Scene One: You are standing in front of your freezer. You opened the door just to explore, nothing particular in mind, just to see what’s there. In front of you is a container label1ed, "Gourmet Ice Cream: Cherry Almond Fudge". Lifting the lid, again just to explore, just to see what’s there, you discover that there is about enough left for two servings. The time is five in the afternoon and dinner is in about an hour or so. Your mother always taught you that you will spoil your appetite if you eat sweets before dinner. And somebody at the church has been making sly comments about your waistline every time he sees you. So what will you do? What will you do?
Let’s take a show of hands: how many of you will leave the ice cream alone and shut the freezer door and go forget about it?
And how many of you will indulge just a little; you’ll eat just one spoonful, or one small serving, and leave the rest?
And how many of you will go for it?! You can’t believe you ate the whole thing!
The issue is self-control. Who decides for me what I shall do? Do I just do whatever I feel like doing at the moment? Can I get a grip on myself and do what I ought instead of what I want?
Scene Two: It is a lovely, glorious day. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, there is a summer morning, with no rain and comfortable temperatures, with low humidity and a gentle breeze. There are some things you were expecting to do that day before you woke up and saw how gorgeous it is. The office is closed for repairs, and the boss told you that you could work at home today. So you have a few files you were going to work through, and your kitchen floor looks like a muddy army drilled on it. Your bank statement arrived, showing that you have about seven dollars in your balance; you really should have kept up with checkbook balancing. And yesterday’s mail brought the third postcard in as many weeks from your cousin in California, pleading with you to write her a letter. There is plenty to do, more than plenty. But just look at this day! The sunshine says come out outside; the lawn chairs have never looked so inviting; and your garden is practically screaming at you, "Come on, visit me, smell me, sit in me."
Again, a show of hands: How many of you ignore the weather, buckle down with all those jobs, and spend this gorgeous day inside, tack1inq task after task until it is all done?
And how many of you carry those files and those bank statements and that note paper out under the trees and pretend … pretend to work?
And how many of you give up and go schmooze to your heart’s content?
The issue again is self-control. Who decides for me what I shall do? Do I just do whatever I feel like doing at the moment? Can I get a grip on myself and do what I ought instead of what I want?
Now let’s get serious. Very serious.
Scene Three: Suppose there is a young woman, half my age, who I think has been making goo-goo eyes at me. Despite my advanced years, I have not forgotten what that look means. Un1ikely as it may seem, there is a romantic tension emerging between us. And one evening, she calls and asks me to come over to her apartment, just to talk. But I know and she knows and you know that something else is under way. There is something else going on.
I don’t think you want me to take a show of hands on this one!
But the issue once again, and the stakes are much higher, is se1f-control. Who decides for me what I shall do? Do I just do whatever I feel like doing at the moment? Or can I get a grip on myself and do what I ought instead of what I want?
Paul tells us that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. Over against the long and tawdry list of what he calls the works of the flesh, he poses the gift of se1f-control. No other issue is more relevant for contemporary life. If we could find an answer to the question of self-control, we could save a great deal of pain for ourselves.
First, will you agree with me that the heart of the problem of self-control is that we are afraid of responsibility? We don’t like carrying our own weight. We’d rather look for an excuse, we prefer to find someone we can blame. We are afraid of responsibility.
In an episode of the Cosby Show, Elvin and Saundra have bought a house, and have persuaded Cliff and Claire to cosign for their mortgage. All is going well, right up to the last signature, when suddenly Elvin disappears from the room. They hear him getting sick in the bathroom. When he emerges, sort of green around the gills, Elvin says, "Thirty years of monthly payments. And if you miss one of them, just one tiny payment, they take it all away. I couldn’t live with that," Cliff asks Elvin, "Are you planning on missing some payments?" "Oh, well, Dad, if I do, you’ll just have to pay them. You’re my co-signer." And Cliff says, "Elvin, Elvin, no … hey man ... I think it’s my turn to be sick."
Responsibility is awesome. Responsibility is frightening, even sickening. So is self-control. We’d rather have somebody else shoulder the load. We’d rather load someone else with our failings.
But self-control, you see, means no excuses. No excuse living. Self-control means making our own decisions and taking the heat for them when they go wrong. Self-control means determining our own directions and then accepting responsibility when things don’t turn out as we had hoped. It means that we do not spend our energies making excuses for ourselves.
For a long time there was a popular theory that held that the institution of slavery created such chaos in African-American families that its effects can still be seen today. It was argued that when you find an African-American family where there is adultery or where there is an irresponsible man, when you discover an African-American person who indulges in multiple sex partners, then that is the result of the corrosiveness of slavery, And so, if you followed that theory closely, you were supposed to shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh well, what do you expect?"
Friends, that is a racist theory. There is racism in that interpretation. It assumes that a people are not able to rise above their circumstances. And aside from the fact that a loss of self-control is certainly not confined to one race or even one class of people … after all, the British Royal family is just another dysfunctional family in ermine robes …aside from that, many scholars are now showing that despite the terror of slavery, the African-American family gained strength, the African-American family banded together, and pulled together and protected one another. Somebody tried to make them victims, but they chose self-control and self-reliance and they became free. Their bodies chained but their souls free.
They made no excuses. They allowed no one to put them down as victims. Our problem is that we use excuses. And we are not free. We are afraid of accepting responsibility for ourselves. And so we are not free. We choose to explain ourselves as victims and blame it all on somebody else. If it’s not "the devil made me do it" it is "my father abandoned us when I was small."
But Paul says in Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” God calls us to responsibility and to self-control. God calls us to a no-excuses lifestyle. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Now what are the stakes if we do not learn self-control? Is it important? Does it make any difference if we fail at the issue of self-control?
