All Aboard, or Self-Control?

This post was born at 5:24 a.m. My preferred activity at that time, and for the 45 minutes after it, is sleep. The irony that the thought for a blog-post on self-control would poke its head out at 5:24 and demand to be written is stellar. And, as such in content and approach, this post will have the subtle and poetic nature of a dental cleaning. Please keep in mind that the composing and editing of this post took place prior to any intake of caffiene.

The original thought that spurred me on was the lack of self-control that exists in our culture, and among Christians nowadays. We hear a great deal of media howling about self-awareness (right now someone is becoming self aware of something that they shouldn’t be and will soon redefine themselves with the word “trans.”). Once self-aware, that person will be obligated to begin heralding their new discovery through self-expression. Once self-expression arrives on the scene, self-justification and self-promotion are soon to show up. They are a noisy and pushy bunch.

Two questions yawned into my head about this at 5:24. One, what does the Bible say about this? Two, how are Christ-followers to avoid this type of behavior, or lifestyle? Galatians 5:22-23 provided the answer to the first question:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

You know that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are virtues and character traits that are not present in us and must be developed by the Spirit of God through prayer, walking in God’s Word, and following the Spirit’s leadership. In short, they are un-natural to us and supernatural in nature. Pay special attention to the fact that “self-control” is the final one mentioned. I am not going to suggest that it is at the end because it is the least important, I do assert that it could be the final one because the others are necessary for its development.

The answer to our first question is that the Bible promotes self-control, not self-discovery. Skim through the Book of Proverbs and you will see this repeatedly. Yet, when you do, you might get the idea that self-control is a trait that we possess and simply need to exercise it. Wrong, very wrong. Self-control is produced by the Spirit of God in us and is exercised by the wise living prescribed in Proverbs. Self-control is created by God’s Spirit and driven and informed by His Word.

As an aside, self-control is the mother of spiritual discipline. And, of all discipline, for that matter. The choices that we make about food, sleep, money, words, attitudes, etc., are made within the presence or absence of self-control. For the record, self-control does not mean self-deprivation. Think of self-control as the bridle in a thoroughbred’s mouth. It does not stop him from doing what he is best at. Rather, it brings all of his strength, passion, and energy into focus and guides him in the right direction. The Bible makes much, and says much, about self-control.

On to the second question, how do we avoid this type of self-izing that the world lauds? Let me illustrate where this type of “self” living ends up, and then apply some Bible salve to it.

Here is the “self-awareness” travel log. In order to board the world’s train of Self-Discovery you have to abandon self-control at the baggage check; it’s not allowed as a carry-on, or allowed at all. As you pull out of the station, the conductor will announce in a voice that sounds strangely like that of Joel Osteen, “next stop Free Choices.” This town was formerly known as “Lack of Accountability.” Once you visit Free Choices you are well on your way to the second leg of the journey — Freedom-ville (formerly known as Irresponsibility). There are many folks who make their home in Freedom-ville. The migration there is steady and oh-so easy. Remaining there is effortless.  But, those truly committed to self-ing eventually re-board ole’ Self-Discovery and chug down the tracks to Self-Justification. This town has never changed its name despite the many attempts of its citizens to do so. The ruling class feels that the name is appropriate, sends a strong message, and reminds its dwellers that they should feel proud of themselves, their journey, and stand up for where they reside. Once fully self-justified, folks eventually make the final few miles of the trek to I-am-here-and-you-all-drove-me-here (formerly known as Victim’s Corner). Once here, people usually saturate themselves in many sorts of “self” activities and philosophies. They do so without guilt, fear, or remorse because they really believe that someone else put them on the train, paid the fare, forced them to go, and will not allow them to return. Period. End of normalcy.

