Cultivating Self Control-Matthew 4:1-11

1st Sunday of Lent

That little wheat and hops company portrays the American John Doe succumbing to impulses with no thought of consequence.  A commercial that aired originally on a Super Bowl Sunday has a would-be skydiver standing with shaky knees as his instructor throws beer off the craft to lure him into the plunge.  The skydiver and trainer stand paralyzed in disbelief as the pilot jumps out the cockpit, leaving all onboard to certain death in order to obey his thirst.  We might not jump out of a plane to satisfy a craving; we are inclined toward immediate self-satisfaction.  We’d rather JUST DO IT, than just say no.  We are well-coached in this economy and too compulsive to turn away from all of the goods that beg for attention.

Excess has become a sport and the playing fields are our homes, schools, cars, and grocery carts.  Everything is “xtreme, without an “e”.” There are extreme sports, extreme music, and extreme soft drinks just to name a few. We label even the humblest products extreme to magnify marketing efforts. It makes we wonder if are widening the scope of addictions.  Consider words we have coined by adding the suffix “-aholic” or junkie.  There is workaholic, shop-aholic, chocoholic, coffee-holic, or sports junkie, exercise junkie, news junkie, TV junkie, internet junkie, and phone junkie.  It seems our lack of self control; overdosing on cultural products in an extreme way is shaping our personal identities in untold ways.

We think self control is a human virtue needed to overcome our lesser nature and philosophers regard self-control as a high virtue.  Thus, a morally superior person is one who achieves mastery over one’s desires.  Since we normally associate self control with human behavior it is difficult us to think of God displaying self-control, for God does not struggle with lesser desires.  Self control has both human and divine qualities.

Self control is three dimensional.  There is the dimension of self-control that is the control of the self, by the self, for the sake of the self.  Then there is the dimension of self control, which is the control of the self, by the self, for the sake of others.  This second still maintains the duty of self control within the individual.  The last dimension of self control is the control of self through the life of Christ by the spirit, for the sake of embodying the gospel of Christ through our lives for our own sake and others.

On the first Sunday of Lent Jesus is tempted in the wilderness; displaying this highest dimension of self control.  Still dripping wet from his baptism, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.”  This is not the devil on his shoulder throwing out temptations, while God is on the other whispering comebacks.  The Spirit drove him there; suggesting even in the desert, Jesus is not separated from God.  He faces three perplexing temptations which have tempted all of us through time.  These temptations are about how identity can be shaped by tests of self control.

The first temptation of self control is for Jesus to follow his craving, break his fast and turn his attention away from God for instant gratification.  The tempter says, “Command these stones to become bread.”  He could feed 5000 and turn water into wine; but for the sake of his hunger, Jesus knows he can trust God, so avoids a quick fix and waits on God’s provision.

With Scripture rolling off his tongue, the tempter appeals to Jesus self control to see if he will test God’s faithfulness.  He invites Jesus to cheapen the music of creation; playing God like a violin; asking him to prove God’s power.  This tempts the human hunger to see a display of divine muscle than to wait on God’s self-revelation in the wisdom of time.  The tempter says, “Throw yourself down from the temple, for the angels will catch you.”  Jesus will not make plans based on self-interest, and expect God to follow.

Finally, the devil entices Jesus’ self control with an offer of power to make him the king, if he will compromise loyalty and worship this one who claims to hold the world in his hand.  Jesus is shown the kingdoms of the world, “All can be yours NOW just worship me.”  This was a tough test because Jesus was offered a shortcut-no suffering or cross.  Jesus exhibits self control in trusting the one who really holds the world in their hands.

This isn’t Jesus seeing what he can do as Messiah.  He’s not Harry Potter realizing he magically flings books across rooms.  Potential Messiahs had come and gone; people had their ideas about what the Son of God might look like or be.  Into this climate, Jesus entered into the wilderness.  The tempter’s first words are: “Since you are the Son of God”.  Jesus and the tempter knew he was the Son God.  The question was what kind of Son of God Jesus would be.  We can know calling, but we have to discern how we will live that call.  Implementation is hard; this is where self control matters.

Our identity is shaped by how we employ self control to face the tests of life.  This usually takes one of two forms.  Some struggle with their tests in life because they are not comfortable in their own skin.  Others struggle with their tests in life because they have customized their lives to satisfy their primary concern: themselves.  Both of these approaches make makes us prone to create God in our image to fit our personal perspective, rather than submitting to a God who is forming us in the image of Christ.

Stephen Prothero, of Boston University wrote, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National IconProthero’s thesis is we have made Christ in our own image.  He suggests there are several popular images of Jesus in American culture.  1) There is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy Jesus in our Sunday school rooms.  2) There is the image of Jesus as moral sage.  3) There is manly Jesus.  4) There’s the ‘60s counter-cultural Jesus.  5) There is Jesus as a commodity.  Each time Jesus is on a news cover sales spike.  We have made Jesus to match the countless identities of culture; making Jesus, our genie in a bottle.  Jesus triumphs over these tests to say he will not made to be what we might like to make Jesus to be.

We might want to get off the hook saying Jesus overcame temptations because he is God.  Yet, these were real tests he faced employing the self control that grew during those forty days; giving himself in a fuller way to God.  These temptations made him the Messiah we really need-one who provides, the one who is faithful and the one holds the world in his hands.  Just as Jesus’ identity was shaped as he responded with self control, so is our identity shaped as we respond with self-control in the tests of our lives.

The 40-day season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday.  Culturally, we are better at Fat Tuesday-stocking up on food and drink-than we are at Lenten fasting and refocusing.  This tendency makes us reduce Lent to a time of self improvement; rededicating ourselves to lapsed New Year resolutions-I’ll give up chocolate; lose a few pounds; and lay off the red meat.  The point of Lent is not simply to give up something.  This isn’t a season where we steer our way out of the wilderness with another self-help program in order to be a better person.  Lent is not about moderating or indulging a little less.  Lessening excess isn’t the fruit of self control.

As God’s children, we’re works in progress.  During Lent, we face intentional tests; cultivating the fruit of self control as we tell ourselves the truth about who we are.  Lent affords the opportunity to cast aside parts of our identity that have yet to identify with Christ.  It’s an authentic exercise in self control; making room in our souls to consider what in our lives needs to die and be reborn, so God can fashion us anew.  The outcome is we can find our way to live more fully into the image God has stamped on our soul.

Self control is a different sort of fruit because it is uniquely cultivated.  Self control is cultivated by working in our own gardens, nurturing the other fruits of the spirit.  Self control is a by-product of cultivating love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.  Self control is the bloom or flower of the fruits of the spirit.  What grows in your garden?

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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