Yes, it does, Unequivocally it does. It makes a difference. The difference it makes is between choice or chaos, choice or chaos. To be self-controlled is to have choice in your life. To lose self-control is to have chaos, because somebody else will take over your life. If you do not control your own life, then somebody else will control it for you. But to control your own life is to be able to choose what you do with it.
Let me give you a humble illustration. I try to come into this building every morning with a carefully selected, prioritized list of the things I believe I need to accomplish. My list will include the documents I need to write, the items I need to read, the leaders I ought to consult, the names of persons who need my visit or my call. If I work through that list in a conscious, determined manner, I can accomplish quite a bit before that day is over.
But if I’ve gotten lazy the night before, if I have not brought up to date my priorities, if I just saunter in here to do whatever, what happens? I turn to this letter that ought to be answered, but no, there is that call that should be returned … but on the other hand, there is this errand that should be run and that person who should be called and a request from that Sunday School teacher and a wish from this deacon, And while I am flitting about from one task to the next, one of you comes in and asks for something. What has happened when the day is over? I have dabbled in a hundred things, all of them good things, but have finished nothing. And who is in command of my day? Who has controlled my day? Nobody in particular but everybody in general!
Because I have not exercised choice, I have inherited chaos. Does it make any difference if we fail at the issue of self-control? Yes it does. It does. It makes a difference. The difference it makes is between choice and chaos. To be self-controlled is to have choice in your life. To lose self-control is to have chaos, because somebody else will take over your life. If you do not control your own life, then someone else will control it for you.
For example, there is peer pressure. Peer pressure means that we work hard at pleasing other people, not ourselves, but others. We do what we do because somebody else values it. Peer pressure means that we lose control of ourselves to our friends.
Or we lose control to images. Images. Media images, cultural images. Advertisers give us a picture of what is desirable and what is passé. Television tells us what is in and what is out. Movies and popular music dictate our tastes and our language. Frankly, I believe that we are in danger of losing our very souls to images of media-drive morality.
Now I don’t want to take a cheap shot. I am not one of those who think that the media can be blamed for everything. I don’t believe that there is some left-wing conspiracy trying to destroy family values. Actually the media just go with whatever sells. If we didn’t watch "Married With Children" they wouldn’t show it. If we didn’t patronize their brew, the Swedish bikini team wouldn’t jiggle across our screens. But because we have not clearly chosen who we shall be, we are shaped and formed by every image that crosses in front of our eves.
I am saying that the stakes are high. Either we choose self-control, or control will be chosen for us. Either we become what we know God wants us to become, or we will become what the image-makers and the crowd-pleasers and the peer pressure groups want us to become. Paul says to the Galatian church, "The Spirit is opposed to the works of the flesh, to prevent you from doing what you want." "The Spirit is opposed to the works of the flesh." God is going to create a tension when we move in the wrong direction, He is going to make it uncomfortable when we let ourselves be bought out. Either we choose self-control, or the tension will be high and we will end in chaos.
So: I’ve said this morning that we are afraid to exercise self-control because something in us prefers to play the victim, something in us wants to blame others. And I’ve said that we don’t even know we are not exercising self-control because we are under such influence from others, from the crowd, from the media, from popular images.
So where are we going to get self-control? How can we receive this gift?
Oh, today I want you to hear this ringing truth. I want you to feel this very deeply. I want you to hear with every fiber of your being this wonderful possibility.
No one says it more effectively than Paul does in this same Galatian letter, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
Did you hear it? Do you feel it? "I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." If only I had a thousand tongues to proclaim this! If only I knew the words to say that might persuade someone of this! Self-control comes with Christ-control. Self-control comes with Christ-control.
We don’t have to be victims. We don’t have to run around making excuses for ourselves and pretending that we cannot exercise self-control. Self-control comes with Christ-control, and [we] "can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]."
Nor do we have to be subject to peer pressure. We don’t have to be in the control of the crowd. We don’t have to live with a jellyfish mind that just flows and oozes to conform to whatever the tube presents. We can have the mind of Christ. We can be partners with Christ. "I’ve found a friend, Oh, such a friend. He loved me e’er I knew Him. He drew me with the cords of love, and thus He bound me to Him." We don’t have to be subject to others; we can find direction in Christ.
"I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Self-control comes with Christ-control. Just like two people who have been married for a very long time begin to think alike and feel alike and sound alike ... some say they even look alike ... which most of our wives find a horrifying thought ... just as two people who have been authentically married find that the two become one flesh, so also to live with Christ is to become like Him. Self-control becomes Christ-control, and Christ-control self-control. You can hardly even tell where one leaves off and the other begins. "I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me."
Today I cannot just tell you to go get self-control. I cannot just say get out and get a grip. That would be nonsense and maybe even cruel. Just as it is irresponsible to say to anyone, “Just go out and do whatever you feel like doing,” so it is also cruel to offer nothing but, “Just say no.”
I cannot just tell you to get self-control. But I can urge you to build a relationship with Christ, I can call you to a relationship so close, so intimate, that it feels like a good marriage. If we have that we shall not be afraid of responsibility; we will not be victims but victors. No longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.
I can summon you to a relationship so close, so warm, so powerful that neither peers nor images, nor media nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from Him. Self-control will come with Christ-control. No longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.
Living, then, for Jesus; Living for Jesus a life that is true; striving to please him in all that we do. Yielding allegiance, glad-hearted and free ... I own no other master; my heart shall be thy throne. My life I give, henceforth to live, 0 Christ for thee alone.
The fruit of the Spirit is self-control.