This Believe Series message (self-control) was delivered by Brent Hudson at River of Life Church on October 15, 2017.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13, NIV)
Acknowledging the problem:
“I want what I want when I want it”
In 2008, Dallas Willard published an article in the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, which is a publication of Baylor, a baptist university in Texas. In that article Willard writes a compelling argument that our society is moving into a time where people do not differentiate between their identity as persons and the desires that they have. He basically said we are the impulse of “I want what I want when I want it” was winning the day. In fact, people are feeling that they cannot be complete persons without fulfilling the things they desire.
This may be distressing at an intellectual level for philosophers like Willard, but this has been the human challenge from the very beginning. It was in the very first book of the Bible where that problem first surfaced. A person looks at something and thinks: that looks awesome, I want to have that!” Enter stage right, the serpent, saying, go ahead, you want it take it. It does look awesome. The only reason you were told not to eat it is because that person is afraid you’ll become just like them and they won’t have any power over you. Be your own boss! Eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil. No more convincing was required. And individuals have been eating from that tree ever since believing, to borrow from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”
No greater lie has ever been spoken and no lie has ever been believed by more people in every subsequent generation. While the greatest commandments may be love God and love neighbour, they fall behind the idea that there is a God — a supreme one. The true master of all history and the true captain of my soul. The entire story of the Old Testament could be summed up in the command “I am the Lord your God… you will have no other gods before me”.
Before we can love God, we need to believe that God exists and know what kind of God he is. If the original humans had reflected on that second part — what kind of God he is — the lie of the serpent would have been obvious. But it wasn’t obvious — and it still is not obvious — because people are still opting for personal desire over God’s plan again and again. In fact, one could say that human beings have such a difficult time knowing “what kind of God he is” God actually chose to enflesh himself in human form, spend some time with us so we could witness the Divine making human choices. As Jesus said to Philip:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:8–9 NRSV)
This is our problem. We do not understand who God is and so we make stuff up. We even bend his message to better suit our needs rather than change how we think and how we behave. Instead, as Willard says: “We want what we want when we want it!”
Because this is a problem, one of the things the Holy Spirit does in the lives of believers — people who put their faith in Jesus Christ — is self-control and that is what I want to address today.
Sometimes Pastors get to stand up front and talk about joy and the promises of God and other times, Pastors have to stand up and call out behaviour that ultimately required Jesus to suffer and die on a Roman cross. I say it this way so there is no confusion as to the seriousness of the problem and the great need for self-control in our lives.
There are actually two words that are used throughout the NT for self-control. When Paul speaks about the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23, he uses a word that was most often used regarding powerful sexual urges and desires. It is used 3 times in the NT as a noun but the verb form of this word is used in 1Corinthians to encourage unmarried and those widowed to marry if they are not “practicing self-control” (1Cor 7:9). The word is also used in many non-biblical text with this sense (cf., ἐγκρατεύομαι).
The other term (*σωφρόν-) is the one found in our text today – it is actually used three times in this chapter. The NIV translates the same Greek root as: ‘temperate’ in 2:2; “self-controlled” in 2:5; and again with “self-controlled” in 2:11. The word is used for a person who shows restraint with their words and actions. A person is controls their desires and is well balanced in their relationships and life.
While self-control is an effort for everyone, the problems present themselves as a kaleidoscope of human sin. One person struggles with food and another with drugs or alcohol. Others may struggle with pornography or other sexual sins. Still another has anger issues, or is unleashes a wildfire of destruction with gossip or slanderous stories.
Learning that God’s Spirit at work in us is producing “self-control” challenges us to address our urges. One area where most modern people struggle is distraction. We have become accustomed to checking our devices multiple times every hour. There is nothing “temperate” or “self-controlled” about a person who can’t stop themselves from checking their devices when they know it is inappropriate to do so. I’ve seen people checking their phones during wedding ceremonies and during funerals and usually doing it on the discretely — which only underscores of problem. They just can’t wait. What did they learn by covertly checking their device — 99.9% of the time: absolutely nothing. But people can’t stop themselves, it is habituated behaviour. We absolutely can’t stand the prospect of being bored — even for a couple of minutes. Many people value non-boredom more than they value self-control. This is not a biblical point of view.