It is obvious that the Bible, if you have ever even buzzed through some of it — especially Proverbs, James, and Philippians — shows that God doesn’t allow his own to live at Victim’s Corner. Why? Victim’s Corner rejects all of the things that move us to know his grace, depend upon him, and develop the disciplines to know and follow him more fully. (see 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 for a good poke in the eye)

To prove the point let’s re-write some story lines of famous Bible folks as victims:

  • Job – “This should not be happening to me, it’s not my fault, this is all because of how people treated me, and, because the world was jealous that I had a nice family, land, and wealth. This is the world’s way of getting back at me.”
  • King David – “Psalm 159 – A Psalm of King David — Why, oh why, does this happen to me. I deserve more than this. Enemies surround me, and pursue me. If only God had not chosen me to be king, how lovely my life would be. Oh, the pressure to write these psalms. Oh, the agony of ruling. If only I could return to my fields, tend my sheep. If only I had not slain Goliath. I would be free, and free to be me. Free to cloak myself in the soothing blanket of old feelings. Selah.”
  • Paul – “The difficulty of this life is great, I should have never journeyed to Damascus. Then, my life would be more pleasing. I could have focused on becoming a better Pharisee. But, alas, I will make the best of this as long as I can. I will submit to God’s plan, and suffer through it, perhaps through my suffering others will feel better about themselves.” 1 Ridiculous 2:7-8 (Oprah’s favorite verses)
  • Jesus – Well, I can’t. It would be too disrespectful, and blasphemous. The point here is that Jesus never complained about his mission to fully obey and fulfill the will of God the Father, die for the sins of others, and love and sanctify those for whom he had died. That would make a great victim story, but, it would have dishonored God the Father and undermined Jesus’ mission. It will do the same in your life and mine.

So, stay off of the train of Self-Discovery. Instead, walk the Shepherd’s trail. He is the Good Shepherd. He will provide all that you need, give you abundant life, and through self-control empower you to be who He designed you to be, not who you or the world hopes to fashion you to into.

In closing, a good first step toward self-control begins with this verse:

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, – 2 Corinthians 10:5
Kill every lofty opinion (the world’s ways and opinions) and take every thought captive to obey Christ? Yep. Self-control starts in your mind.

By the way, that Bible salve that I mentioned is a gritty emollient containing mint, cayenne pepper, and pumas stone. But, you see and feel it working already.

Corrrection, please!

The headlines over the past few weeks, namely the Vanity Fair cover photo of Bruce Jenner and the maelstrom surrounding Rachel Dolezal (the caucasian NAACP leader in Washington who has pretended to be an African-American) shows us the state of our culture, its depravity, and stupidity. When a person thinks that he or she can “declare” his or her gender or ethnic background regardless of biology, and common sense, what are we left with? Answer: A mess.

We live in a country that thinks that all one has to do if he or she is uncomfortable with his/her place in life is to redefine it and claim it to be something that he or she likes better, or is more convenient. Jenner calls himself “trans-gender,” while Dolezal is “trans-ethnic.” With one sloppily coined statement folks think that they can alter or outright change who, or what, they are. Unhappy people making an unhappy mess.

This is where truth comes in handy. It sets standards, teaches principles, delineates boundaries, and clarifies life. In fact, that is what our culture is seeking to undo. And, they are doing it for a reason — to remove accountability and live as they please, and in turn try to make others agree with them. They call it tolerance. I call it “trans-sense,” oops, I mean sans-sense. Better.

I have read and studied the Book of Proverbs since I was a young Christ-follower. Two decades later I am better for having done so. I am currently digging into Proverbs in greater depth than I have before, and each morning I share a principle or application from it on Twitter (@JodySmotherman). Let me share three things about the Book of Proverbs with you. They are simple, short, yet stout, and provide a good map for the whole book.

  • The Book of Proverbs deals with two kinds of people: the wise and the foolish (though the “simple” are also mentioned as a sort of middle-ground, uninformed person who could go one way or the other. It’s usually easier to break and run for the team of fools than to work toward becoming wise).
  • The Book of Proverbs shares God’s wisdom for living with us in short statements. No long diatribes are present, just succinct statements for wise living. Bite-sized truth that will bite and hold on.
  • The Book of Proverbs shows a common theme that separates the wise from the foolish. It is found throughout the book and summarized in Proverbs 9:7-9 (read it carefully):

“Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” (ESV)

It all boils down to this: the difference between the wise and the foolish is their acceptance toward and application of correction. Period. Folks who will listen to truth — whether read for themselves or shared by godly people in their lives — and appreciate it, and follow the correction that it calls them to, will grow in wisdom. The Bible says that their lives will be marked by words such as “wisdom, instruction, discretion, insight, judgment, good sense,” and much more. Those who reject truth and correction are destined to become more foolish. To summarize, in the presence of truth and correction the wise grow wiser while fools will reject both and happily wallow in their folly.

