REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 68: Self-Control.
As we come to the last of the fruits of the Holy Spirit we recognise how counter-cultural our Lord’s call to discipleship is. At the same time we are reminded of the nobility of His call. We are not our own, nor are we to live aimlessly. We are instead set apart by the Lord for His service, endowed with the Holy Spirit who enables us to be transformed over time, growing us more like Jesus [2 Cor 3:17-18 and 6:16-7:1].
The comment: what a man denies himself is as great a test as what he allows himself reminds us that God wants us to be better than we are by nature. It has been said that God accepts us where He finds us [as repentant sinners] but loves us so much that he will never leave us where he finds us! [Growing us to be like His Son, Romans 8:29]. For that to happen we must obey the Father, rejoice in the Son’s sacrifice on our behalf and keep in step with [Galatians 5:25] and sow to please the Holy Spirit [Galatians 6:8]. Self-control has always been vital in the life of believers, and is a healthy reminder to us, whose culture, and increasingly, church culture, exalts self-fulfilment, self-worth and even self-pity. Against these is the call to self-denial, self-examination and self-control, with the first two emphasising our deliberate choice and the third the gracious and powerful work of God the Holy Spirit.
The disciple is likened to the athlete prepared to undergo strict training [the same word as self-control is used in 1 Cor 9:2] and is contrasted to aimless living [9:26]. This is an outworking of the self-denial called for by our Lord [Lk 9:23, since we have been conscripted and chosen for the most noble of tasks: to be beloved sons and slaves of the God of Heaven and the Lord of glory. For this reason, and since it is too easy to lose this vision and return to old ways of living, we are to self-examine [1 Cor 13:5, Gal 6:3-5]. In all of this the Holy Spirit will grow us by self-control.
The pandemic, we are told, has led to binge movie watching and booms in liquor sales, feel-good spending and on-line gambling. All of these are exercises in self-pity [‘I’m owed some pleasures’] and self-fulfilment, ‘after all I deserve some pampering and I need these things/experiences to buck me up, make me the envy of others and fill the void of the things and people I have not been able to relate to.’ Is this all too negative and critical? It may be, and certainly does not apply to all, but these practices are simply the natural outworking of the worldview that believes pleasure and self are the purpose of life and the means of happiness. Wonderfully, out of grace and sheer love, our Lord has called us from such a worldview, so that we will find ourselves in Him.
This is where self-control comes into its own. Strictly speaking, self-control for the believer is as much Holy Spirit control as it is our own. John Stott once visited an old bushman whose two dogs, after lying quietly together, would get up and fight each other, repeating the scenario again and again. He asked the man ‘who usually wins the fight?’ After thinking and chewing his tobacco he replied: the one I feeds the most I suppose! This is exactly what we see in the New Testament. Self-control feeds off, and is nurtured by, a number of mindsets and disciplines, including: [i] remembering whose we are and what we have been rescued from [Eph 2:1-10]. [ii] remembering who has called us [1 Cor 1:26-31], who redeemed us [1 Cor 6:19-20] and who dwells within us [1 Cor 3:16-17]. [iii] remembering the pull of the world [1 John 2:15-17], the designs of Satan [1 Peter 5:8-10] and our own inherent frailty and tendency to drift or succumb to temptation [Heb 2:1, 1 Cor 10:13]. But [iv] remembering the power of the Holy Spirit within us [1 John 4:4], the understanding grace of our great High Priest to help us when tempted [Heb 4:14-16] and of our Father who has us as the apple of His eye [Ps 17:8], who remembers that we are but dust [Ps 103:14] and works all things together for the good of shaping us in the likeness of Christ [Rom 8:26-29] so we [v] understand and make use of the means of grace: prayer, bible and church [Eph 6:17-18], knowing [vi] that it is necessary to be self-disciplined in order to read, pray and meet regularly and thoughtfully, which [vii] in turn means we do not grieve but are filled with the Holy Spirit [Eph 4:25-32 & 5:15-21] through self-controlled obedience that says no to ungodliness so we can say yes to godliness [Titus 2:11-14, Col 3:5-14, 1 Thess 4:3-8].So we then [viii] prove God’s goodness and the joy of obedience [Ps 119:130, Rom 12:2], convincing us [ix] that practice makes permanent, bringing deep conviction that God’s ways are sheer delight [Ps 119:111-112] which means [x] self-control becomes more and more second nature, with sin’s old mastery replaced by the control of righteousness [Rom 6:11-14]. The yoke of Christ and His teachings will have so captivated and gripped us that we long more and more to be controlled by Him, not others’ expectations or applause; not Satan’s false and empty promises, nor our self-driven hopes and agendas [Matt 11:28-30].
Larry Crabb’s wise words I would rather be a hypocrite to my feelings than to my purposes drives us and self-control enables us to experience this new freedom at every turn. These ‘fruitful fruits’ are to be nurtured and enjoyed. In the words of Sir Alec Paterson: O God help us to be masters of ourselves that we may be servants of others.
Peter Brain 24th March, 2021