Cultivate Self-Control

(The following is a transcript of Steve Carter’s “Cultivate Self-Control” message, our final part of the Cultivate series. The video is also available to you here.)

I’m so excited that you all are here today. We are going to continue in our Cultivate series. And we’re gonna look at this word, this concept, this idea called self-control.

Now, do you remember learning about self-control when you were a kid?

You’re sitting in the back seat. Your parents are driving, a little bit on a road trip. And you’re sitting there, and you’re trying your very best to keep your hands to yourself. But there’s a sibling right beside you. Just... you were given these hands. And they are in exact striking distance. And so you sit there and you wait. And then, all of a sudden, you just can’t hold it, and so you just slap ‘em. And they sit there like, “Ow! Why’d you do that!?”

But it’s not loud enough to get the parents to turn their backs to you. And so... you wait. Eight seconds more. Nine seconds more. Ten seconds more. You’re showing some good restraint. When, all of a sudden, you’re like, I gotta do it again. BAM! Just a little bit harder. Then, all of a sudden, they scream, and then the parents turn, and they say, “What are you doing? Knock that off. Learn some self-control.”

Right? You remember being in school. Some of you were really, really good. You never did anything inappropriate in class. But others of you... you talked. Constantly. Or you got up from class. And you just started walking around the classroom. And the teacher would say, “Hey, hey. You gotta learn self-control.”

And what self-control was that we had to learn as a kid was simply learning how to master all of the urges that were happening within you.

And it comes from a very prevalent Greek concept. And what I want to do today is I wanna break down how the Greeks and Romans understood the concept of self-control, and how that differs from what the Bible teaches us about self-control.

So let’s first jump to the word self-control; it’s the same word that’s used in the Scriptures. But this word in Greek is egkrateia. Now, it’s a word that is in conflict, because it’s two words coming together. The first word you see is krat—it’s where we get like the concept of like great or powerful or master, lordship. And then this “e-g,” it’s short for “self” or short for “ego.”

And the battle is which one is going to win? Will the self be mastered? Will the self come under control? Or will it refuse it and resist it?

And there were two primary philosophies in the Greek day. During Paul’s time. These two philosophies really unpacked what they believed this word meant. How they interact. Because the Greeks believe if you had self-control, you would be successful. To the Greek mindset, there was no virtue greater than egkrateia. And every student, every teenager, every mother, every father, every person, what they tried to do was master this. Cause they wanted to be successful.

And there was these two groups of people. The stoics—it’s the one first like philosophical group of people. And a stoic was an interesting type of person because they didn’t have any feelings. They had no emotions. They had ‘em; they just suppressed them. They didn’t believe that they were important. They thought if you actually lean into feelings or desires, it would lead you down a wrong path.

And so the stoics actually became the kind of people who just stuffed everything. They didn’t show emotion. They didn’t cry. They didn’t grieve. They didn’t mourn. There was no sense of sadness. Whenever they were... saw something lustful, they didn’t even lean into it. They almost dismissed any part of their physical and emotional parts of their body because they thought if you lean into it, it’s gonna take you down a wrong path.

Truth be told, stoics, they were moralists. What I mean by that is they did good things. And their attempt to do good things was for the benefit of being considered good. They believed that they were successful or had the right position or achieved the right amount of money or resources, they would be considered okay.

They lived their life with the whole thought like, “I gotta pull myself up by my bootstraps. It’s on me.”

And the stoics, they was a highly successful people in their day. But, you know what? They didn’t understand grace. Cause everything was in what they did. Their whole identity was on their work. And the stoics found themselves defining the concept of self-control as this:

The self controlling the self.

And, really, when you think about that little, simple definition—self controls self—who is in control? Who has all the power? Who is leading and driving the show? It’s me. It’s the self.

And so they constantly kept thinking, I’m in charge. It’s all on me. I gotta make it happen.

Now, these stoics, there was a group on the other side who just made fun of them. Most of the kids from stoic families became epicurean. And epicurean were like, “Uh, you don’t feel? You don’t lean into your desires? How fun is that? I wanna feel. I wanna experience. I wanna taste everything. I don’t wanna be controlled. If I’m in control, I wanna set myself free so that I can taste and experience.”

And truth be told, they loved alcohol. They loved sex. They did whatever they wanted to do. They were driven by their lust and by their desires.

Now, what’s amazing is this whole side dismissed it and suppressed it. This side was quite animalistic. They just went after whatever their desires wanted. And they defined self-control as the self unbridling the self. The self freeing up the self to do whatever it wants. Because if we’re in control, do it all. But they didn’t understand that this kind of life would leave to enslavement. To being found stuck, maybe in a destructive pattern of alcoholism or debauchery or pain and brokenness.

And when you look at these two types of people... it’s not just back then, is it? Aren’t there people that you know who suppress all their feelings? Who, in many ways, they’re just socially acceptable addicts. They just work harder and are more driven. But they never actually lean into the pain and brokenness. And, really, if you push them hard enough, they will say, “It’s all on me.”

