Many Christians practice self-control during the season of Lent, fasting from favorite foods to draw closer to Jesus.
When I was nine years old, I decided to give up ice cream sandwiches for Lent, which I considered a great sacrifice because I liked them so much. However, the truth was we rarely had them. I calculated that, because Sundays are feast days during Lent, by giving them up, I would actually eat more ice cream sandwiches during Lent than at any other time of the year.
Self-control. Despite our flesh-denying resolutions, we often practice it for self-centered motives.
We practice self-control for ourselves. But Jesus did it for us.
The American Way: Pursuing Self-Control for Personal Success
We’re wrapping up our Fruit of the Spirit series this week as we prepare to celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. Why would we meditate on this topic during the weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter? Because we’re already anticipating the fruit of Jesus’ death for us. Like kids tasting dessert (ice cream sandwiches) before dinner, we have spent the last nine weeks tasting the nine-fold fruit of Christ-like character that grows from the tiny seed of our faith in him.
Friends, we are actually growing to be more like Christ. I know. I can scarcely believe it, too. Typically, I find we’re more aware of our failures than our successes.
However, we do live in a culture that’s preoccupied with personal success. In fact, American culture today promotes self-control not as a virtue, but as a means to personal success. You might say Americans crave greatness, both for our country and for our political leaders. That craving puts us at risk every time we enter the voting booth.
“We are looking for presidents, in my judgment, almost every electoral cycle to somehow rescue us from what has become a very dysfunctional politics.”
–Aaron Miller, The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.
Dysfunctional is a polite way of putting it.
The Stoic Way?
By contrast, the cultures of ancient Greece and Roman thought that true greatness came from self-mastery. Zeno, founder of Stoic Philosophy, taught that happiness itself came not from indulging your desires, but from bringing your passions under control.
“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” ~Zeno of Citium
This ancient thinker, as well as those who followed him, recognized that it’s our desires that surge and expand and threaten to sweep us away without the exercise of self-control.
Therefore true happiness comes from mastering those desires. Serious philosophers and self-help gurus alike tell us to seek and find peace by taming our inner cravings until they lie at our feet like so many kittens.
But to what end? Surely self-control must lead past personal happiness to something bigger.
The Life of Jesus: Self-Control Brings Freedom to Love Others
Let’s think for a moment about Jesus’ earthly life. How did self-control free him to love those around him?
Consider one day that Mark tells us about in his gospel. It was a day when the demands of the suffering, sick, and demon-possessed formed a line at his door. They came at sundown, because of the Sabbath rules. Everyone came, “the whole city,” and he healed them all.
Yet, the next day finds him up before dawn. Why? He needed to pray.
Certainly it must have required vast self-control to meet all of those demands. But more important, to understand God’s will and change direction demanded a different kind of self-mastery, the ability to stop and listen.
Jesus’ late night of serving led to an early morning of seeking. He wasn’t merely constrained by the demands around him, but led by his Father’s will.
Surely the disciples must have scratched their heads. Why would we leave now? We’ve got a good thing going? But Jesus mastered his desires in order to follow not public demand or popular opinion, but his Father’s will.
This is the freedom we need as we seek to love others.
The Death of Christ: His Ultimate Self-Mastery
The last week of Jesus’ life, starting with his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, shows the full extent of Jesus’ self-control. It paints a portrait of the Spirit-filled man, weak yet strong, compassionate yet determined, pressed beyond human limits yet enduring to the end.
It is the picture of a marathon runner, finishing his race.
Consider these 7 scenes of Jesus’ magnificent self-mastery from Mark’s Gospel:
1. Cleansing the temple.
“And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons (Mark 11:15).”
Jesus wasn’t throwing a temper tantrum in this first scene, but acting out God’s judgment on the hucksters who turned forgiveness into a moneymaking opportunity. We can imagine him flailing a whip and roaring with indignation, which wouldn’t be far from the truth. But notice what he didn’t do. He didn’t harm the pigeons. This was wrath under control (John 2:15-16, describing a previous cleansing, makes this crystal clear).
2. Asserting authority.
“So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things (Mark 11:33).’”
Jesus refused to be bullied by the abusive authority of the Pharisees. He held his ground in the argument while quietly insisting that they play by their own rules. When they refused, so did he. This gives encouragement to any of us who have faced abuse or misuse of power. Jesus is our strong man, who can stand up to every bully who troubles us.
3. Noticing the widow.
“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box (Mark 12:43).”
Jesus notices the powerless, the people who feel invisible. The rich paraded in front of him and noisily poured cash in the offering plate, but he didn’t cater to them. In fact, he refused to play their game. What thrilled him was to see true faith reflected in a widow’s tithe.
4. Preparing his disciples for what would happen.
“And Jesus began to say to them, ‘See that no one leads you astray (Mark 12:5).’”
Four disciples approached Jesus as they looked over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. They were the first 4 he had called, Peter & James & John & Andrew, and they probably had visions of reigning on 4 thrones in his coming Kingdom like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy in Narnia. Instead Jesus began to prepare them for the reality of persecution and false messiahs.
He didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. That’s self-mastery.
5. Warning Judas
“Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me… (Mark 14:18).”
Imagine the self-control it took for Jesus to warn his betrayer before the fact of his betrayal occurred. He looked him in the eye, and, it seemed, to offer a chance to repent. Judas didn’t take the offer.
6. Warning Peter
“Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times (Mark 14:30).”
Jesus treated both Judas and Peter as friends by telling them the truth about themselves. Such truth telling isn’t easy, but requires great self-mastery. Neither of them changed their path to avoid what was warned, but Peter returned to Jesus with tears of repentance and was restored.
7. Fighting for Self-Mastery in the Garden
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will (Mark 14:36).”
When Jesus came to an end of himself, he prayed. This holy moment shows his terror of what lay before him as he faced it fully in Gethsemane. If self-control had failed him then, we all would have perished. But with his Father’s help on that dreadful night, he endured.
We could go on. Jesus mastered himself as his disciples fled for their lives, as he was interrogated before two courts, and as he was handed over to the mob who demanded his blood.
Amazingly, what he did for us, he enables us to do for others, through his indwelling Holy Spirit. That’s because the fruit of the Spirit is self-control.
What He Did For Us, He Enables Us to Do for Others
How can this blessed fruit of self-control equip us to serve others? I’ll get us started with 3 ideas, in hope that it stirs more from you:
The self-mastery of silence
We’re tempted these days to give a quick answer to hard questions. Social media gives us a voice, but it can happen in person, too. Some of us like to jump into arguments. Others of us prefer to make comments, iced with attitude. The rest of us gather into our opinion groups to be patted on the pack for our correct ideas.
Instead, silence can be the best response. In some cases silence must be the only response. At all times silence will give us a wiser response.
The self-mastery of prayer
Praying before we speak will change how the words come out. Whether it’s the tone or the words themselves, the pause gives us a chance to edit or delete. Snappy becomes gentle. Sarcastic turns into good humor.
The self-mastery of empathy
Silence and prayer give us a chance to enter into the emotion of the words before us. We can begin to feel something of what our conversation partner is expressing, the sense behind the sentences. The meaning behind the message.
What kind of self-mastery would you like God to give you by his Spirit?
I’d love to hear it.