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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cultivating Self-Control

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Pro 25:28)
I just came across an app called “Self-Control.”  It’s a program that allows you to block distracting websites on your computer.  You just set a timer for however long you want to want to block distractions and you will not be able to access the internet even if you restart your computer. 
The name of the app is ironic to me.  Seems like it should be called “App-Control” or “No-Self-Control.”  The app appeals to those who lack the ability to control themselves.  If only having self-control was as easy as downloading it…
The New Testament term self-control is defined as the ability to regulate one’s behavior.[1]  Many things that we enjoy in moderation are good things, but done excessively can lead to evil.  A person without self-control is one who is unable to control the impulse to go beyond moderation into excess.  Self-control can also be thought of as the ability to control one’s bodily passions.  For example, abstaining from extramarital sexual activity is a self-control issue (1 Cor 7:5, 9).
Proverbs 25:28 has something interesting to tell us about the person with no self-control: he is like a city broken into and left without walls.  To our modern minds, this might not make much sense, but those familiar with the OT and the ancient world understand the importance of having walls around a city.  The walls were a city’s first line of defense.  They were the greatest obstacles to that city being taken and plundered by the enemy. 
My family has just recently finished watching The Lord of the Rings movies.  In each one, the significance of city walls is obvious.  As long as the walls held out, there was hope for the good guys to survive.  (I’m not a Lord of the Rings nerd, so I’m not sure about their names.)  But once the walls were breached, things turned ugly in a hurry.  After destroying the walls, the enemy could pour in and overwhelm the inhabitants of the city.
So how is a person without self-control like a city broken into and left without walls?  To say that he is vulnerable to attack would be an understatement.  It would be more accurate to say he is inviting attack.  Attack by whom?  The enemy and sin.  Without self-control he is inviting attack because he is easy prey, low-hanging fruit. When attack comes he is unable to withstand it.
Many of the sin problems we have are the fruit of a lack of self-control.  Drunkenness, gluttony, and laziness all come from an inability to regulate one’s behavior.  But there are other things we do that might also point to a lack of self-control.  How about over-Facebooking or over-smartphoning.  (Do you spend more time looking at your smartphone than at the people you love?)  What about over-spending, living beyond your means?  Habitual indulgence in almost anything could qualify.  If I see things like these in my life, there is most likely an underlying issue – I lack self-control.
At its core, a lack of self-control is a desire to seek ultimate satisfaction in less-than-ultimate things.  A moderate amount of something fails to satisfy so we pursue more and more of it.  But it’s like trying to fill up on cotton candy; it’s not going to work.  And without self-control we are susceptible to chasing after any number of lesser things.  An inordinate amount of one thing doesn’t satisfy so we try an inordinate amount of something else.  The enemy is able to pick us apart.
Where does self-control come from?  It just happens to be a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), so ultimately it is produced by God’s power in the lives of true believers.  Yet, as with all obedience, we have a responsibility in its production as well.  So what kind of Spirit-empowered steps should we take? 
First, we need to think rightly about true satisfaction.  The psalmist said it perfectly, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psa 16:2, 11).  We must train ourselves to think rightly about the satisfaction that is in the Lord.  He alone can satisfy the human soul.  The things of this world are a paltry substitute for the fulfillment found in Him.  We must begin to tell ourselves that every time we are tempted to indulge in something sinful or over-indulge in something good.
Second, we must pursue enjoyment of Him.  We should take the psalmist at his word, and “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa 34:8).  That entails spending time with Him in the Word (reading, studying, meditating), in prayer, and in meaningful fellowship with His church. 
Third, we must seek to cut off those things that are carrying us away.  Jesus recommended extreme measures: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29).  Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely…(Heb 12:1).  If we have trouble saying no to a certain activity, we should cut off all association with it, and concentrate on learning to desire Jesus more than anything else.
Fourth, we must regularly meditate about how the gospel addresses the issue.  Those who are in Christ have been saved from the penalty of sin and have also been given the ability to walk in faithfulness (Rom 6).  The Lord Jesus died to save us and transform us into His image (Rom 8:28-30).  Therefore, it is incumbent upon true believers to live lives characterized by self-control (1 Cor 9:25; 1 Tim 2:9, 15; 2 Tim 1:7; Titus 2:2,5, 6, 12; 1 Pet 4:7; 2 Pet 1:6).   
Fifth, we must obey!  All of the above references assume this truth.  We must believe the truth about God, the gospel, and our salvation…and obey.
By God’s grace, we can cultivate self-control.  And like the walls around a city, self-control will have a fortifying effect on our ability to resist temptation and pursue godliness.

[1]Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, 88.94.

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