Thursday, December 27, 2018

Self-Controlled or Self-Condemned

A few years ago, I had several Facebook exchanges followed by a long phone call with an old friend I hadn’t seen since my mid-twenties. Now in his late forties, he had suddenly become passionate about the Christian faith. It was all he could talk about. Initially, I found his new enthusiasm infectious. I was delighted to hear he was reading the Bible for himself.

After an hour or two back and forth, however, it became apparent that his newfound interest in the word of God had a very specific, narrow focus bordering on obsession: mining Bible numerology for clues to understanding the past and the future. The moment I tried to get practical with my old friend, our conversation hit a brick wall.

Why was that, I wondered?

Hints from Morning Reading

Well, my morning Bible reading for the last few days provides a hint or two.

Paul’s short letter to Titus is all about bringing the daily lives of his fellow believers into line with the trustworthy word God had revealed to them through the apostle. Christian practice in Crete, where Titus was hard at work, needed to become consistent with Christian doctrine.

In the real world, transforming human beings is rarely without its hurdles. We all begin following Jesus Christ at different stages of life and experience, and we are all toting different baggage in the form of habits, default assumptions, received ideas, well-established relationship dynamics, both good and bad, and everything else that is a product of our pre-Christian choices.

Much of this baggage, as you likely know, is unhelpful and needs to be jettisoned.

The Cretans for whom Titus was responsible had more baggage than most. Some of those who professed to follow Christ were resistant to Paul’s authority, some adulterated the gospel with a fanciful, mythological approach to Judaism, some lacked faith, some were disinclined to work, and some had trouble telling the truth consistently. Some, no doubt, struggled with all of the above and more besides. That’s some serious baggage.

A Foundation for Change

Paul knew Titus would not be in Crete forever. Taking a job as a permanent apostolic designate-in-residence would have impacted the larger ministry entrusted to Paul and hindered the spiritual development of the Cretans, who needed to become a mature, properly-functioning local body of believers. In view of the urgency of his task, the apostle orders his priorities with characteristic discernment. He begins by tasking Titus with appointing elders in every town in order to ensure instruction in “sound” or “healthy” doctrine is continuously available to those in need of it.

The first step in addressing sub-optimal Christian conduct is establishing a theological and Christological basis for a change in behavior. This is foundational, and it’s the way Paul usually worked. Rather than simply telling new believers, “Do this because I say so,” he gave them the tools to rationalize the changes necessary to live godly lives by looking directly at the person and work of Christ. In the first sentence of Paul’s letter to Titus, he tells him the truth “accords with” or is “after” godliness. There is a harmony that needs to be maintained between our intellectual understanding of Christ and the way we live out our roles as members of his Body in this world. The two must be in agreement.

An Emphasis on the Practical

Now, Titus is not a theological book. Re-establishing the doctrinal basis for Christian behavior is not Paul’s concern here. He had already built a foundation in Crete and was moving on to the upper stories of the building. The only formal theological statements to be found in Titus are in the first three verses and two brief asides in chapters 2 and 3 which are — big surprise — all about Christ. This is teaching the apostle has already given in Crete, and which he knows Titus will be able to draw on, recall and reinforce for the churches as necessary.

So rather that repeat himself, the apostle is now concerned with giving instructions about how to behave. There are plenty of these, directed at Christians of various ages and levels of experience. Older women are to “teach what is good”, bondservants are to be submissive to their masters, “not pilfering, but showing all good faith,” foolish controversies and quarrels about the law are to be avoided, and so on.

But if there is one thing in the book of Titus that Paul insists is critical for everyone of every age and level of maturity in the Christian faith, it is this: learn to control yourself.

All Together Now ...

Overseers must be self-controlled. Older men generally are to be self-controlled. Older women are to manage their own behavior so that they can teach the younger women to be ... you guessed it, self-controlled. Younger men are to be self-controlled. This is a critical lesson for every believer. Nobody is exempt.

Even the instructions to Titus that don’t use the word “self-control” reinforce this concept. Christians are to be disciplined, and a disciplined man is by definition self-controlled. An elder must not be a drunkard. Drunks have no self-control. Moreover, the main problems on display among the Cretan believers were related to a lack of self-control: they couldn’t be persuaded to work, they had difficulty being truthful, and they overindulged at the table. Even the theological preoccupations of the Cretans reflected their lack of self-control: they were obsessed with the inconsequential and speculative at the expense of solid teaching. They were driven by desire rather than masters of themselves, able to soberly set necessary priorities.

In fact, the apostle finishes this way:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age ...”
Self-control was God’s solution for the Cretans. The less they displayed it and the more they resisted it, the more they proved how much they needed it.

