Next week we will complete our series of message on the Fruits of the Spirit. Today’s is the last in the list – self-control – but we’ll do the first one in the list – love – for the final message.
Sometimes we use the expression saving the best for last. In this case, I think Paul placed the toughest one in the last at the end. Self-control is tough.
Back in the late 60s and early 70s there was a series of studies sponsored by Stanford University. Called the Marshmallow Test, it took groups of children and offered them a choice – a marshmallow, or a cookie immediately – or a bigger reward if they could wait for fifteen minutes or more. Out of hundreds of children in the tests, less than a third were able to exercise self-control to get the reward.
Interestingly, in the follow-up tests done in later years the researchers found that the group able to exercise self-control did better in life. They had better grades, better test scores, and did better in life in general.
Businesses understand our struggle with self-control. They tempt us with impulse buys, the items as you come in a store or at the checkout line. If you have a young child, you know the frustration of standing in the checkout line while your child is tugging at you to buy all those impulse items. Why don’t they have spinach or broccoli in the checkout line? I listened to a radio program recently about the psychology that goes into the layout of a grocery store. What are the two most common items people travel to the grocery to purchase? Bread and milk. And why does everyone run to the grocery to purchase bread and milk when a big snow is coming? I go to get ice cream, Milky Ways, and Pop-Tarts. If I’m going to be snowed in, I’m not going to survive on bread and milk! Where do you find the milk in a grocery store? All the way in the back, so you have to walk by other items in the hopes that you will get more than just the milk. Where do you find the bread? Close to the back, in the bakery, where you walk by tables of cookies, cakes, and other tempting items. The layout a grocery store is designed to take advantage of our lack of self-control.
There are many ways we can go with self-control, but this morning we’ll look out just a few. The first one comes from our second Scripture reading, from the book of James. It is one of the most difficult types of self-control –
1. Self-control in what we say.
Who hasn’t regretted something you said? Regret over what we say is probably one of the top regrets in all of our lives.
When I was in college I was very put out with one of my professors. I wasn’t happy about a test and I decided it was his fault that I did poorly, even though I had taken very few notes and had done very little studying. I was really carrying on to my roommate about his shortcomings as a professor and guess what happened? He was within earshot and heard everything I said. Every single word. As I paused in my rant he walked right past me, but didn’t say a word. The regret of that moment is still with me all these years; I’ve never forgotten it, and I imagine my professor always remembered it as well.
That moment reminds me of something I once heard about our taking back our words. It’s comparable to taking a feather pillow and shaking the feathers into the wind and then trying to gather up all the feathers to put them back in the pillowcase. There is no way to take back words once they are spoken.
James, in his encouragement to exercise self-control over the words we speak really uses strong language. He compares our lack of control over what we say to the bit that goes into the mouth of a horse to give it direction, or the rudder on a ship, or the small spark that can cause a great forest fire; small items all, but very powerful. Everything, James says, has been tamed by mankind, except for our words.
Sometimes we say, if it comes across our mind it comes out our mouth. Self-control would let the words linger in our mind a bit longer to consider whether they really need to be spoken, and would save a lot of heartache.
2. Self-control in our actions.
We live in a strange culture, as it consistently encourages in directions that are not healthy for us. We live in a culture that does not encourage self-control. Why save money now when you can go and buy what you want now? That’s why we have credit cards, right? Why wait? Spend that money now. If you’re a student, why study now instead of going out to have a good time? Why worry about what you eat? Get the box of donuts now and forget about taking care of yourself – you can do that later. Why worry about any of those things? In our society the idea of self-restraint and self-control are often viewed as tragically puritanical, as something to avoid at all costs.
So why worry? Why not cast self-control to the wind and live for the moment? Because we can’t forget about the bigger picture of life. Life is about more than this particular moment, and if we fail to understand how this moment affects other moments, we will fail to understand how we allow our future to be shaped and dominated by impulsive actions. The alternative to self-control is the pain and wreckage of bad decisions brought about by impulsiveness.
The gospels are a continual encouragement to remember that life is about more than just the present moment. The message of the gospel reminds us to take a long view of life and to think about the consequences of our actions. Many of us are still sorting out the consequences of actions and decisions from many years ago.
3. Self-control in our emotions.
I want to talk about self-control in relation to one emotion in particular – anger. Years ago I had a really bad temper. It didn’t take much to really wind me up. I can still remember the day, many years ago, after losing my cool and yelling at a friend of mine, and realizing I needed to get a grip on my emotions. I’m not advocating that you become like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, and be totally devoid of emotions, but we can’t allow our lives to be dictated by our emotions, especially the emotion of anger.
In Ephesians 4:26 Paul writes in your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Remember that anger is an emotion and is common to all of us, but of all our emotions anger is the most dangerous. Anger is the emotion that causes us to say things we will regret and it is the emotion that causes us to engage in actions we will regret.
It is difficult also because it is the emotion that can really fracture relationships.
Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was angered by an army officer who accused him of favoritism. Stanton complained to Lincoln, who suggested that Stanton write the officer a very tough letter. Stanton did, and showed the strongly worded letter to the president. What are you going to do with it? Lincoln asked. Surprised, Stanton replied, Send it. Lincoln shook his head. You don't want to send that letter," he said. Put it in the stove. That's what I do when I have written a letter while I am angry. It's a good letter and you had a good time writing it and feel better. Now burn it, and write another.
(Today in the Word, February, 1991, p. 9.)
It’s better to burn a letter than a bridge, isn’t it?
Self-control is tough, and perhaps that’s why Paul placed it last in his list of fruits of the Spirit. It serves as a reminder that these qualities are God-given, and it is through the power of His Spirit that they take root and grow in our lives.