Just as Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit in us is producing the capacity for self-control in Galatians, he tells us that the gospel message itself promotes self-control as a value. Grace is presented to us as a transforming gift — grace teaches us to to say ‘no’. When we embrace the gospel of grace, we are confronted with the fact that grace means change.
The Transforming Gift: Grace means change
Most people love the idea of transformation; mostly, I think, because we think about a force outside of ourselves transforming us from A to B. We think of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly — it is a natural process. . .it just happens. We have grand hopes that our Christian transformation is the same.
The trouble is the same as most false hopes, there is just enough truth in it to make it believable. But it will leave people ultimately unchanged. Just thinking about it for a few minutes will make this clear. When Paul or Jesus tell us to stop doing behaviour A and instead do behaviour B, the implication is that no one is going to do that for us. We are not magically going to stop desiring too much food, or using pornography, or spreading gossip. The fact that these are still desires in a person is why Paul doesn’t just pray for them only — knowing that God will do all the work. But that is not how it works. Eve had to not eat from the tree and we need to avoid the behaviours that are destructive to us.
One of the great truths of Scripture is that we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All of these are true of our salvation. The same is true about our becoming like Christ — what the bible calls ‘holiness.’ We have been made holy, we are becoming holy, and we will be made holy. The thread that runs for all of this is the gospel of grace. (cf. 1Co 1:2 where they “have been made holy” and simultaneously are “called to be holy” and v.8 where they will be blameless on the last day).
After Peter denied Jesus, he was dejected and had given up thinking about himself as a leader among the disciples. Jesus had different thoughts about Peter. Jesus simply asked him: “Peter, do you love me more than these” (Jn 21:15) Jesus knew that Peter’s failure was not his defining feature and he put a stop to that kind of thinking before it derailed Peter completely.
Grace defines our relationship with God. It is why Peter was the leader of the disciples even after his fear caused him to deny his Lord, the son of the living God ( Matt 16:16). But as the pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out when he risked his life opposing the Nazi Party in wartime Germany, the grace that stands at the heart of our faith is costly…it’s not cheap grace. It is grace that cost Jesus his life and it is grace that will cost us too. Graces teaches us…”teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12).
The word that is used for ‘teach’ in this passage is translated elsewhere as ‘to train’ or ‘to discipline’ and yes, it has that dual sense in Greek as well. When Pilate found no fault in Jesus the NIV translates his words as: “I will punish him and then release him” . . . the word ‘punish’ is literally ‘discipline’ and it is the same word used here. This is no different than when we hear someone say “we’re going to teach them a lesson”. We all know what is meant by “teach” in that context, but we would say that is a godly form of teaching. Grace teaches us the way God teaches his children. In 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul tells his apprentice pastor to “correct opponents with gentleness” — again, the word ‘correct’ is the same word used here in Titus. Grace teaches us to say no. It teaches us gently, but forcefully. We cannot understand God’s grace toward us without seeing our need to change.
If we fall, he picks us up. We are told to forgive 70×7 times to the one who seeks our forgiveness and this simply modelling our lives after God. God forgives us whenever we sincerely seek him. Grace defines our faith. But it is not cheap grace. It is a transforming gift. Grace means change. Grace teaches us to say ‘no’.
All that is left is for us to learn what Grace is teaching. We need to capture our will — to take it back — we need to learn to say ‘no’.
Capturing the Will: Learning to say “no”
Phillippa Lally, a psychology researcher at University College London, followed ninety-six persons who each chose a new behavior to adopt as a habit. How long would it take each person to form a habit? In her research, the shortest time it took was 18 days; the longest was 254 days. The average was 66 days. (see the article here).
Her research was clear on one thing, no habits are formed overnight, and some of us need to work harder and longer to form a habit.