Enslaved to Passions and Pleasures

The old friend I mentioned in my introduction had a big problem when we were growing up: he did whatever he pleased whenever he pleased. Because he was young, healthy and had a great metabolism and a naturally athletic build, he was in exceptional physical shape despite having no rigid training regimen. He worked out when he was in the mood. He ate meals when he felt like it rather than on any kind of schedule, and could sleep around the clock when inclined to. He drank when he felt like drinking and had regular trysts with a variety of women whenever they caught his fancy, paying little attention to whether his girlfriends were married or not.

Some of this may be considered the usual teen and twenty-something wild oats sowing, but as the years went by, my friend never grew out of it. He had an odd relationship with both parents. It was unclear to me how much discipline he had received as a child, and he certainly received none as a teen. As an adult, he was employed fitfully, never settled down in any kind of long-term, committed relationship, and as he aged, found himself relating better to teens than to adults. Despite professing to know Jesus Christ, he lived his life, in the words of the apostle, as a “slave to various passions and pleasures.”

As it turned out, this never changed.

Staggering Into the Kingdom

Now, it’s clear any man or woman with the desire to do so can come to Christ. Self-control is not a prerequisite for salvation. We are saved by grace, not by maintaining lifestyles better suited to an army barracks. A man or woman without impulse control can certainly know God and even serve him in a clumsy, self-destructive sort of way: the life and death of Samson are evidence of that.

What a man without self-control cannot do, however, is live the Christian life in accordance with sound doctrine. He will have his beliefs, he will have his practice ... and never the twain shall meet, as the old saying goes. If he pursues the things of God with any consistency, it will be because he is excited by the esoteric, the intriguing and the wildly speculative. The intensity of his attraction to weird, vaguely Bible-related minutiae will be matched only by his utter absence of interest in sound doctrine. He will talk about his obsessions constantly to anyone who will listen, until such time as his fellow believers beg him to stop, not least because he’s scaring away the kids and making all the local Christians who tolerate him look like nutbars.

Stopping is the one thing such a man will not do. He can’t, not just because he’s fixated and lacks self-control, but because discussing anything related to his real life is way too convicting. It’s the very last thing he wants to explore.

Paul tells Titus a person like this is warped and sinful. He is not self-controlled, but self-condemned. His conduct does not appropriately adorn the faith he professes.

It is difficult to read the book of Titus without concluding that self-control is the litmus test of a godly Christian life. We may, by the grace of God, stagger into glory without developing it, but we will not accomplish much for the Lord here.

Unless, like Samson, we do it more or less by accident.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This may be the moment to add one of my pet peeves, observations and medicine to this problem. What you describe, the self-interest, lack of self-awareness and corresponding poor behavior and action is, in my opinion, at the root of our contemporary problems (and possibly has always been the problem for humanity throughout history). As I analyze it there is only one probable fix to that, which will, of course, not be taken seriously because of it's impact on personal choices and convenience. That fix is to strongly change parental, family, village, city, state, government, institutional thinking about education and most exclusively and strongly teach that a life must be based on personal, public, and communal responsibility that, if not properly excercised, will have consequences for the individual and society overall. Thus, e.g., if you promote by way of ANY type of entertainment and action a style of living resulting in illicit conduct leading to consequences that impact peoples' and society's personal and financial well being and incurs costs, then you are responsible for restitution. Thus, e.g., there would be no abortion because the male and female and/or their families are responsible for providing for the newborn. Businesses and enterprises, promoting and glorifying illicit behavior in advertising, entertainment, etc., resulting in potential expense and harm to society and individuals would be taxed in proportion to their implicated programming content in order to help society alleviate health, social, psychological costs for repairing damage done to the individual and public. In other words, if you must run or attend a gambling casino then expect to get taxed for repairing gambling addiction. The emphasis here is to get across that only the teaching of and adherance to moral responsibility in all life situations will ensure a healthy and financially sound society. And, of course, because moral responsibility is primarily a Christian product that fewer and fewer want to buy it will be an ever faster and faster, more and more thrilling and expensive downhill slide.

  3. I might be wrong, but it seems a lot of modern Christian families and churches expend more energy on the back end of this problem than the front end, by which I mean trying to lovingly bring single mothers and erring couples back into the fold after the fact.

    That's all well and good, assuming those involved have genuinely repented, but I wish we'd do a little less quiet hoping and praying that our teens somehow show good judgment in the face of unrelenting temptation, and put more emphasis on teaching them to avoid the sorts of situations that lead to temptation in the first place. Even Christian teens who are exposed repeatedly to the sexual standards of Hollywood / popular culture / the Web are going to find chaste, Christian behavior an uphill battle.