Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Gift of Self-Control

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
This past week, I went for a checkup with my cardiologist. After the assistant had done her thing and the doc had looked over my files, he walked into the examination room and said, “Everything looks good.” Then, with a smile, he asked, “What’s with the weight?” I had gained six more pounds since our last visit, putting me about 27 pounds above my ideal weight. The culprit? I love bread.

So, I’m asking God to help me exercise self-control in order to more faithfully treat this body, which the Bible reminds me is not my own, but something that, with His death on the cross, Jesus bought back from sin, death, and the devil. And it’s this body that, if I endure in my faith in Jesus Christ, will rise again from the dead when Jesus returns on what the Bible calls “the Day of the Lord.” The Bible also teaches that every Christian’s body is: “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” To take care of this body, I need self-control.

We live in a world that, in many ways, discourages self-control.

Lady Gaga sings, “I was born that way,” encouraging people to commit whatever sins they think consistent with their inborn natures.

TV commercials and shopping channels prompt us to waste money on products—from mouthwash to financial planning services—for which often false promises are made.

Married men and women engage in what they think of as harmless trysts, while other people mouth smutty talk, giving no thought to how, as they do these things, they debase the gift of sexual intimacy God has given to them.

Pornography, it’s estimated, is a $10 to $15-billion industry, in which devotees are encouraged to idolize sex (or, as the Bible puts it, to worship the creation instead of the Creator) and end up viewing other people as objects to be used for their own pleasure, rather than as fellow human beings made in the image of God.

Obesity is becoming a pandemic: About one-third of all adults in the United States—33.8%--are obese.

All of these instances (and countless more) and the heartaches and the wedges they drive between God and us, between others and us, and between us and the people God made us to be, exemplify human sin and a death-dealing lack of self-control.

The Bible has a lot to say about self-control. And for good reason.

We’ll see why self-control is so important and how we can have it in a moment.

But let's first establish that God Himself wants us to exercise self-control in how we live.

Please look at Genesis 4:6. These are words spoken by God to Cain, one of Adam’s and Eve’s sons, after his offering of leftovers to God looked bad compared with his brother Abel’s grateful offering of the firstlings from his flocks: “So the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”

It was a lack of self-control that caused Cain to not give God first place his life, to resent his brother for Abel’s grateful faith in God, and to despair of the importance of his own life…in other words, to sin. God is telling Cain to exercise self-control, to master his sinful impulses.

Our second lesson for today was written to the church the apostle Paul founded in the Greek city of Corinth. The letter was written in about 54AD. Look at what Paul says in our short second lesson. His words are worth reading and hearing again:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Paul, of course, is using an analogy or a metaphor, both comparing and contrasting the life of a follower of Jesus Christ with the life of an athlete.

An athlete exercises self-discipline: She trains; he practices; they exercise and watch what foods they eat.

In Paul’s day, athletes who won their contests—a race or a wrestling match, for example—didn’t receive money, gold medals, commercial endorsements, or trips to Disney World. They received wreaths, made of laurel leaves, placed on their heads. Wreaths are perishable and they were dead shortly after given as awards.

Paul says that he and all Christians live our lives—we run—for a prize that is imperishable, one that will never wither or die. The prize is the gift of a relationship with God, here and eternity.

It’s a gift for which we don’t compete. All who believe and are baptized are already gold medal winners. We are saved by God’s charity (His grace) through our faith in Christ.

We cannot earn—or achieve—our way to a saving relationship with Christ. Jesus died on a cross, absorbing all the poison of our sin and selfishness, paying the debt to God we owe for our sin, then rising from the dead, so that all who repent for their sin and give their lives to Christ, are saved from sin, death, and futility as a free gift.

It is possible for us to kick away the life that Christ offers to us freely, though.

We kick Christ and life with God away when we lose our self-control and let the world, the devil, and our sinful selves call the shots in our lives.

But as anyone who has ever tried to take off a few pounds can testify, self-control, the mastery of self, the punishment of self in order to bring it into submission to the loving will of God, is not easy.

The good news is that we can have self-control.

Let me show you where the power for self-control can be found. Turn to Galatians 5, starting at verse 18, in the Bible.

There, Paul says that if we are led by the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus Christ to all who believe in Him, we aren’t condemned by the law. The power of sin to keep us from living with God has been destroyed.

Then, beginning with verse 19, Paul describes “the works of the flesh”: the things we do when we rely on ourselves instead of on God. It’s not a happy list! Look at it:
“adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies [that’s advocating or actively living doctrine contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible], envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.”
Paul says that people who make a practice of these things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” They push Jesus and salvation out of their lives.

But look at verses 22 and 23 to see what the Spirit produces in us when we daily and continuously give ourselves to Christ and ask for God’s guidance and help:, joy, peace, longsuffering [that’s patience in the face of difficulties and opposition to us for our faith in and witness for Christ], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control
In other words, as we consciously submit our every moment and our every decision to God’s evaluation, correction, and wisdom, we will be given the power to exercise self-control. We’ll experience the peace of God that passes all human understanding.

Every time we make decisions, we evidence either the self-control that comes from God or the lack of self-control that comes from sin.

Here’s a (far from perfect) eight-point checklist you might want to use when you’re confronting any decision in your life. These might help you to invite God's Holy Spirit into the process to give you Godly self-control:
  • If the decision will take you down the easy path, you probably shouldn’t take it. Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14, “…the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction…the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life...” 
  • If what you're considering doing is what you want to do, you probably shouldn’t do it. Proverbs 14:12 and other Bible passages tell us: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” The key is not to rely on your own thinking or common sense, but on the wisdom God freely gives to those who ask for it
  • If your prospective decision appeals to your ego, watch out. 1 Corinthians 10:31 teaches: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Ask yourself, “Will this decision glorify God?”
  • If your feelings are leading you to a decision, you may want to avoid it. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God reveals that: “The heart is devious above all else…”  Unless we, in the words of Psalm 51, are praying regularly and submissively for “a clean heart…and…a new and right spirit within…,” it’s almost always wrong to base our decisions on what we feel. 
  • If a trusted Christian friend warns you against a prospective decision, reconsider it. Proverbs 24:6 tells us that “in abundance of counselors, there is victory.” 
  • If you haven’t sought the counsel of at least one Christian friend, you may be about to make a bad decision. Jesus told Nicodemus that a sinful world refused to come to Him, the light of the world; instead, they huddled in darkness because they didn’t want their evil to be exposed. If we're not willing to share the decision we're contemplating with at least one other follower of Jesus Christ, we need to ask ourselves what we're hiding and why.
  • Is this decision designed to please others, not God. Paul says bluntly in Galatians 1:10: “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” As followers of Jesus Christ, our decisions should not be driven by the opinions of others, even if the opinion in question is that of just one other person.
  • Finally, never make a decision if you haven’t been regularly reading God’s Word and praying. Jesus says that wise people build their lives on Him alone. And the Psalm tells us that God’s Word is a light to our path and a lamp to our feet. When we make decisions without regularly reading God's Word and regularly talking things over with God, we are flailing in the dark.
Self-control is the fruit of a life lived in total surrender to the God Who has done everything needed for us to have a life with Him that never ends. As we submit our lives to Jesus Christ and invite Him to be the final authority over us, our lives are transformed.

In following Jesus, we may not always earn the world’s applause or make bigger pay checks, but we will be able to face our Lord at the ends of our lives and say with Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

And we will hear Jesus say, “Well done… Enter into the joy of your Master.” Amen

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