Topical Scripture: Galatians 5:23
They say there’s no pain like that of an undelivered address. Or story. Last week I had a Father’s Day story I just couldn’t fit into the introduction. It seems a certain father came home from work to see his kindergarten-age daughter using his toothbrush to brush the teeth of the family dog. When he asked her what she was doing, she replied, “It’s okay, Dad, I’ll put it back like I always do.”
“Gentleness” and “self-control” are essential to fatherhood, and to all of life. These are the foundation stones of the “fruit of the Spirit,” without which the others cannot exist for long. If you want to experience enduring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness in your life, family, and relationships, then you must develop gentleness and self-control. They are indispensable to a successful and happy life and soul.
So let’s learn what these fruit look like, and discover how to nurture them in our souls and relationships this week.
What does God expect?
Once again we begin with definitions. We’ll start with “gentleness.” This word translates praus, one of the truly great words in the Greek language. No one English word adequately describes this one. Plato used it to describe the power to soothe and calm, as an ointment on a wound. Socrates used it for a man who could discuss emotional things without losing his temper. Aristotle gave the word its classic definition: the man who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time (Nicomachaean Ethics 2.1108A). Someone who controls his or her emotions, no matter the circumstances.
“Self-control” translates ekrates, someone who controls his desires. The word originally meant to grip something, to control it. Plato and Aristotle used the word for a man who had powerful passions and desires, yet controlled them. He was always their master, never their servant (cf. Nicomachaean Ethics 7.4.1145B). The word was typically used with regard to sexual desires, but was also applied to food, love, and ego. Someone who controls his desires, no matter how tempted he or she is.
Now, does God place a high priority on emotional self-control in our lives? Five times the psalms say the “meek shall inherit the earth” (cf. Psalms 37:11), and Jesus repeated the promise in the third beatitude (Matthew 5:5). 1 Peter 3:4 commends those whose beauty is “that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
We are to practice such control over our emotions in all relationships: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently (Galatians 6:1); “Those who oppose [the Lord’s servant] he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25); give your witness “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
In short, we are to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2; cf. Titus 3:2).
What about controlling our lusts and desires? As regards sexual lust, “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
We are to discipline ourselves as athletes: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
Titus 1:8 says that Christian leaders must be self-controlled. What kind of success does God expect for our self-control? Jesus is clear: our righteousness must exceed even that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). In fact, he commands us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Why? Because he knows what ungodly emotions and desires do to us. I like Buechner’s definition of lust: “the craving for salt of a man dying of thirst” (Wishful Thinking 54).
And he knows that our enemy typically attacks Christians at these very points. Satan is a great economist, and he wants to wreak the greatest havoc with the least effort. So, if I sin regarding love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, or trustworthiness, my ministry will likely recover. If I sin regarding emotions and lusts, my ministry and my family will forever be damaged, perhaps irrevocably.
Thomas a Kempis was right to pray, “Cause me to live now as I shall wish I had done when I come to die” (Famous Prayers 38). Zero tolerance is God’s goal for my life; it must be mine as well.
How do we do?
We fail. Romans 3:23 is clear and accurate: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Every one of us. Unfortunately, more and more of us won’t admit it. We live in a postmodern age where truth and ethics are personal subjective. The biblical description of the era of the judges is just as appropriate for us: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25).
If you doubt the association, perhaps this book will clear up the matter. A few years ago The Day America Told the Truth pulled back the veil on typical American ethics. These pollsters gathered their data by guaranteeing the responders total anonymity and privacy. As a result, they got a better sense of Americans than other surveys have ever achieved. Here are some of the results.
There is no moral consensus in this country. Only 13% of Americans believe in all of the Ten Commandments. 93% of us say that we alone determine what is right and moral. 81% say they have violated a law since they thought it was wrong. 74% say they would steal from those who won’t really miss it. 91% say they lie regularly. And 53% say they would cheat on their spouse if they wouldn’t get caught.
How are we at controlling our emotions and passions? You decide.
So then, we lower the standard. We measure ourselves not by what is right but by what is popular, or at least by what others do.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were masters at this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). I’m better than others, so I must be all right with God. So long as we’re not as bad as the criminals we see on television or the moral failures we know personally, we’re fine. Men by the scores over the years have told me, “I’m just as good as anyone else.” But that’s not good enough.
Remember the old story about the two hunters on safari who ran out of ammunition, then came upon a lion? One took off; the other stopped to put on tennis shoes. The first yelled to the second, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun him.” The second said, “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I only have to outrun you.”
Not with sin, you don’t.
We keep up appearances. We’re like David, covering his sin with Bathsheba in the eyes of the community, but not before God. So long as our society thinks our marriage is fine, our kids are succeeding, and our finances are strong, we must be.
Consumer debt has risen 50% since 1973; consumer credit has risen from $199 billion in 1975 to $1.3 trillion in February of this year. We do all we can to keep up appearances financially, and spiritually.
And we try harder. We hear a sermon on sin and determine we will do better.
Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher of the First Great Awakening, wrote this in his diary: “Resolved first, to live for God while I do live. Resolved second, whether others do this or not, I will.” We’ve all made those resolutions. And we’ve all failed to keep them.
What can we do?
Remember that you have a choice with temptation. The Bible says that if we resist the devil he will flee from us (James 4:7). There is no sin you must commit. However you are being tempted in your emotions and passions, the choice is always yours.
Viktor Frankl was the acclaimed author of Man’s Search for Meaning. He was imprisoned by the Nazis, his family were all killed, and he was subjected to horrible tortures. As the Nazi soldiers stripped away his clothes and cut off his wedding band he made this fateful statement to himself, “You can take away my wife, you can take away my children, you can strip me of my clothes and my freedom, but there is one thing that no person can ever take away from me—and that is my freedom to choose how I will react to what happens to me!”
Avoid known temptations. Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13). Pray this daily. Martin Luther, in his usual picturesque way, said, “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” On another occasion he said it like this: “If your head is made of butter, don’t sit by the fire.”
Stay close to your spiritual source. Ephesians 5:18 is a clear command from God: “Be filled with the Spirit.” It means, “every moment stay under the control of the Spirit.” Seek your spiritual power in a close communion with the Spirit of God, every day.
This spring we bought an outdoor electric grill. No more matches or gas bottles. All we need to do is plug it in, and keep it plugged in. If we get the grill hot, then pull the plug, it grows cold. So do I. So do you.
Last, get up when you fall down. We all fall down. John put it this way: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But the next verse is our hope: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” So when you fall down, get back up.
John Claypool tells a marvelous story about a medieval village, situated at the foot of a mountain with a monastery high above it in the clouds. The villagers wondered every day what the monks did up there so close to God. One day a monk came down into the village for supplies, and someone asked him, “What do you do up there in the clouds?” He said, “We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up.” So can we.
Now, control of emotions and passions is the “fruit” of the Spirit. As we work, God works. As we make these our goals in self-control, God does what we cannot. And together, we show this fruit to the world, to the glory of God.
So with all the “fruit” of the Spirit. The Spirit grows them in the life which lets him, which wants his help. Do you?
An item in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not pictures a plain bar of iron worth $5. The same iron made into horseshoes is worth $50. Made into needles, it is worth $5,000, and made into balance springs for fine Swiss watches, it is worth $500,000.
The value of our lives is not in our abilities or possessions, but in the one who controls us. If you are a Christian, you have the Spirit. Does the Spirit have you?