Sunday, October 29, 2006

(Life on the vine: Self-control) Which Self? Whose Control?

Life on the vine: Cultivating self-control in the midst of addictions
Mark 8:34-36

Something looks different about this last fruit of the Spirit.
The first eight fruit pointed outward.
They were about laying down self,
living our lives oriented toward God,
so that God’s Spirit might produce the fruit in us
for the blessing of others.
Love, patience, kindness, goodness—all for the good of others.
Now, with this fruit at the end of the list, self-control,
it looks like we’re back-pedaling, focusing on the self.
Trying to achieve self-mastery.
Is Paul trying to tell us that in every other Christian virtue
we yield ourselves to God and to others,
we let go of the self, pour out ourselves in love?
But when it comes to controlling passions and desires,
we simply have to let the self take charge,
and by sheer determination, let the self control itself?

Well, in Paul’s world, what did “self-control” mean?
For just half-a-minute, let’s dip into the world of Greek philosophy.
Socrates lived long before Paul and Jesus both.
He and his Greek philosopher buddies
talked a lot about self-control.
The Greek word was engkrateia.
They believed self-control was the foundation of all other virtues.
To learn any virtue at all,
we had to bring our passions and desires under control.
So the first virtue was engkrateia—self-control.
But Plato saw a curious paradox in this word.
Who is the self being controlled? he asked.
Who is the self doing the controlling?
How can you be your own master and your own slave...
at the same time?
The way Plato answered the riddle,
was that we have a noble self, and a less than noble self.
The noble self is our rationality, our reason.
The less noble self is our passions and desires.
So self-control is the discipline of making sure
our rational self overrules our passionate self.

And this is the word Paul uses as a fruit of the Spirit.
But a Jewish perspective would answer Plato’s riddle differently.
Hebrew thought was more holistic.
They believed a loving God created us as whole beings—
mind, body, spirit, emotions.
And God called this whole creation very good,
including our passions and desires.
God didn’t create us with a good part and a bad part,
so that the good part has to control the bad part.
We were created in the very image of God.
And we were created for the good pleasure of God our Creator.
But sin distorted that divine image.
The self became dis-ordered,
started serving itself, instead of God,
acting for its own pleasure, instead of God’s pleasure.
So the problem is not that we have passions that are at work.
It’s that our passions got disoriented, corrupted by sin.

Self-control is not our self taking control of the self,
for the sake of the self.
Self-control is yielding our self to the control of our Creator
to reorient our passions, our desires, our mind, our whole being.
It is getting the whole self reoriented toward the pleasure of God,
instead of self.
And like every other fruit,
that’s not something we do by sheer determination.
It’s something we are given
when we let go and yield ourselves to God the gardener.
It turns out this last fruit is just like the rest of them, in that regard.
We don’t grow the fruit, as I reminded the children.
We create the conditions for God to grow the fruit.

But this is all talking in generalities.
Let’s get specific.
We live in a particular culture here in North America,
where self-control is a complicated matter.
We live in a culture of excess, and a culture of addictions.
Some addictions are obviously life-threatening,
like alcohol, drugs, sex, or food.
Other addictions we laugh about, and readily admit to,
like video games, chocolate, or Su-doh-ku.

Getting free from real addictions is complicated, difficult,
and sometimes...agonizingly painful.
It’s not as simple as saying a little prayer and it’s done.
It might take a lifetime of hard work and treatment,
along with prayer and a strong community.
And that could be a sermon in itself.

But what I invite us to think about together for these few minutes
is how our culture,
and the choices we make within that culture,
encourage us toward excess and toward addiction,
and prevent the growth of this fruit of the Spirit
we call self-control.
This might sound like a broken record,
because it’s come up in almost every one of these nine fruits,
but our culture is often toxic,
when it comes to growing the fruit of the Spirit.
We can fertilize all we want
with whatever spiritual nutrients we have,
but if we ignore the toxic soil
it will be a losing battle.
We cannot grow to spiritual maturity and bear this fruit,
without asking serious questions
about how we live in this culture.

So let me ask a few questions about our culture,
assuming we want to cultivate the fruit of self-control.

First, how do we live in a culture where
personal, individual happiness is the highest ideal?
And where we have complete freedom to determine for ourselves
what happiness consists of.
And most of time, that’s feelings of pleasure.
Our culture tells us to pursue whatever gives us pleasure.
You insert that kind of value into a culture that also idolizes
autonomy—individual freedom from restraint—
and you have a culture that encourages excess.
You have a cultural breeding ground for addictions of all kinds.
If a little bit of something brings me pleasure,
then a little more will bring even more pleasure.
And why shouldn’t I experience more pleasure?
I reckon a lot of people have never stopped to ask the question.
And so we battle away at our many addictions.

Secondly, how do we live in a culture that worships independence?
We practically bow down to anyone who can achieve greatness,
and seemingly do it all by themselves.
We idealize “self-made” persons—
ones who by their very own blood, sweat, and tears,
were able to pull it off.
Dependent people are weak people in our culture.
To say “I can’t do this by myself,”
is practically to admit defeat.

Now you might think that a culture that encourages
independence and self-sufficiency,
would actually help cultivate self-control.
Maybe, if self-control is about letting the self take charge
and control itself for the sake of the self.
But if self-control is about reorienting our created selves
around the intentions of our Creator,
then that’s a different story.
Just saying we have a Creator,
is admitting we’re not self-sufficient,
that we depend on someone beyond ourselves.
Christians ought to be pretty good at that,
seeing how our theology is centered around our need for grace.
But I’m afraid sometimes our culture trumps our theology.

