I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought of self-control as a matter of do or don’t. We shouldn’t do this or that because it is wrong, so we need to exercise self-control in the face of temptation. So if you do this and don’t do that, all the way Jesus asks you to, then you’ve got self-control. End of story.
Well I stumbled onto a verse the other day that has challenged me to think of self-control in a whole new light. It comes from Proverbs 25:28 and it reads as follows:
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (ESV)
At first I thought this was a surprising comparison. A city without walls? According to this analogy, self-control is about more than acting rightly. It is actually a mode of self-protection. Like a city without walls that is left vulnerable to any kind of attack, a lack of self-control leaves us vulnerable to the temptations and pitfalls of this world. Without it, we are sitting ducks waiting to be clobbered.
But what I found even more telling was the following portion of the verse: “a city broken into and left without walls.” This verse points to an exact moment at which the walls came down. There was an initial invasion, an original penetration of the walls, and because of that invasion the entire city was left open to attack.
As soon as I read this, I knew exactly what it was referring to: gateway sin. I am stealing this term from the frequently used “gateway drug,” a term refering to minor drugs which lead users into more serious habits of addiction. A person starts out using pot, thinking it’s no big deal, but eventually moves on to harder substances as the desire for a bigger high gets stronger.
It is the same with sin. We start out with a small sin, thinking it’s no big deal, but it leads us to into more serious habits of sin. This kind of struggle can range anywhere from lust, to gambling, to pride–as soon as you indulge your temptation, it’s much easier to do it again.
And that is why this verse is such a perfect description of self-control. As long as you haven’t indulged a sin and you haven’t tasted its sweetness, it’s much easier to stave off attacks. You have built up momentum that you need only maintain, so the walls more readily stand firm. But once you give into it, the walls come crumbling down.
Why? The first reason is that you feel less guilty recommitting the sin since you’ve already done it before. For instance, you may have been saving yourself for marriage, so you held off having sex for years. But then one day you mess up and sleep with someone. Now you’re not a virgin anymore, so all that waiting and holding off feels like it doesn’t matter. The gift is gone, so abstinence no longer seems urgent, or even important.
But the second reason that your proverbial walls fall down following that initial sin is that you now yearn to experience that pleasure again. As bitter as its consequences may be, sin is usually very sweet at the time–hence the reason that people keep doing it. So in the same way that I will not crave a dessert I’ve never tasted, it’s easy to resist a sin we’ve never experienced. But once I have a bite of that molten chocolate lava cake, it’s very difficult to resist having another. Very difficult indeed.
In this way, the initial breach of your “wall” is the most crucial point to guard against. Once you allow the behavior into your life, it’s exponentially more difficult to keep it out. After all, it’s much easier to maintain a wall than to completely rebuild one.
So don’t believe the lie that a small sin is no big deal. It may actually be a gateway sin that tears down your walls and leaves you vulnerable to even greater temptations. If, however, you’ve already allowed that initial breach in security to take place, there is still hope. With God’s help you can rebuild that wall, but it requires discipline. You must see sin for what it really is–no matter the size, it is all spiritually fatal. That is why a recovering alcoholic cannot even risk taking a sip. Even the smallest amount is enough to consume us.