Proverbs 29:1-18, Hebrews 12:1-19
October 25, 2009
“Self-Control.” That’s the last of the Spiritual Fruits in this list. That doesn’t sound all that spiritual, does it? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness… yes. Those are “spiritual sounding things.” But Self-Control? Is that even on the same plane with all the rest? It’s almost like Paul was on a roll and he got to “gentleness” and he was racking his brain trying to come up with another one. “Ok what’s next, what’s next? How about… Self-control.” “There, that’s it!” “How do you say that in Greek?” (“Egkrateia”) Doesn’t that seem just a little out of place? It sounds like something your mother would tell you to have.
Maybe Paul was going for ten. If you remember, I suggested that at the very beginning. Paul was contrasting these Fruits of the Spirit with their old “guide for living,” which was the Ten Commandments – the “Law.” And I suggested then that the last statement in the list, which reads, “against such things there is no law” might possibly be thought of as “things against which there is no law.” If it were read that way, that would make ten. And remember, numbers were very important to those people. Numbers like 10, 12, 7, 3 all had special significance. So there is something to this!
Well just so you know, I am going to end this series here. Next week is Stewardship Dedication Sunday, and after that we begin looking towards the new “Church Year.” But maybe I’m not doing that last part because I have just a bit of trepidation that some of my minister colleagues might read this and think I’ve gone a bit wacko – changing Bible interpretation and all! (Not that that ever stopped me before!!) But at any rate, this is it. This is the last one on “the list.” The fruit of the spirit is “self-control.”
Actually, the more I’ve though about it, the more this word does make sense in this list. (Even though it may have sounded a bit odd at first.) The Greek word here is “egkrateia.” And that was a word that had to do with “self-discipline.” Or it could also be translated “restraint,” as in restraint in our behavior and actions. And that was an important thing to Paul. As a Pharisee, that was his life. The Pharisees took personal spiritual discipline and restraint to the highest level. Now, as a leader in the early Church, even as he left the past behind him, Paul still saw value in the personal restraint and discipline he learned as a Pharisee.
Well, I think this business of self-control is an important thing in any age. If your mother told you to practice self-control, she would have been like a lot of mothers throughout history! Once our children become independent people, we hope they practice that personal discipline we tried to give them! We hope they show wisdom and restraint in their lives and actions. We hope they have this self-control. And we all know what happens to young people who are sent out into the world, who are “on their own” for the first time, and who fail to practice that self-control! I’m sure we can all think of examples of people who have gone down some bad roads in their lives because they lacked this “fruit.”
So this is way more important than we might have thought at first. And I hope you’ll remember that there are many places in scripture where God is portrayed as a “father who disciplines his children whom he loves.” Paul quotes one of those passages in our reading from Hebrews 12. “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord… For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves…” That came from Proverbs 3:11-12. (Paul really knew his scriptures!!)
So I had us turn to Proverbs today. And as we do so, I want you to know that Proverbs is part of the Bible that has been called “Wisdom Literature.” And that was a very important part of the scripture for the Jewish people! Because they saw wisdom as a very important thing. And frankly I wish it were more highly regarded in our world! Too often people today place a higher regard on “intelligence.” Yet how often do we see people with “great intelligence” go down some bad roads in their lives because – smart as they are – they lack this thing called wisdom.
Well, Proverbs has tons of wise sayings. It is jam packed with a lot of great stuff! It’s actually kind of hard to use Proverbs as an Old Testament “lesson.” Because each verse can easily be a message unto itself. And if your lay leader reads a dozen or so verses, they will end up hitting a lot of great subjects, and it will be hard to focus on just one. But I thought it would be good to do that today, just so you can hear a number of these and see again the wealth of wise statements this book contains.
I’d like to highlight two of them for you. First take a look at verse 11. There it says, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” This is where I got my sermon title for today. “Holding back” is an example of this thing called “self-control.” In this case it’s a matter of “restraining” ones’ anger. In our modern language, when we show that kind of “restraint,” we say we’re “keeping it together.” I think Solomon, the writer of many of these proverbs, might have said it that way. “A fool lets it fly, but a wise man “keeps it together.” That’s good. That’s self-control. But there’s more.
Where I want that to take us today is verse 18. There, Solomon says this. “Where there is no prophecy, people cast off restraint.” That sounds kind of mysterious, doesn’t it? I’ve always been intrigued by that passage. “Where there is no prophecy…” What is prophecy? Too often we think of prophecy as someone “predicting the future.” But it was more than that. A prophet was one who “spoke to the people on behalf of God.” A prophet’s message often began with the phrase “Thus saith the Lord.” And the message of the prophet was often “you have done such and such, and the Lord is displeased.” Then after that, he would say, “And, if you don’t get your act together, (another modern expression) such and such is going to happen.” There’s the future side of prophecy!
So, going back to Hebrews, the voice of the Prophets was often the voice of God disciplining his people – people whom he loved! And without that voice, what happens? “The people cast off restraint.” That is, they cast off “self-control.” Without parents discipline, children will “cast off restraint,” as well. Does that make a little more sense? I hope so. Because it’s even more ominous than that. The version I often heard this from was the King James. And there it says something even stronger. In that version it reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” That’s much more ominous, isn’t it? Think about it. Is the “casting off of restraint” (or self-control?) really equivalent to “perishing?” I’m sure in some cases it is. When some people go down those dark paths of self destruction it literally becomes true. They perish. But in any case this sounds pretty serious!
“When there is no vision…” In other words, where there is no vision beyond the self, when there is no higher vision or purpose, where people hear and heed no voice of God, they do tend to cast off restraint! That’s why some people in our modern world want nothing to do with God. It’s because they don’t want a God who is going to tell them what to do and what not to do! They’re like the errant (and un-wise) teenager who says, “I can’t wait till I’m 21 so I can do whatever I want.” We all know that’s not true! (I hope!) We know that nobody is ever allowed to “do whatever they want.” When a person comes of age, they become “responsible for themselves!” But it is an unwise person who thinks that that only means “freedom.” It also means “self-control” doesn’t it!!
So, where there is no vision, where there is no prophecy, where there is no voice or inspiration or discipline of God, the people cast off restraint. They see only their own wants and needs and desires. They loose sight of the wisdom of self-control. They perish – maybe not literally – but perhaps emotionally, or spiritually. Paul wrote about this in the Romans 1. He was describing those who refused to acknowledge God, and he said, “Thinking themselves wise,” he said, “they have become fools.” (Romans 1:22) And by the way, that word “fools” comes up a lot in the scripture, especially in the Proverbs. Because “foolishness” is seen as the opposite of wisdom!
So, if we are going to have that wisdom, if we are going to “practice” this spiritual fruit of “self-control” we need to be sure we have the “vision” in our lives. We need to strive to hear the prophecy, to listen for God’s voice, to know his guidance and direction. That’s the vision Solomon is talking about here! And we need to know that God disciplines us because he loves us. Like a parent, he wants “self-control” for us for the same reason we want it for our own children. God wants for us the very best in this life!
So, think about this fruit of self-control in your own life. Seek to “keep it together” even when that anger in you demands “full vent.” (or even partial vent!) Seek that higher vision – even that prophetic vision! Know the wisdom of choosing restraint with the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit. May each of us seek to “walk by the Spirit,” and have in our lives this love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Our heavenly father, we know that you do love us. We know that you desire to guide us and to help us to live this life in abundance. Help us to have your vision. Help us to seek the wisdom of following your discipline. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.