Humans have been dealing with a lack of self-control since the beginning of time! Just see Adam and Eve’s son Cain for an example. He was mad because God didn’t approve his offering but did approve his brother Abel’s. Anger escalated, and Cain killed Abel (see Genesis 4). And self-control went out the door.
Or we can look at Jacob and Esau (see Genesis 25). Esau was a skilled hunter. It seems Jacob stayed at home and was a cook. One day he was making some stew. Esau had been out hunting. When Esau came home he was famished and demanded a bowl of stew from Jacob. Jacob would only give Esau some stew if Esau gave Jacob his birthright. In other words, Brother, I’ll give you some lunch if you give me your legacy. Esau’s stomach growled louder than his self-control and the brothers made the deal.
Then there’s Peter. He was a disciple of Jesus, and he was hotheaded. When Jesus was being arrested (see Matthew 26), Peter reacted by using his sword to cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants. While we may admire his protective nature and aversion to defeat, Peter didn’t understand that Jesus’ arrest was part of the plan that would lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection and the offer of redemption to humankind. He tried to take control rather than submitting to self-control.
The inability of people to restrain themselves and to react appropriately in any given situation is growing exponentially in our society. With the ever-present “me-first attitude” and immediate gratification provided by today’s technology, too many people operate with the idea that “I want what I want when I want it, and I want it NOW.” These days we don’t even need to get out of the car when we make a trip to town. We get money from the drive-thru ATM; we pick up our prescriptions at drive-thru pharmacies; and we get lunch at the drive-thru of a restaurant. And if any of those stops takes more than two minutes, we get frustrated.
Self-control has been traded in for self-indulgence. What can we do about this? How can we overcome this character defect that threatens to ruin our peace of mind and our lives?
Let me share two more examples with you. In Matthew 4:1-11, after Jesus had fasted for 40 days and nights, Satan tempts Jesus with three offers that most of us would find hard to refuse – even if we weren’t hungry.
I don’t know about you, but I get irritable when I’m hungry. I get tired too. Because Jesus was fully human (while remaining fully God), I can’t help but think that just maybe, as Satan tempted Him, He, too, was not only hungry but also irritable and tired. For most of us this would equal a losing battle if temptation came calling under these circumstances. But not for Jesus. Look what He does.
First the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Who among us wouldn’t do that? He’s hungry. He hasn’t eaten in forty days. But Jesus quotes Scripture back at Satan and says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For Jesus it was more important for His soul, rather than His belly, to be satisfied.
Next the devil tempts Jesus to throw Himself off the highest point of the temple to see if God would protect Him. Again, Jesus uses the Bible to refute the devil. Deuteronomy 6:16 says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally the devil tempts Jesus by showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promising to give them all to Him if He would bow down and worship him. This time Jesus has had enough. He says, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Again, Jesus uses Scripture (Deuteronomy 6:13) and overcomes the devil’s best efforts. Satan offered Jesus food, protection and power. Jesus did not give in to the devil’s schemes. He overcame Satan by the power of the Word of God.
Now, if you’re like me, maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “OK, that’s all well and good, but that’s Jesus. I’m merely a human being. How can I overcome the urge to satisfy myself and control myself instead?”
Glad you asked! There’s a man named Daniel in the Old Testament. He was exiled in a foreign country but impressed the king to the point where the king intended to make Daniel head over the whole kingdom. The men under Daniel didn’t like this idea at all and decided to try to find a reason to bring charges against Daniel. They could find no reason for charges because Daniel was trustworthy and not corrupt. He was also a godly man. So those men decided to use his godliness against him.
They manipulated the king to issue an edict that required everyone to only worship the king. Daniel was a devout man of God, and rather than obeying the decree, He continued to worship God Almighty. One way he did this was by kneeling in prayer three times a day. As a result, he was thrown into a lions’ den. His enemies could taste victory, but God intervened and rescued Daniel from the lions. He was not hurt by the lions and praised God for saving him. Daniel was a human – like you and me. Yet he made God his top priority and was able to not give in to the world around him.
Jesus exercised self-control by knowing and quoting Scripture. Daniel exercised self-control by praying. The next time you’re tempted to lose your self-restraint, I suggest you do the same: read your Bible and pray. That may sound too simple, but if it worked for Jesus and Daniel, I have a feeling it will work for us too!
Rev. Joni Manson is Pastor at Sabina United Methodist Church.