Noah Spence was on top of the world. As a linebacker for Ohio State University, he was a big man on campus and a sure-fire NFL talent. He came from a good home, cared about his schoolwork, and did what he was supposed to. But then he discovered that he liked to party – and experimented with ecstasy. He still completed work on the field and in the classroom, averaging As and Bs, so he figured that everything was going fine.
Until he received a drug test randomly and found himself temporarily off of the team. Repentant, he stayed free and clear of the drugs, and worked his way back into nearly acceptable status. Heading into the last weekend of the summer before his junior year, he went out with friends – and did ecstasy one more time.
Unaware that a final drug test loomed for him the first Monday of school.
A second offense found Spence off of the team. Utterly broken, he repented to his parents and to his coach, Urban Meyer. He entered drug rehab, and continued to work on his education. Upon watching his remorse – and determination – Meyer recommended him to a friend coaching at the smaller Eastern Kentucky University football team where he proceeded to tear up offensive lines. Impressively, he exploded at the Senior Bowl, and continued to send his drug tests (all clean) to every NFL team.
Spence thought he had it all together. He thought he was in control of his destiny – and his needs. But several poor decisions – and one last second loss of self-control – jeopardized everything.
Honestly, it’s easy to point a finger at addiction when we discuss Self Control in the Fruits of the Spirit. We know people who are addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, maybe even something stronger. It’s possible we know someone who struggles with addiction to pornography. The statistics say that we know someone who struggles with one of these things, but the truth is – society has come to accept them all.
In 1985, I went out early on a Sunday morning with my dad. We had a weekly routine – just the two of us – that included going to the local convenience store (a Cumberland Farms) for the newspaper and a Dunkin Donuts for Dad’s coffee and my donuts. This was back in the day when DD issued a free donut card to kids. Those were the days!
But on this Sunday, our drive home was interrupted when another member of the faculty at my dad’s high school flagged us down. He proceeded to recount that a carload of students had been out drinking the night before, and in their haste to beat curfew, had wrapped themselves around a telephone pole. To my ears, this was the worst news I had ever heard. I’d seen these young men play soccer (my favorite sport) the day before, and I realized I would never see them play again.
At that moment, in my eight-year-old mind, I made a promise that I would never drink alcohol. To be completely honest, I never have. But not just because of that promise.
Instead, I came to realize by watching my own behavior – and hearing stories about my great grandparents – that addictive personality runs in my family.
Quite simply put – if I like something, I’ll do it to extreme.
So, not drinking was an easy choice for me – and it comforted me as a college student – even as I watched other people struggle with it. But that’s part of our self-control problem: we see other people’s struggle and label it as problematic, and we fail to recognize our own lack of self-control.
There’s a story about Samuel Stokes, an American missionary, who walked through the Punjab, carrying only a water-bottle and blanket, trusting wholly to native hospitality. In one village he was given a particularly hostile reception. The headmen of the village sat in chairs in a circle, smoking, leaving him the whole evening sitting on the floor. When he asked if he might nurse their sick and teach them, they hurled horrible insults at him; but he made no reply. Then they gave him stale crusts in a filthy bowl. He thanked them courteously, and ate. For two days this lasted. On the third day, the headman laid his turban at Stokes’ feet as a token of respect. He explained that they had heard that Jesus’ disciples were commanded to love their enemies, and had decided to put him to the test. The result had amazed them. Now they brought him their choicest food, and were eager to hear his teaching. If he had lost his temper, he would have lost his chance. (Gospel Herald)
Have you ever considered whether you’re in control of your own temper? For some people, the first thing that comes to mind is the problem that they have with losing their patience (there’s another Fruit of the Spirit for you) and acting out in anger. It seems so simple, but ultimately, it’s not just our actions.
James 3:6 goes extreme: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Later, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”
I don’t know about you, but “ouch.”
Here’s some truth from the preacher. I had never said a cuss word until college. My parents were strict, and I abided by the rules. But surrounded by (ahem) more diverse language, I learned to adapt – and found that I could conjugate words in ways people had never thought of. In fact, it proved to be funny – and I fell into using it frequently and with enthusiasm.
Sure, I was going to chapel. And I was in several Christian organizations. But left to my own devices…
I finally hit a low point at the end of an intramural basketball game. (Some of you know where this is going…) The referee, a hall mate of mine, was terrible, missing calls and completely ignoring play at other times. My language toward him was horrendous – and hurtful, but in the heat of the moment, I’d lost my self-control.
The final whistle blew, and I knew I’d made a mistake, several mistakes. As we walked back to the dorm (another ouch), I apologized profusely. I was ashamed of how I’d behaved, and incredibly saddened by the things I said.
Graciously, my non-Christian hall mate accepted my apology, but I spent the night thinking about how I’d let down what I believed by my lack of self control.
And there you have it: I’ve never been ashamed of the times I held back from expressing my anger or not lashing out at someone (whether they were right or wrong). But there are times I wish I hadn’t spoken – or acted. There are times that my self control or lack thereof got in the way of who I want to be. The repercussions for losing control can be … disastrous.
Loss of control of our eating.
Loss of control of our driving.
Loss of control of our spending.
We don’t get to compartmentalize our lives. We have to be responsible for everything that we do and say.
A year ago, Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim was found to be guilty of a “lack of institutional control.” Over ten years ago, an investigation discovered academic improprieties in the Syracuse program. Even though Boeheim wasn’t found guilty of knowing that several of his players had cheated, the NCAA believed he should have known what was going on. He had lost control in their estimation, and so he was suspended for over a month of the season.
Even in society, a lack of control is seen as a symptom of a bigger problem.
I wonder if Paul doesn’t have self control listed last on purpose. Hear again Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
“Against such things there is no law.” Yes, we’re supposed to love, to show peace, to be kind. But if we’re not in control of our own actions, then none of these other things matter.
If we don’t exhibit self-control, Paul knows that we’re showing off a bigger problem than a momentary lapse of judgment. We’re showing our sin of self by being focused on what we need, or feel, or want in the moment, rather than loving others and putting themselves above ourselves.
What is truly amazing is how much we complain about things we can’t control: taxes, illness, other people! But when it comes to looking at the things we can control, we sometimes fail to show up. Sometimes, we act like someone – or something else should take responsibility for those things.
When driving on the highway, I’ll sometimes switch the car over into cruise control. With the push of a button or two, I can settle back and not worry about the speed of the car. Unfortunately, that means I can sometimes be distracted by other things, like the song on the radio or the beeping of my phone.
Slipping into cruise control at life works that way, too. We can be distracted by our anger, our frustration, our impatience, etc. We can lose our self control because we’re caught up by a loss of control. We’re guilty – and we fail to make changes that would help us focus on the things we should.
So look at your own life today. What do you need to take responsibility for? What do you need to pray to God to help you overcome? What do you need to ask others for help with?
The truth is that we are ultimately responsible for who we are and what we do. When we walk by faith in God, he’ll provide us the grace we need to grow in self control, and forgive ourselves when we fail to follow through.
God’s grace. It’s what grows our grace, our love, our peace, our faith. Thankfully, it can help us grow our self-control, too.