So, the application is simple. As life unfolds, the wise will increase in wisdom while the foolish will grow more foolish, and more weird. If you keep this in mind it will help you to sort out the silliness and sordidness that surrounds us nowadays.

Here is an example of how it might look if you were to discuss a fool’s folly with him or her:

You: Based on what I know from the Bible, what you just did was pretty foolish (or who or whatever you just “declared” yourself to be).
Fool: Well, I am not foolish. I will tell you what is foolish. You are foolish, and you are foolish for thinking that what I think is foolish. And furthermore, you thinking that people who do not agree with you are foolish is the new definition of foolish.”
You: Huh? (you are really thinking that this is a fool spiraling in his senselessness, and you didn’t know what else to say).

All of this to say that there is Truth — God’s timeless principles of right and wrong. It cuts the culture’s ego and evil right into the quick. We live in a day of excuses, blame-shifting, short-sighted wrong-headedness, and a whiny it’s-not-my-fault victim mentality. God’s Word shows truth, wrong and right, cut and dried, black and white. There’s no room for side-stepping it, or running from it. It keeps coming in a sure and steady manner … while the un-wise cavort about in their soul-blinding, self-deceiving slop.

Here’s a helpful tidbit in closing, when truth and wisdom are escorted out of the life of a person or a culture, the next to exit will be principles, then reason, and then substance. If you wonder why some people, or our nation’s culture, have helter-skelter, up-and-down, superficial ways … Proverbs shows you why that is the case.

Now, you can see that their nonsense makes perfect sense to them. And, to the contrary, that God’s sense makes no sense to them…

Small steps are best…

Yesterday I was reading in Proverbs 6 and jotting down a few thoughts for my daily Tweet from the book of Proverbs. Verses 9 – 11 snared my attention. While the context of the passage concerns the lazy and foolish, nestled in verse 10 I caught the glint of Bible gold, and tried to dig it out.

“9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”

Straight away you notice that the word “little” is used three times in verse 10. As verse 9 provokes the sluggard to wake up, and verse 11 describes the sudden arrival of the consequences of laziness (you might want to insist that your teenagers read this), verse 10 tells us about the steps that link laziness and the certain ruin that follows. In describing the process that leads to that trouble, the word “little” pops us three times. Intriguing. Ponder on it a bit.

Here’s an application that I want to pass along to you: we live in a day, culture, and church culture which salivates for things that are new, big, and fast, and this trend should be resisted. Before you balk at this please think back to all of the new programs that your church has started, the big conferences that have been promoted, and the sermons and books that have promoted quick spiritual results (those types of sermons and books use terms such as “keys to success, steps to growth, secrets of growth,” etc.) over the past five years. Here is the stern-faced, straight-talk truth — there are no quick steps to sound spiritual growth. Christian growth is a process, not an event. In fact, it is a process that involves discipline and determination, not secrets or keys. For example, Jesus stated in John 15:5 that we are to abide in Him as the True Vine. Abiding is not an event, it is a dedicated process. In the same vein, Paul declares in Philippians 3:

“8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul states that knowing Christ, gaining Christ, walking by ongoing faith in Christ, and knowing Him and the power of His resurrection are the aims of his life. Each of those elements that Paul mentioned involves a process, not a singular a-ha moment or spiritual big bang.

Here is a pragmatic reason why growth in Christ is a process and is not caused by infrequent leap-frog events — incremental growth nurtures good habits and grows character over time, while lightning-strike moments are difficult to build into your daily life, and to maintain. In other words, one type of growth is sustainable, the other type is rare, and tricky to weave into your life.

Am I saying that the impact from a powerful sermon, statement from a book, or attendance at a Christian seminar or conference is bad? No, absolutely not. What I am saying is that those moments aren’t the norm, they are Holy Spirit- driven moments that are extraordinary. On the other hand, the insight and wisdom that the Holy Spirit grants to you as you study and ponder on your Bible (or my Tweets and blog, heh-heh), pray, talk with fellow believers, and participate in worship are ordinary, frequent, and solid means for growth. This is where the real growth happens. It’s day to day, not from big event to big event.

This should come as a soothing balm to our consciences and souls. God does not expect us to have Moses-at-the-burning-bush encounters each day. He does expect us to devote daily time to Him, meet with Him in His Word and prayer, and live with our hearts and minds ready to encounter him throughout the day and around the bend.

