reason for living

Self control, self discipline and self denial

An unpopular topic, presented mainly for Christians

Jesus said: If any one wants to be my disciple he must deny himself, take-up his cross and follow me.

This topic is closely linked to others that are of interest to the Christian: sin, obedience, and knowing God's will.  Self control is part of the means by which we know God's will, are obedient to God in the knowledge of his will and thereby avoid sin.  Sin is, after all, nothing more complicated than living out of harmony with the will of God.  We can only disobey what we believe we have been commanded.  We are commanded by God's holy word, by his Holy Spirit and by our own consciences.  These topics are therefore inextricably linked.

I have said that self control is a means of knowing God's will.  This might seem strange since self control is more obviously a means of obeying God's will.  Both, however, are linked since if we disobey God, his face will be turned from us and we will no longer hear his voice; how, then, will we know his will?

The time to obey God is now.  We live only in the present - the past has gone, the future might never arrive.  The only time we have to do God's work is the time that is passing at this moment.  We must be careful that we do not think of the past only in terms of everything that is more than half a day old and the future only as the time beginning tomorrow morning.  The past and the future both start now; it is here, at this instant in time that we call the present, that they meet.  Now if the past and the present meet, yet extend to eternity in opposite directions, what of the present?  If the present is anything, it is something so very near to nothing that we can refer to it as such without missing out on much.  The point of this discussion is not however to debate the philosophical or physical dimensions of the present but rather to emphasis how very precious, how very important, and how very dynamic the present is.  Although the present is so small that it seems like nothing, it is also everything - it is the only moment in which we live; and this is the point that I want to emphasise.

Now if the present is the only moment in which we live then it is the only time in which we can do anything.  Consequently it is now that we are either moving towards God or moving away from him.  I cannot obey or disobey God in the past because I am not in the past, nor can I obey or disobey him in the future, because I am not in the future either.  Self control is only relevant to the present moment.

Sometimes it will happen that the situation in which we find ourselves is one from which we are likely to be tempted to sin; what is the right thing to do at such a time?  The sin has not yet happened, so we have not yet sinned.  We might decide that we will allow the situation to continue, telling ourselves that when the temptation comes, we will resist, we will exercise our self control at that moment.  What however is our conscience telling us?  What is God's Holy Spirit saying?  When we decide to “handle” the situation we have probably failed to understand the nature of sin, and failed to realise the limits of our inate abilities.  The sin occurs at the moment we disobey God.  Our conscience and the Holy Spirit are God's traffic signals and traffic policeman.  When they tell us to stop or to back out, that is the command that we have to obey.  If we continue down the road we are on we should not be surprised to discover that the sin we so earnestly intended to avoid does in fact occur.  If we continue forward when we should have stopped and reversed then we will find ourselves in a position where there are no longer any decisions to make.

This can be compared to a man driving a car along a coastal road.  The signs say subsidence ahead - danger, the traffic policeman signals us to go back and find another route, we however keep going on down the road.  We want to see the danger, we think that we will be able to drive around the obstacle, we think we can remain in control.  Alas, as we turn a corner, even while our mind is still anticipating the manoeuvres that will be necessary, the road is gone.  The last few remaining feet of solidity are covered with the water and mud that attend subsidence and offer no traction for the locked wheels.  Then the road is gone and we are in space - falling, falling, falling, falling ...  There was a moment in which we thought we would decide, the moment in which we thought we would apply the brakes of self control and stop safely.  Alas, that moment never came.  Our conscience flagged the danger while it was still possible to stop.  The Holy Spirit directed us to turn back while it was still possible to manoeuvre on the road.  It was then that our self control was needed; it was then that we needed to be able to recognise the limitations of our knowledge and the swell of our ego.  It was then that we should have respected the wisdom and authority of those provided, in love, for our safety and protection.  We however thought we knew best, and even though we had travelled the road before and each time fallen in exactly the same way, we thought that this time we could do better.  What fools we are.

The command is given in the present.  The time to obey it is now.  There is nothing heroic about resisting temptation.  There are no extra points given when the temptation is greater.  Our duty is simply to obey.  If as a result of our disobedience we find ourselves facing greater temptations we have simply proven our stupidity, our sinfulness and our need for a saviour.  Our Lord and God, who loves us dearly, knows us well.  He knows our strengths and our weaknesses.  He also knows how big a particular obstacle is whereas we can only speculate.  If our God is telling us that we are incapable of traversing a particular obstacle then we should be thankful for the information and ask for guidance.  There is no shame in not seeking what we are incapable of achieving and no glory in attempting the impossible.

What then are the practical steps to self control?  Self control should be exercised when it is still possible.  We should walk away from situations that might result in sin.  If we are called fools or cowards then let it be so; anyone who has really tried to obey God knows that it takes more courage to obey God than to disobey him.  We should remain free to rejoice with the angels, the archangels and all the company of heaven for we will not have disappointed our Lord and God.  Our reputation before men is worth nothing — it is not to men that we will be called to account.  It is not our peers, compatriots and fellow sinners that will judge us.  We are called to keep short accounts with God.  The accounts we have with men are of no consequence in comparison.


Related articles that you might like to read:

Obedience, a Christian view
Do you feel that God just isn't listening to you?  Maybe you aren't listening to him either!
What does God want me to do?  Knowing the will of God.
Feeling lost and unsure what to do?  Well, by all means, ask God for direction, but take care not to overlook the obvious ...
Simple commands for Christians.
A handy guide to some of the things that God told us to do but we never quite get around to doing.
“Not far” from the Kingdom of God.
Many people think that they are pretty good and that God is really quite pleased with them.  This article shows that being “good”, or even “very good”, is just not good enough.  We need more than our own goodness to please God.
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