Making good habits is important but so is breaking bad ones. Dallas Willard tells the story of a man who confessed that he could not stop yelling at his son. Willard told the man, who happened to be wealthy, that every time he expressed ungodly anger at his son, he needed to give $5,000 to his wife’s favorite charity and increase that by $5,000 for each subsequent infraction (i.e., $10,000 for the second time he yelled at his son, $15,000 for the third time, and so on). (This story was recounted in: Merkle, Benjamin L., et al. Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek. Baker Academic, 2017).
The cost of losing thousands of dollars with each outburst of anger was great enough that the man found renewed self-control. He understood money and cost. He also knew that it was costing him spiritually to yell at his son — the self-imposed fine just brought those two realities together.
Of course, only God can change an angry heart into a loving one — but to think there is nothing we can do in the meantime — or that our habits do not affect heart change is just not listening to the Bible.
When people asked Jesus about this kind of thing, he was pretty radical.
Matthew 5:29–30 NIV
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Obviously Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. He is going to an extreme to make a point. Both of these actions were against the Law of Moses — but everyone there would have understood his point. Just as we do when we say: “I told you a million times”. Or “give your head a shake”. We use hyperbole and idiom all the time to make our points vivid and memorable. But as we look at this hyperbole, we can’t miss the point. Jesus is saying that extreme measures need to be taken in our lives to break free from sin.
For the rich man who spoke with Dallas Willard, an every-increasing fine of $5000 did the trick. Telling himself to stop being a jerk didn’t help him. It won’t help us either. We need to learn what will push back the sin that we struggle against. Maybe you need the embarrassment of telling a trusted friend when your internet view habits are not pure. Or maybe you need to put up a few roadblocks in your life — something that would really bum you out if you had to pay up.
One professor who was writing a book told his three daughters that they were to ask him when he got home from work each day if he had wasted time on the internet and if he did, he would pay them $5 each. One day he got an notification that one of his students had updated his Facebook page and he went to look at it. He spent maybe two minutes there — but it was writing his book and was clearly a ‘waste’. His youngest girl asked him dutifully when he got home whether he wasted any time and he said he had. He paid her $5. Needless to say, blood was in the water and it didn’t take long for the others to ask him the same question. Just like that, 3 minutes wasting time online cost him $15. Not a lot. But certainly more than reading that Facebook post was worth. (Robert Plummer in Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek. Baker Academic, 2017.)
We need to set up rails along our path so we don’t lose our way. It’s easy to be distracted and attracted to something along the way. But Grace teaches us to say “no”.
I find it fascinating that the greatest human struggle — with controlling our urge to sin — can be beaten by saying ‘no’. ‘No’ is an easy word to say. But we need to be instructed to say it because in the moment of desire — whatever that desire — ‘no’ is not usually high on our minds unless we learn to put it there.
As Christians we know that we are more than just a physical body. We are living soul and that soul has given us a will. It is not just instinct for us. We can step back. We can think. We can learn to say ‘no’. Maybe some of you need to just say it out loud. When the urge is upon you and you feel your focus shifting, maybe you just need to yell out “no”. Sure, the people around you may wonder if you’re a bit crazy, but in the end that’s not a bad deal.
You have hope. God is at work in you producing the ability, the power to say ‘no’ to the things that drag you down. Will you always get it right? Probably not. Did Peter always get it right? Not at all. Did God still use him — yes He did! Because Peter was willing to get back on the horse and trust God’s Spirit to change him and his grace to restore him. God wants to use you too but lack of self-control will get in the way every time. There is a reason it is mentioned three times in this paragraph of Titus alone. It’s important. It is important for each one of us to learn what God’s grace teaches — to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions. It teaches us to be radical in our approach, if necessary.
God loves his children so much that if he were to come back at this moment, every single person who has placed their faith in him would be embraced and taken to an eternal home. But until that moment arrives, God is not finished with us. He wants more for us and from us. We love to hear about the Spirit producing peace in us. We love to hear about the Spirit producing joy in us. But self-control… that is a tough one. But it is also a word of hope to everyone who is struggling. God is on your side in this battle against sin. He is producing in you the ability to “say no”. The ability to stand against what’s dragging your down. But you need to say it. You need to get on board. We all need to learn what grace is teaching us — to Just Say ‘no!’