With all the hullabaloo in the news these days about failures on the right and on the left, abuse of power, and the angst over unacknowledged sexual abuse, it was ironic that last Thursday I spent time with young adults at Kaleo talking about self-control. I hate to say it’s not surprising to me that not only are these painfully abusive things present in people’s lives, but that we do not know either what to do with it or how to apparently prevent it. It should not surprise us when we have heavily criticized any standards of character in hopes of finding ourselves through vain self-fulfillment fantasies. These two things go hand in hand.
Jesus was not being ‘spiritual’ in an esoteric way when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). He was revealing the practical truth that the way we truly become ‘ourselves’ is not through rampant, visceral, unbounded self-centered desire but through turning from ourselves to a source of greater guidance; in this instance, Jesus as our Master Teacher and Lord.
When we read in 2 Peter 1 that God has given us “everything we need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3) it comes to us only “through our knowledge of him” – that is, Jesus – and God’s “great and precious promises,” not through our self-will. Such a move toward God and from ourselves is what saves us from “the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (1:4). On the one hand as humans we tend to get worried about prudish morality here, but on the other hand we are disgusted by the abusive immorality so prevalent. Peter reminds us there is no happy medium here, there are only those equipped with God’s power to live a different sort of life and those that are left to live from their own power, which struggles gasp air above the sinking waters of sin’s corruption.
The problem is that we have such a hard time having self-control. In the early 1960s at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, where Walter Mischel and his graduate students gave children the choice between one reward, most memorably a marshmallow, which they could eat immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which they would have to wait alone, for up to 20 minutes. Years later, Mischel and his team followed up with the Bing preschoolers and found that children who had waited for the second marshmallow generally fared better in life. For example, studies showed that a child’s ability to delay eating the first treat predicted higher SAT scores and a lower body mass index (BMI) 30 years after their initial Marshmallow Test. Crazy isn’t it?
Through his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus shows us that the Holy Spirit can lead us into another way when we face the temptation to turn in negative ways. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). It is the very divine presence within us that gives us power for a different sort of life. That is why the Apostle Paul includes self-control in his list of the fruit of the Spirit, which contrast strongly with the acts of the flesh. If we crucify the flesh with its sinful desires, that means a dramatic death, not some happy middle way. Instead, putting those things to death through Christ, we turn to an entirely different way where we live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit. It’s like an athlete, the Apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 9, that trains in a focused manner for winning the victor’s prize. Training for victory is an entirely different sort of life, focused on a different sort of goal, and operating under a different sort of daily purpose. Self-control is the God-birthed capacity to say no to wrong and yes to right as we mature in Christlikeness, which is true humanity, for the glory of God.
So, if we want to see a different sort of humanity, we will have to operate with a different sort of daily purpose, with a different sort of goal, and living in an entirely different sort of life. Learning the ancient virtues would be helpful. But ultimately, we will have to relearn what it means to be human. That is something we can only do by dying to our very selves in order that we can live with God’s divine power in us toward the divine life.