I don’t know how to write this, Lord, about learning self-control, or not learning, struggling to learn. It’s one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), one of Peter’s layers of maturity (1 Peter 1:5-7), but I sure seem to be having a hard time developing it. At least in some areas. I’m getting pretty good at making my bed.
It seems like it should be a simple choice: to choose to act rather than procrastinate, to choose to act in God’s ways and not my own, to choose to move towards Love and not away.
But maybe that’s where I’m wrong.
I’ve spent the last week mustering motivation, determination, seeking out quotes to spur me on in obedience, but only finding myself more discouraged when I find ones which say that procrastination in our calling (or God-given tasks) is a sign of disbelief. They seem more of a guilt-trip than a loving encouragement. And I don’t believe God works like that. Yes, use guilt to bring us to repentance, but not to obligate our obedience.
So instead I have been praying over my purpose, in this work I’ve been struggling to focus in and in my wider calling, asking God what it should look like, where I should be pressing forward.
And I think self-control, like procrastination, is a habit, a pattern of behaviours, which we can shape to serve a purpose – at least when we consciously shape them rather than just letting them be shaped by the world around us. Habits can be changed, piece by piece, choice by choice.
And now I have circled back around to my choosing it again. Is it really this simple? Because living it out seems so much harder.
Peter seems to tell us to choose to add self-control to the exercise of knowledge, which has been added to virtue on top of diligence.
So, it seems on one hand it is our choice to grow in self-control, and on the other, that it flows from the Holy Spirit.
Maybe I’m looking at this wrong. Maybe as we grow practiced at living from the Holy Spirit these things flow, and when we are living from our natural, human, ungodly desires it doesn’t.
Is it as Paul says (Romans 7-8), that when we do what is good and right we are living from our new Spirit nature, and when we are doing what is against our Spirit-led desires, it is our old sin-nature, the one which has been put to death with Christ? Christ’s death and resurrection do not just rid us of our sins, but our whole sinful nature is put to death, that we might live by the Spirit.
And isn’t that how we should be going about our God-given tasks? Here lies the way to obedience, to ‘self’-control: by allowing the Spirit dominion over us, by planting our feet in the River of Life so our fruit will be good. That is where the fruit of the Spirit come from – directly from the source of Life itself. The Source of Life must go into us, to shape our very being, to form our being, our ways of being, our habits, our moment-to-moment choices.
The Spirit makes it easier to live by Spirit-ways, but it is still our choice to walk in them. The Living Water we belong to cuts a path through rock and soil, but we still need to choose to get our feet wet.
“Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” Galatians 5:25.
The more we walk with the Spirit, the easier any of these things become, the more habitual these ways are. So, fruit of the Spirit are both outcomes and choices, and the more in tune and practiced we are, the easier it is to choose that way.
We talk about exercising patience and exercising self-control, so maybe we can look at all the fruit of the Spirit as muscles to be exercised, worked at, built stronger. And every time we choose how we will act (or react), we can choose in line with the Spirit, and exercise those muscles, or we can choose in line with our sin-nature and not exercise them – take the easy and comfortable route.
Have you ever prayed for patience? (A word of caution before you do…) And suddenly you are getting red lights at every intersection, and your doctor is running late, and your usual hairdresser isn’t available and the replacement takes twice as long, and your child won’t stay in bed?
God isn’t magically doling out patience to you, rather events are being skewed (or your perception of them) in order to give you plenty of opportunities to practice patience, to exercise that muscle and make it stronger, i.e. able to lift more, hold more, cope with more.
God didn’t call us into a comfortable life, an easy way. No, quite the opposite. The New Testament is full of warnings that this way will be hard and uncomfortable (if not downright painful). The way is narrow, the risks are large, yet our love for God and God’s love for us make it worth it. We can nail our sin-nature to the cross with Jesus and live in his resurrection by the Spirit.
Paul makes a list (see Philippians 3:4-7) of his life’s goodness, his privilege, and then says, “I count this all as complete 5#!+, it is worthless compared to this life I am now living in Christ” (my paraphrase). That’s an amazing level of detachment from the easy and comfortable. But if it is the Spirit animating him, then he sees it as worth it.
“God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.” – Francis Chan, Crazy Love.
Is it really as simple as a choice, Lord? I can’t get my head around this, it seems almost too obvious.
Though it is not just a choice, it is also a leading, and it is also bending my will to God’s. If I want to change my life, reshape it, self-control seems a good place to start.
Living by the guidance of the Spirit in what seems like these small choices, helps keep the big picture in mind, helps the small actions count towards the big dreams we dream of with God.
In all my reading on motivation and goal-setting (and fulfillment of said goals), much of it focuses on making the environment better suited to the fulfillment of the big goals, making it easier to choose in line for the little choices. Because it’s the little choices which make us stumble on the way to the big goal, not that the dream isn’t attainable, but that in the moment (short-term), our comfort and ease feel more important. For spiritual things, the Spirit helps change that, helps keep the important things right in front of us. But we still need to choose to follow its leading.
One of my daily affirmations is “I choose to act in ways which move towards wholeness and Love,” to let the Spirit guide me in the small details, so they will align with the large-picture-desire. The Spirit knows the big picture better than I ever can. And God will not neglect to complete the work begun in us (Philippians 1:6).
And to make this possible, I also affirm that I am willing to be discomforted – therein lies the rub. But I will keep choosing to be willing, I will keep choosing to align my small ways with God’s big ones, trusting that God has the big ones handled. Being willing to be uncomfortable, being willing to deliberately choose discomfort, is an act of trust.