In last week’s lesson we began an examination of the final characteristic of the fruit of the spirit: self-control. We defined self-control as: “Self-control is the exercise of inner strength (discipline) under the direction of sound judgment (God’s Word) that enables us to do, think, and say the things that are pleasing to God” (Jerry Bridges; parenthetical mine, BBK). The first point we considered was the need to honor God with our bodies. First, we looked at the need for sexual purity and the fulfilling of our fleshly desires in marriage. Second, we looked at Paul’s words teaching us to not be addicted to anything. “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is helpful. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be brought under the control of anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Television and work are two ways that we may find that we are not in control of ourselves, but slaves. Another point to consider is the computer. We may find that we are slaves to the computer through email, internet, myspace.com, games, or instant messaging. We are not to be brought under the control of anything.
Take Every Thought Captive (2 Corinthians 10:5)
“We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5; HCSB). While Paul was speaking about the thoughts of his opponents at Corinth, the concept is true for all people. Self-control means only entertaining thoughts that are acceptable to God. Now, we need to clearly define what we mean here because this is often a point of confusion.
I did not say that we never can have bad thoughts. If we never had bad thoughts, we would never be tempted to sin. James said, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14; ESV). These things begin in the mind. Consider the temptations of Jesus. Satan said to Jesus, “Turn these stones into bread.” Was Jesus sinning by thinking about what Satan said? No. So we are not talking about never thinking bad thoughts. Bad thoughts are going to shoot through our minds as Satan works to lure us away. The question is what we do when the thought comes into our minds.
This is exactly what Paul is describing in 2 Corinthians 10:5. We are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. I believe the New International Version captures the idea well: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” We will encounter evil thoughts, but we need to take those thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ. We cannot dwell upon those evil thoughts. We cannot entertain those wicked ideas in our hearts. This is the error that Eve committed in the garden of Eden. The problem was not hearing the words of the serpent to eat the fruit from the tree. What happened next was the problem: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:6). Eve entertained the thought. She considered that the tree was good for food. She contemplated how the fruit was a delight to the eyes. She took into her heart how this could make her wise. Contrast this to how Jesus handled his confrontation with Satan. Jesus argued with Satan. Jesus did not entertain the thoughts of Satan, but rejected the thoughts. Our defense against sin is controlling our thoughts.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). This is the test of what we are allowed to keep our thoughts on. Not only does this test rule out sexual things, but rules out gossip and slander.
Curbing Our Emotions (Proverbs 16:32)
“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Solomon speaks of the inner strength that is required to rule our spirits. The ruling of our spirits is speaking about keeping our emotions under control. This is seen in the parallel, “slow to anger.” But when we talk about controlling our emotions, let us not simply think about anger. We also need to exercise self-control with rage, resentment, self-pity, and bitterness. These characteristics are just as destructive to relationships with others and with God as uncontrolled anger.
Paul’s principle of not being controlled by anything also applies to our emotions and feelings. We have made mention of this problem a number of times, but it is worthy of repeating. Our feelings and emotions are not to control us. How did we ever get to a point that we believed that our feelings trump all logic and reason? Just because I feel anger does not mean I am allowed to take someone’s head off with my anger. Just because I feel resentment does not mean that I have the right to act maliciously toward another. But we can get upset at this teaching. We say “but we feel angry” because of something done against us. What are we going to do about it? I am angry! We are to do nothing. If our emotions are not in control, we must do nothing. To act upon our feelings will bring us to sin. We severely damage relationships when we act upon these emotions. Let time go by instead of acting immediately. You and I will be able to think more clearly and determine if our emotions are rational, and then be able to act without sin.
All of these emotions come from selfishness. Anger comes from our sense of justice being violated. Resentment and bitterness come from believing we have been treated badly, or at least not how we think we ought to be treated. Self-pity and “being a victim” are attempts to attract attention to oneself so that others will build us up by pitying us. Most of our emotions are selfish reactions and that is why we cannot act upon them without sinning. We are not to be guided by our feelings. We are to control our feelings and be guided by the word of God.
Spiritual Discipline (Mark 1:35)
The final area I would like for us to consider where we need self-control is in the spiritual disciplines. Thus far, we have talked about having the self-control to avoid sinful actions. But we also need to exercise self-control to act positively toward God’s law. It is not enough to simply avoid sin. We also need the discipline to do what God has commanded. Jesus exercised self-control in the spiritual disciplines.
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). I do not think anyone would debate the fact that Jesus was extremely busy. We have busy schedules, but so did Jesus. Jesus was teaching the crowds. He could not get away from the crowds as they would follow Him, even to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. So what did Jesus do to have time for God? He woke up very early in the morning, went to a secluded place, and prayed. Jesus had control over His body to do what needed to be done. He needed to pray. I am sure He felt like sleeping due to all of His travels and teachings. But He arose early in the morning and prayed. We, however, are very lazy in prayer. We have a song called “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Do we even pray one hour in a week? Never mind praying for an hour in one sitting, do we even pray for an hour when you combine all of our prayers in a week? We do not like to be called lazy but I do not know what else to call our attitudes toward prayer. On Wednesday night we have begun a study on prayer to hopefully revitalize our prayer life and I hope you will attend these studies. We need to exert self-control to stop the other things we are doing to pray to God. And if, like Jesus, our lives are so busy that there is nothing that can be stopped, then we need to wake up a little earlier or stay up a little later to pray.
Another spiritual discipline that we see Jesus exerting self-control is in the study of the scriptures. While we never have a passage saying that Jesus unrolled a scroll and studied for a couple hours, it is clear that this is exactly what He did. In the temptations that Satan brought against Jesus, Jesus was able to quote the scriptures, clearly showing that He had studied the scriptures. In Luke 4:17, Jesus was able to unroll the scroll of Isaiah and find the place of a particular prophecy He wanted to teach to the synagogue. Obviously Jesus had studied the scriptures to be able to know where the prophecy was located. There are five instances where Jesus says, “Have you not read,” indicating that Jesus not only had read the scriptures but understood the scriptures through His studies. Can we even name all of the books of the Bible? Do we know what the books of the Bible are about? Unfortunately, we are also very lazy when it comes to reading and studying the scriptures. Few study for our Bible studies that we have on Sunday and Wednesday. Jesus was not ignorant of the scriptures. Since we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, how do we think we will do before God not even knowing the words He has revealed to us? How many hours of study do we put to the word of God each week? By study I mean that we have Bible, pen, and paper for note taking and study the scriptures. When is the last time you did this? Clearly Jesus studied the scriptures because He was not only well-versed in the scriptures but also understood the scriptures properly, unlike the rest of the Jewish leaders. We need to exert the self-control to turn off the television, sit up at the table, and study the word of God with minimal distraction.
1. Honor God with our bodies. Are we slaves to our desires and physical things or are subjecting our bodies to Jesus?
2. Take every thought captive. Evil thoughts will enter. What do you do with those thoughts: entertain or reject?
3. Curb our emotions. Do our feelings govern our decisions or do we subject our feelings to rational thinking and the word of God?
4. Exert spiritual discipline. Stop being lazy in spiritual disciplines like prayer and study. We cannot know God and cannot be like Christ if we fail to pray to God and fail to study His word.