It happened at a Youth Group activity; a bonfire event. I brought along my Bocce Ball set. That is a kind of “lawn bowling” game where you mark out an area, toss a small target ball and take turns rolling the larger balls to try to get the closest (with 2, 4, 6, or 8 players). Scores are tallied, added up and after a number of turns someone wins.
We tried it out, played a game, and then … One of the young people challenged me. He said, “I have muscle memory that comes from playing basketball, so I think I am going to beat you.” He did. Badly!
We admire the muscle control that our athletes show, watching their achievements and the self-control of amazingly precise movements and achievements. In fact, just this spring there was a 10 part special about Michael Jordan. I remember being amazed by the things he could do as he flew through the air, changing his shot several times as he went, avoiding one, and then another defender. It was astonishing self-control.
But there are other areas; different parts of life where it is equally important to have self-control. In those areas it is over our emotions, thoughts, impulses, desires, and beliefs. This is how we were made. We were created in the image of God, with a rational soul. That means we are not to be guided, like the animals, by instinct and impulses. We are called to rule over our impulses, just as God counseled Cain, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7) Cain lost control and was controlled by his sinful urges.
There are numerous urges, feelings, emotions, imaginings and more that rise up from inside, swirling around and mixing within us. It can be a confusing turmoil inside – and haven’t we all been there. Feeling our way through, figuring out for ourselves what is right and wrong can end us up being in an absolute mess. Jeremiah was right. The heart can be “deceitful above all things … who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) We need guideposts and landmarks.
The guideposts begin with God and what He has done. That is why the 10 Commandments begin, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus began by pronouncing a set of blessings that He brings (Matthew 5:3-11)and then declared that He had come to fulfill the law. (Matthew 5:17) You see, God always begins with what He has done. With the Israelites He reminded them of how He set them free through the blood of the lamb; and with us how He has set us free through the blood of the True Lamb. When you read through the letters of Paul and others in the New Testament, it is fascinating just how much of the letters are simply telling about Jesus.
"Self-Control" is a good ending, the last in the list of the “fruit of the Spirit.” Endings are important. Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) So He tells us to look back over everything He preached in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7.
"Self-Control" looks back over the rest of the list, and encourages us to seek the things of God as disciples of Jesus. It is very different from a list of don’ts. The fruit of the Spirit is what the Holy Spirit is working in us, forming within us, and guiding us into. We want these things to fill our life.
In one of his last letters Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
This is also how Martin Luther ended each of his explanations of the commandments. What are those things of God that the Holy Spirit is calling us into.
Lord Jesus, fill me with Your Spirit and with Your Word, that I may desire the things of God, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. You have paid the price to bring me into Your love, Your joy, and Your peace. Lead me as Your disciple that in learning of You I may grow in the all of the fruit of the Spirit. Guide me that I may pursue the things of God, and in learning them may learn of You, until that day when I see You face to face and celebrate all that You will have done in my soul. Amen.
Rev. Mark Willig
Pastor Willig is pastor emeritus of Friends in Christ Lutheran Church.