We could take a few lessons from the 12-step programs, like AA.
And 12-step programs abound, in this culture of addictions.
But the first three steps in these programs are all about not
being independent.
First step is admitting I am powerless over my addiction,
that I can’t manage my life anymore.
Second step is admitting my need for a Power
greater than myself.
Third step is deciding to turn over my will and my life
to the care of God.
That’s pretty good theology,
and a good way to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.
But it’s not the way of our culture.

Third question, in relation to culture.
I had to ponder this for a while,
when I read it in Philip Kenneson’s book Life on the Vine.
He suggested another obstacle to cultivating self-control,
is our emphasis on “moderation in all things.”
Wouldn’t that actually be a definition of self-control?

But Kenneson asks,
“How is this to be applied to the Christian life?”
Is the Christian life all about finding a good balance,
and avoiding fanaticism?
Is the Sermon on the Mount a call to live a “balanced life?”
Or is it a call to a radical life that goes against the norm?
Kenneson wonders whether we have become addicted to balance
in this culture,
and therefore to mediocrity and lukewarmness.
Self-control is about yielding the whole self to its Creator,
about re-orienting the self entirely toward God and neighbor.
If we take seriously the ethical demands of the cross,
“balance” and “moderation” aren’t the first words
that come to mind.

Jesus did not tell his disciples to “moderate” their selfish drives.
He told them to die to self,
to take up their cross, and follow,
leaving all their personal securities behind.
That was our Gospel reading this morning—
our “Good News” reading.
“Lose your life for my sake,” Jesus said,
“in order to save it.”
Jesus told the rich man who wanted to find the kingdom,
to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and then follow.
Doesn’t sound to me like “moderation in all things.”

Kenneson suggests that the tragedy in our lives
is that we are prone to excess in those things
where moderation is needed,
and we are prone to moderation in those areas
that need our passionate and all-out commitment.
Our culture admires fanaticism when it comes to sports.
During the last few weeks, how many times have you heard
the Major League Baseball slogan,
“I live for this!”
It’s just fine to order our lives around baseball, or soccer, or football,
or you name it.
But try ordering your life
around the radical ethical demands of the reign of God,
and in this culture, you’ll likely be scorned as a fanatic.
Even other Christians are likely to dismiss you.

Well, our culture may not be very supportive of us
as we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit of self-control,
this radical yieldedness of the self to God and neighbor.
So how should we go about cultivating this fruit?

Kenneson’s first strategy is the same as with the other eight fruits.
We worship.
That is one of the most effective ways to counteract the toxicity
that we often find in our culture.
It’s a way to say,
“No, that’s not the pattern that is going to shape my life.
I belong to the people of God.”

We all have a tendency to turn inward,
to focus on our small self and our narrow desires.
Good worship reorients us.
It redirects our attention.
It draws us from ourselves and into God.
Good worship draws us into the grand story of “God with us.”
And by “good worship” I don’t mean a good production.
I don’t mean flawless music performances and seamless transitions
and dramatic presentations.
Although, they might be part of it.
I mean...worship that draws everyone in,
and gives them all the tools they need to fully participate
in this collective offering of ourselves to God.

Good worship reminds of why we exist,
why our self was created.
And why was that, you might ask?
In the words of the Westminster Catechism,
“to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
We were created to worship, serve, and please God.
We are who we are, in order to give God pleasure.
And since we were created for worship,
good worship will also bring us pleasure—
not the shallow pleasure of getting our personal desires satisfied,
but the deep, profound pleasure of living out our true identity,
of being at home and at peace with our Creator.

So worship re-orders and re-orients our desires.
Someone who is trapped in addiction,
suffers from dis-ordered desires.
Perhaps part of the path to freedom from addiction,
is engaging with God’s people in the act of worship.

This is not at all to say that in worship
we leave our passions and desires behind.
Some of the 16th-century reformers, including the Anabaptists,
got part of it wrong when they were trying to reform the church.
They stripped worship spaces of nearly all the art,
the symbolic, tangible, and sensory elements of worship.
They were right to bring the preaching of the Word
back into a place of prominence.
But they went overboard, I’m afraid,
when they essentially invited the mind to worship,
but they dis-invited their bodies.
They left little space for physical and sensory
participation in worship.
Some of them even prohibited singing.
Maybe they thought worshiping only with their heads
would keep their passions in check,
would aid in self-control.

But worship is not about squelching our passions.
It’s about redirecting our passions.
It’s about ensuring that our passions and desires
are oriented toward God, and toward the reign of God,
and not toward the narrow, self-serving pleasures
that our culture finds so captivating.
Believe it or not, passion and self-control can happily co-exist,
when those passions are oriented in the right way.

Self-control is not about denying ourselves pleasure.
It’s about finding deeper pleasure,
by being formed in Christ,
by living our God-given humanity to the fullest.

God knows, we need the fruit of self-control in our lives,
in the church,
in the culture we inhabit.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can control ourselves
by ourselves.
We experience self-control as we yield ourselves—
mind, body, spirit, emotions—
to the God who created us.
So let us offer our whole beings to God.
And let us do so right now, in song.

—Phil Kniss, October 29, 2006

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