“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” Proverbs 25:28, NIV.
Originally this statement from Proverbs was a startling and shocking statement. Today it has lost its effect because cities no longer have walls. But until the 15th & 16th centuries they were common. Walls were necessary for security, for defense against an invading army, against thieves, against wild animals. A city without walls was unthinkable. It was an inevitable disaster, an accident waiting to happen. Nehemiah (1:3) wept and fasted at the thought of Jerusalem without walls. The author of Proverbs considered such a city to be less than a city! So too, a man without self-control is less than a person because of the danger he is in!
Why is it necessary to have a wall of self-control? Because of what’s in your heart: sin. The seed of every known sin is in your heart. Without self-control they will blossom into destructive effects. Think of it like an acorn. At the start it is so small. Only when it grows is its potential truly seen. There is enough power in one acorn to completely cover the entire earth with a sea of woods. Yet, if an acorn drops all by itself in a parking lot, it will shrivel and die. Why? Because it needs the proper conditions to reach its potential. Our hearts are seed beds for every known sin such as murder (anger) or adultery (lust). All the conditions are in there. So you need a wall of self-control or else you are an accident waiting to happen, an inevitable disaster. That is the danger of an uncontrolled self.
The Levels of An Uncontrolled Self
We see them examined in Galatians 5:16–22: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want....The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
The first level we see is that of overt and addictive behavior, the kind of stuff you would find in the National Enquirer (orgies, drunkenness, idolatry). The second level is the root of such overt behavior where the whole person (mind, will, emotions) is inclined to make itself god, i.e. to live for your own glory, pleasure, and to determine for yourself what is right and wrong. This is the essence of sin. Look again at the list in Galatians - hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, envy, pride. These are things controlled by your Self. They express a desire to be god rather than to be under God. They are the lusts of the flesh. They are experienced by every one, not just National Enquirerer front page personalities!
Think of some examples with me. What about gossip? It puts you above the person you are talking about. That is selfish-ambition and pride. What about casual conversation? Often we steer it into places where we are comfortable or we are the focus. That is just self-centeredness. What makes you angry? When God doesn’t do things the way you think they should be done, when you don’t get your way? These are all lusts of the flesh. You have a problem with self-control.
Still think you don’t have a problem with self-control? Listen to what Scripture requires of you - Don’t be anxious about anything, pray without ceasing, put your mind on what is excellent, never please yourself. What are your motivations? Jesus says we will be judged for every idle word. Look at those words. Can you really say you do not have a problem with self-control? They are all at the root level of sin.
If you are ever to make progress in your war against sin; if you are ever to deal effectively with it; or grow in grace, you need to deal with sin at the root level, you need the fruit of self-control.
Please note that this is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is not willpower. Willpower is a counterfeit. It is the exertion of your Self in your own strength not in dependence upon the strength of the Spirit of God. Self-control comes from outside yourself not from within yourself.
What Are The Methods of Self-control
In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 we see the apostolic method:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul says do not get distracted but control your body. Make it your slave so that it is fixed on the goal. Self-control is discerning a goal and picking that over other urges. Paul uses the illustration of a runner. The runner runs for a goal, yet potentially he is distracted by many other messages (“I need a rest...”). It is the same with sin. The goal is Christ-likeness. Yet there are many distractions to deter us from that goal. Paul says that we are to ‘beat the body, make it a slave, devote all to attaining the goal.’
What are you in Christ? You are a child of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, you have been raised with Christ, accepted by God in Christ . Remind yourself of this. The Puritan Richard Baxter said “sin is an infection of the imagination.”
When you remind yourself of what you are in Christ then sin becomes unimaginable! How could you entertain sinful thoughts, desires, attitudes, and those root level sins? How dare you bring those things into God’s sight! If a friend you loved and honored came to your home would you let pigs in and let them eat with you? Of course not. Then why would you let sin into imagination, into God’s sight? You need to discipline your mind to get self-control.
Take your sin to the cross, not Sinai.
Deal with sin by grace not by guilt.
D. Martyn Lloyd Jones used to say “Don’t heal yourself too fast when you sin, don’t be so quick to ‘claim’ I John 1:9. Instead see and consider how sin offends Christ, how it throws His blood back in His face, how the Holy Spirit is grieved by your sin. Think about it - the Holy Spirit lives in you. You wouldn’t want people to see or hear what your thoughts are but you subject the Holy Spirit to them all the time!
Take that sin to the foot of the Cross of Christ; sing the words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and then, after spending some time there, read I John 1:9. Then you begin to see sin as foul, filthy, and loathsome. Then it loses its attractive power.
We need to exercise both aspiration and mortification not just one or the other. Mortification without aspiration equals legalism (do’s & don’ts), it is superficial. But aspiration without mortification is simply positive thinking , it does not loosen sin at the root level. We need to do both. Then we will be like a city with walls made strong by the Spirit of the risen and reigning Christ.
Rev. Paul T. Murphy is the pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church in Dutton, Michigan.