Galatians 5:22-23a; 2 Timothy 1:1-7 & 2:23-24
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 11, 2019
This past week our country suffered three more mass murders. The killers were all men who could not resist the impulse to indulge their rage even if that meant perpetrating violence against innocent people.
Nine years ago, after another mass murder, Scientific American published an article asking “What Causes Someone to Act on Violent Impulses and Commit Murder?” Almost every psychologist and sociologist agreed a lack of self-control explains such evil in part.
Professor Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University has observed, “If you look at the social and personal problems facing people in the United States – drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, unsafe sex, school failure, shopping problems, gambling, violence – over and over, the majority have self-control failure as central to them. Studies show that self-control predicts success in life over a very long time.”
University of Michigan professor of social psychology Richard Nisbitt has said that having a high level of self-control is a far more determinative factor in creating a happy, successful and well-functioning life than having a high level of intelligence.
Some years ago, ABC’s news magazine 20/20 showed a video of a small experiment they ran in a nursery school to dramatize a far larger experiment which was conducted decades before by Columbia University and which comes close to proving a causal relation between self-control and attainment throughout life. In the 20/20 version a series of four-year-olds were each left alone in a room for ten minutes with two pieces of candy placed within easy reach. Each was told that if they didn’t eat either candy before the teacher returned, they’d receive three more pieces of candy. If, however, they nibbled even one, they would get no more.
The kids struggled mightily to exercise self-control and say No to temptation. Most fidgeted and looked as if they were being tortured. Many hovered their hands over the candy almost the whole time. One boy kept counting the pieces, maybe to remind himself that five is more than two. One girl kept looking upward as if she were asking God for help.
Columbia University had done the same thing with scores upon scores of kids, and then kept track over three decades of their lives as they grew into adulthood. Researchers discovered that those who were able to practice delayed gratification and resist the temptation of the moment, in order to hold out for a bigger reward, ended up enjoying far better lives, by every measure, than those who gave into their impulses. Self-control matters more than natural ability, self-esteem and quality of education in attaining a good and fulfilling life.
Should we be surprised then that when (in Gal. 5:22-23) the Bible lists the nine elements of the fruit of living by the Holy Spirit, it includes “self-discipline” or, “self-control”? I think self-control comes last in the list, not because it is the least, but because it is that element without which the other eight elements cannot operate. How can we have love if we cannot master our inherent self-centeredness? How can we have joy if we cannot keep our momentary feelings from dictating the state of our heart? How can we have peace if we cannot manage where our thoughts go? How can we have faithfulness if we cannot keep our word even when it’s difficult? How can we say Yes to the pursuit of any quality of life without saying No to other things that would use up all our time and energy?
It is significant that, as the Apostle Paul mentors his “son of faith” Timothy, he encourages him to turn to the Holy Spirit whom he identifies as a Spirit of three things: “power and love and self-discipline”. From the Spirit Timothy can gain the self-control to do what Paul urges him to do later in his letter: “shun youthful passions”, stay above “senseless controversies” and pursue righteousness and faith with “a pure heart”.
We need self-control to be all we can be in Christ. Our temptation is to think we can become self-controlled by a strenuous and determined application of our willpower. Yet, even secular studies have shown again and again how impotent human willpower is – even when it is supported by the best education, exhortation and exemplification. It is not enough to know what to do, to be told how to do it and to be shown how to do it. For, despite what the old anti-drug campaign, “Just Do It!” assumed, we can’t just change the fundamental trajectory of our lives.
And why is that? It is because we who need to control ourselves are too divided in our desires and too weak in our will to control ourselves. We are too self-conflicted to have any lasting capacity to control ourselves in the most important ways! We are the problem, and thus we cannot be the solution!
That’s why the Bible never presents self-control as a human accomplishment. It is a grace from God, given not to those who mightily exercise willpower, but to those who humbly come under the higher power who is God. The Bible says that we can only gain the self-control we need by surrendering to the control of the Holy Spirit, that we can only say No to our wayward desires and impulses by saying Yes to the Spirit. To say Yes to the Spirit is to permit Him to be in our life who He is in reality: the only One who can keep human beings under control and put them back together again in the right way. When we defer to the Spirit and depend on the Spirit, when we live by His power and allow Him to live in us, His strength becomes our strength and we gain the capacity to manage our thoughts, emotions and action.
We cannot produce the fruit of self-control, but we can plant ourselves in the Spirit – and He can.
We can no more bring forth the fruit of self-control than a branch of an apple tree can bring forth apples on its own. The branch produces its fruits just to the extent it stays connected to the tree, drinks in the life force of the tree sap and allows that life force to work its magic in it.
Of course, the Spirit does not want us as passive as a hunk of wood. So He invites us to contribute to our development by establishing certain habits, setting certain routines and organizing our life in certain ways. For example, we can avoid certain situations where we are particularly tempted to lose control. (Alcoholics avoid bars – and getting too hungry, angry, lonely or tired.) Or we can focus on, and daydream about, what we are saying Yes to by saying No to other things. (Dieters often put up pictures of how they will look and feel if they can cut back on super-sizing their french fries). Or we can ask for help from others and surround ourselves with a community of support.
Yet, doing such good things is only a secondary endeavor that follows the primary work of the Spirit. Our key move is to give up on developing self-control by willpower and instead give ourselves over to the higher power who is the Holy Spirit. Let us gain self-control by coming under His control. Let us pray.