Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Getting Off the Fence: Reclaiming Self-control

In an earlier post in an ongoing series "Getting Off the Fence” in which I am attempting to explain my change of mind regarding the possibility of committed monogamous same-sex relationships being a faithful option for Christians and therefore their blessability I identified three headings under which I would make my apologia. The first was Testimony. The second was a Commitment to the Pursuit of Holiness. This post falls under that second heading.

Self-Control in the New Testament and Beyond

When Paul was called before Felix, the governor of Judea, and his wife Drusilla, he spoke to them "about faith in Christ Jesus" and about "about justice and self-control and future judgment" (Acts 24:24-25). It is interesting that Paul mentions those three things as what follows from faith in Christ Jesus. While much could be said about the first and third, I want to look at the second, ‘self-control'.

I wonder how many American Christians would list self-control as one of the hallmarks of being a Christian. We who live in an affluent and self-indulgent society. We whose imaginations have been shaped by the bombardment of consumerist propaganda that suggests we should have whatever we want? Do we really believe that self-control is a basic mark of being a Christian? Or are we just as self-indulgent as our neighbors? Are we notably more moderate in our consumption of food and drink? In our pursuit of and accumulation of wealth? Our gratification of every sexual desire? And what  about indulging our more deadly spiritual passions? I wonder if Jesus might just as accurately say of us what he said of the scribes and Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25)

Self-control is a recurrent theme in the New Testament. It is rooted in Jesus’ declaration that self-denial is a basic requirement for being among his followers (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). It is listed as one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and one of the two things, love being the other, that God has given us instead of a spirit of timidity (2 Timothy 1:7). It is listed as one of the criteria for being a bishop (Titus 1:8).

And the early church continued to recognize the centrality of self-control to the Christian way. Here are a couple of representatives:
No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, 'citizens of heaven’ (cf. Phil. 3:20).
– John Cassion (ca. 360 – 435), On the Eight Vices

Stillness, prayer, love and self -control are a four-horsed chariot bearing the intellect to heaven.
– St Thalassios the Libyan (7th century), On Love, Self-control and Life in Accordance with the Intellect, First Century

Passions and Pleasures

Why is self-control so central to Christian faithfulness? Partly because the lack of it and excess in general were suspect in the cultural context of the New Testament. Self-control is emphasized because it gets at the root sin of selfishness. Out of that root grow ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19) making us ‘slaves to various passions and pleasures’ (Titus3:3). Warnings against ‘passions’ show up frequently in the New Testament (cf. Romans 1:26, Romans 6:12, Romans 7:5, 1 Corinthians 7:36, Galatians 5:24, Ephesians 2:3, 2 Timothy 2:22, Titus 2:12, Titus 3:3, James 4:1, James 4:3, 1 Peter 1:14, 1 Peter 2:11, 1 Peter 4:2, 1 Peter 4:3, 2 Peter 2:18, 2 Peter 3:3, Jude 1:16, Jude 1:18).
Here it gets tricky. Ask anyone what ‘various passions and pleasures’ might refer to and the answer will almost certainly be that it refers to sex. While self-control in sexual behavior is a concern and ‘passion’ in the New Testament sometimes refers to sexual passion, the ‘works of the flesh’ and ‘passions’ are about much more than that.
'Passion' was in fact a term used broadly in pagan philosophical morality as well as early Christian teaching that refers to interior spiritual agitations that lead to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to our nature and lead us away from God’s good pleasure. As such, passions refer to all sinful desires that draw us away from love of God and love of neighbor.
Let me emphasize this again: Unnatural, sinful passions and desires are not only – or even primarily – about sex (see Indulging Unnatural Passions). Besides uncontrolled sexual passion, i.e., Lust, the passions refer to the other six of what became known as the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Malice, and Pride. According to Titus 3:3, Being ‘slaves to various passions and pleasures’ means ‘passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another.’ And when Paul lists the works of the flesh that are opposed to the Spirit, along with out of control sexual behavior like ‘fornication, impurity, and licentiousness’, he also lists ‘idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.’ (Galatians 5:19-21).
Reclaiming Self-Control
I am convinced that self-control is a neglected fruit of the spirit that needs cultivating in the contemporary church. It’s lack is at the heart of much of the church's spiritual shallowness. We would do well to reclaim the discipline of self-control. That means self-control of physical appetites:
In our sexual attitudes and behavior. Chastity and modesty are classic Christian virtues of sexual self-control that we would do well to reclaim. That means rethinking some of our entertainment as well as our behavior. Even if we are persuaded that the blessings and disciplines of marriage can be faithfully extended to marriage-like same-sex unions, we should resist capitulating to our society’s abandoning of self-control in this area.

In our consumption of food and drink. The classic virtue of moderation suggests that we can exercise self-control and learn to eat no more than we need to maintain our health. And that fasting is a discipline that we should incorporate into our lives beyond Lent.

Our accumulation of stuff: The classic virtue of simplicity is about exercising the self-control to be content with enough rather than constantly accumulating more and perpetually pursuing the newest and latest whatever.

Our addiction to busyness and distraction. Observing Sabbath requires the self-control to stop striving and to rest in the assurance that God is indeed in control.
But, more importantly, we need to reclaim self-control of spiritual passions:

I suspect that the classic disciplines of self-control are just the foundation of the more significant and more difficult self-control of the self-denying, self-offering love that Jesus calls us to. The wisdom seems to be that if we can exercise self-control at this most basic physical realm of the stomach and other bodily desire, we might also be able to exercise self-control in the spiritual realm of the heart where the more insidious sins of anger, malice, enmity, envy, impatience, vain-glory, etc, lurk. As Jesus said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).

We live in an affluent, indulgent society. But, Christians ought not to be indulging our every passion and desire. We have been given a spirit of self-control. Let’s not be timid. Let’s commit ourselves to the discipline of bodily self-control rather than indulging our desires and pampering ourselves. And let us commit ourselves to the more difficult self-control when it comes to those more insidious passions of the heart rather than indulging our impatience, anger, malice, envy, enmity, resentment, jealousy, judgmentalism, pride, factionalism, quarrels, etc. That is what Christian holiness looks like.
But, being self-indulgent, they do not realize how their soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.
– St Neilos The Ascetic (died c. 430), Ascetic Discourse
Knowledge of what is good for him has been given to everyone by God; but self-indulgence leads to negligence, and negligence to forgetfulness.
– St. Mark the Ascetic (5th century),
On the Spiritual Law
Always keep the same measure of self-control; otherwise through irregularity you will go from one extreme to another.” St. Thalassios the Libyan

An addendum: Our Sinful Passions at Work in Our Members


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