To nearly exhaust the point, the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. Paul wrote at the end of his life in 2 Timothy 4:7:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

He said that he had fought the fight, not that he had won it in the second round of the match; he had finished the race, not that he had won it in record time; he had kept the faith, not that he had discovered keys or steps to make it happen rapidly.  You get the idea.

You are probably wondering how Proverbs 6:10 and its repeated use of “little” ties into all of this. Here is how. It’s the little things that matter and have great impact in your life of following Christ. The lazy man in Proverbs 6 is not ruined by momentous events; he is wrecked by all of the miniscule choices, and tiny things that he avoided doing. In turn, your life is made of up a million mini choices and events. Your Christian walk is composed of the day-to-day, little things previously mentioned. Don’t seek the large and lively, stay true to the small and simple. Go little by little.

Let’s allow Proverbs 13:11 to summarize and make the final point about how the little steps make a big difference:

“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.”

Nuff’ said…

It had slipped by…

Yesterday I was reading in John chapter 1. The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Each time that I read it I gain insight, pray differently, and “sense” Christ better. Yesterday did not disappoint. As I was reading in chapter one a verse leapt off of the page. It was John 1:30:

“29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

There was a simple statement that caught me off guard: “because he was before me. I myself did not know him…”

I don’t recall that verse ever striking me before, but it didn’t slip by yesterday. A couple of thoughts sparked. First, John the Baptist was born before Jesus, so the “he was before me,” must refer to rank and authority since Jesus is God the Son. No problem there. It was the next phrase that snared me, “I myself did not know him…” Now wait a minute. John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. They did know each other. Since Jesus and John didn’t live time zones apart — there was no such thing back then, maybe sun-dial zones apart though —  what was being said here? Again, John was referring to more than relational knowledge of his cousin Jesus. He was referring to Jesus’ stature and role as the Messiah. That is given by the context of John declaring Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world in verse 29, and followed by the revelation of Jesus as Messiah to Israel in verse 31. Hermeneutical problem solved.

Before I read further I took some time to ponder why this verse, and its content had not caught my attention before. I have read through the Gospel of John dozens of times, yet this verse had not ever caught my eye or attention. I wondered why it had slipped by so many times before. The simple, and overly spiritual, answer was that the Holy Spirit had not ever “impressed it” upon me during previous readings.That answer seemed to put the weight of the matter on the Spirit and serve as an excuse for me. Perhaps I am over-thinking the matter. I doubt it. Examination is a vital part of meditative reading of Scripture. So, in order to take responsiblity for not getting-a-hold-of this verse before, I jotted down some questions that helped to prompt me on how I should read the Bible. They were a sound reminder for me, and I pass them along to you:

How am I reading the Bible?

  • Am I reading it at a nice mosey, or at a jogger’s pace?
  • Does it have my full attention, or is my attention divided among other things? A fine antidote to this is to keep a pad and pencil handy. If a stray thought about work, family, or such starts barking at you it can be chased out of the back yard of your mind by writing it down.
  • Am I reading it meditatively — soaking it in as I go — or moving along at a pace that causes me to miss things?
  • Is my mind clear, neutral, and unfettered so that the Holy Spirit can bring insight, conviction, encouragement, or show connections to other passages? Having a clear mind that is not moving in any pre-determined direction with a text creates an ideal chalkboard for God to write upon.
  • Am I eager to receive truth and insight from the passage that I am reading? We must be active readers of the Word, not passive ones; spiritual growth is never by osmosis, or Osteen, I must say.

A walk this evening fitly illustrated all of this for me. I took Lucy, our Australian Shepherd pup, for a walk on our farm. I took her around the pond and up the first hill for a little piece. She had never been this far. She was excited. Her nubby tail vibrated.  Instead of walking at a pace that I prefered, I allowed her to walk, run, zig-zag, sniff and explore. She seemed to smell each blade of grass, pause at every sound, and quiver with excitement as she went. That’s how I should read God’s Word, and how you should too. Treat it as if it’s brand new each time, expect to see new things, and to meet the Living God.  With our spiritual ears perked, eyes widened, and noses ready we should enter the Bible like an eager pup … determined and delighted to see new things. Then, truth won’t slip by.