows people to overcome any obstacle, endure any trial and to control themselves so that they may return to or stay with the person they really love. One inmate I see has made being in his daughter's life the reason he will get his life straightened out. How much more should being with our loved ones in God's embrace, his eternal love and life, motivate us to learn to control these bodies and minds he's given us. That's what they were created for and why he makes us new creations with a good set of brakes and responsive steering and the course laid into our GPS for home.    

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