Since Tuesday, Ike and I have been staying in New Bern, NC where, later today, Ike will preside over the wedding of a close college friend. The bride’s family generously invited us to come early and stay at the house where the wedding will be held, so we have spent the last few days enjoying the gorgeous scenery and quality time with friends here. If you’ve never been to New Bern, it’s worth a trip–it’s a BEAUTIFUL place!
One of my favorite things about my time here has been the quiet mornings. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside while everyone else inside sleeps. I’m drinking a cup of coffee, watching the sun rise, and looking out on a giant, peaceful river. I wish I could stay here forever! It’s been just the thing I needed to have some great time with the Lord, and I’ve really been able to drink it in.
Ironically, one of the passages God has brought to my attention during these quiet mornings is a verse in Proverbs about self-control. I say “ironically” because the last few days have been about anything BUT self-control. If you’re from the South, you probably know what I’m talking about. Since Tuesday, we have eaten and eaten and EATEN! Two nights ago we had seafood, and every square inch of the fish, shrimp, scallops and oysters had been fried within an inch of its life. We have been so well fed for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with rich and tasty desserts following almost every meal. I feel like a turkey being fattened for Thanksgiving, and it has been delightful!
Granted, this week is a celebration so I don’t want to detract from the festivities with my guilt issues about food. Nevertheless, the combination of massive eating and my meditations on Proverbs 25:28 has been interesting. This particular verse explains,
Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.
I actually wrote on this passage a few years ago so I won’t reiterate those points here. The lesson that stood out to me most this time was the reminder that self-control is a fruit of the spirit.
For some reason, that truth was a convicting one to me. I have written a lot about self-control over the years, but I have tended to think of it more as a virtue than a work of God in the heart of a believer. While the former perspective views self-control as a general good, the latter perspective views self-control as essential.
When I fail to exercise self-control in what I eat, what I watch on t.v., what I look at on the internet, and what I talk about with my friends, that is a spiritual issue. I often fail to make this connection because the absence of self-control is not always linked to a sin. For instance, it’s not wrong for me to have an extra helping of dessert and it’s not a sin for me to log onto Facebook any number of times a day.
But therein lies the importance of self-control. It goes deeper than the overt face value of an action, and instead looks at the heart. Self-control asks: What is at the root of my inability to abstain from excess? What insecurity or passion is driving my actions, rather than surrender to God?
Those are the questions raised by the fruit of self-control. Self-control is ultimately the difference between surrendering to God or surrendering to the flesh. You are driven either by the Holy Spirit or by your passions.
One area where self-control does get tricky is the topic of food. While many Christians struggle to exercise self-control with their portions, eating disorders should not be understood as evidence of this spiritual fruit. Eating disorders are frequently a symptom of over-controlling, and in those instances the absence of self-control is manifested in the inability to stop controlling. Gripped by fear and the need to control, this individual cannot NOT control. In relation to food, it is difficult for these individuals to simply be, to simply trust God and enjoy His creation. In the same way that some people can’t resist food or gossip or pornography, some people can’t resist control.
Eating disorders also raise the important point that self-control exists within a larger context. This context consists of the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness (Gal. 5:22-23). Each one of these virtues is inextricably tied to one another, so the goal is not self-control for self-control’s sake. Self-control should help you to love yourself, God and others better. It should help maintain your peace and joy in Christ. It ensures that you are a person of gentleness, as opposed to one of reflexive anger and judgment.
This weekend I will certainly enjoy the good food of this wedding celebration, but I will try to do so as a choice and not a compulsion. At the heart of it all, that is what self-control is about: choice. It’s easy to go through each day without considering the weight of our actions and what they say about our faith. But each day is full of choices. We can surrender to God or surrender to the flesh. And while that prospect is intimidating, self-control is not rooted in the self at all. As Galatians teaches, it is a fruit of the Spirit that begins first with God. As I aim to practice this fruit more consistently, my beginning point has been and will continue to be prayer.