And then we probably all know someone in our family or in our friendship circle... who found themselves just running after whatever they can taste, ingest, or put in their body to escape the present. And you look at this, Jesus actually interacted with this concept. In the book of Luke, He tells a story about a father who has two sons, and the one son, the younger son, comes up to him and goes, “Give me my share of the inheritance.” Basically tells the father: “You’re dead to me.”

So the father gives him the money. And he goes off to some Gentile country, the Scripture says, and spends it on wild living. He lives the epicurean way. And he finds himself just absolutely broken. He starts rehearsing the plot, the script, what he’s gonna say to his dad, cause he doesn’t understand grace. He thinks, ah, I messed up. There’s no way he’s gonna accept me.

Well, the father does accept him and says, “Let’s throw a massive party.” But the stoic brother, the older sibling, he’s done everything right. He’s been good. And when he sees what grace does, he can’t take it. And he leaves the party. And he’s so irritated and so frustrated, he doesn’t want anybody to see it, but it’s starting to bubble up, and he can’t manage it, so he gets outside. And he finds himself standing there when the father goes, “Don’t you understand... this is what grace is? This is what grace does.”

And the older brother’s like, “That’s not right. That’s not okay. He does not deserve this. I’ve done good, and you’ve never given me anything.”

Just... quick time out. Which one of these are you? Do you have a tendency to suppress and disconnect from your feelings or your pain, to not lean in? Or do you have a tendency to escape it and just run to something else so that you don’t have to deal with it? Self controls self. Self unbridles self. But those two are not the biblical definition of self-control.

Here’s what Paul means. If you have a Bible, you can turn with me to Galatians chapter 5. Verse 22. It says this:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Remember, the Greeks said this was the number one virtue. Paul says, “No, it’s number... it’s the last one. It’s the ninth virtue.”

Against such things there is no law.

Verse 24:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

So here’s what Paul’s getting at. In every one of us, we have this flesh. And this word flesh is a little bit tricky to understand. But let me try and break it down. The concept of flesh means that, inherently within us all, there is this nature... to sin. There is something inside of us that is bent on choosing something other than God’s best. And sometimes, it’s socially acceptable things, and oftentimes, it’s not. But there’s something inside of us that bends us to lust. To envy. To greed. To anger. To slander. To gossip. To rage.

And this sinful nature, when we’re provoked, we find ourselves bending towards it. And Paul’s saying, “No, no, no. Do you know what has happened for those who belong to Christ Jesus? You know what they’ve done? They have the self-control, and what they’ve done is they have surrendered those passions, those desires, and they’ve actually crucified them to the cross.”

And when Paul’s talking about self-control, he’s not talking about the self controlling self, or the self unbridling the self to go do whatever it wants. What Paul is saying is the self surrendering to Christ. Surrendering all of those passions and all of those desires, anything in which we could be bent this way or that way, that takes us off from the life that God has destined for us.

Friends, I just have to ask you. Which one are you? How do you define self-control? Is it simply you just trying to control on your own... those urges within you? I just gotta do it in my own strength. That’s the stoic way. It’s not biblical. Or is it more like, you know what? Self-control to me is, you know, I’ve got freedom. I can do whatever I want. That’s epicurean way. It leads to destruction. That’s not the biblical way.

Or... do you have such a profound understanding of grace, of Jesus... that you can be honest and human with your passions, with your desires, with that part of you that wants to bend away from God—are you able to surrender that to Christ?

And truth is, I know a lot of people will say, “Yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s what I want.” But most people don’t know how to do it. And what I want to spend the remaining time is how do we live this out? How do we have this biblical understanding of self-control? How can we apply it to our life? And so I wanna take you back to the ancient Near East.

I was in my chair time, and I was reading, and I came across the book of Proverbs. I love it, because it’s leadership axioms for today. It was written by King Solomon who, at the time, was the wisest person who had ever lived. And when you read it, it’s like verse by verse, it’s pure gold, even for right now.

I was reading, and I came across Proverbs 25:28, and it just simply said this:

Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.

Now, you have to think about this. A city wanted to protect itself. And Solomon says, “Man, when there’s holes... all of a sudden, enemy can get in. And they can rob the kids of their innocence; there are things that can be taken. It could be quite destructive.” And he goes... and he makes this connection to self-control. And, all of a sudden, as I read this—I don’t know if this happens with you, but when you’re in your chair time and you’re reading, God might whisper something to you. And you know what was whispered to me? The story of Nehemiah.

And remembering Nehemiah... the book before it was Ezra, and there was a whole bunch of exiles who were freed to return back to Jerusalem so that they could rebuild the temple. And they rebuild this beautiful temple. But Nehemiah shows up, in chapter 1, verse 3, and he says this:

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

Then verse 4:

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah shows up, and he sees this beautiful temple. Where the presence of the Spirit and the living God is. And he goes, “It’s just sitting out there to be taken.” And he looks at the wall, and he sees there’s all these holes in the wall, and he goes, “I know; I’ve heard the stories of how the temple had been ransacked... how it had been destroyed. We can’t have this happen.”

So, in chapter 2, early in the morning, late at night, he ends up taking a team, and they go and inspect the outer perimeter of the city. And he begins to go, “Oh, man, we gotta do something.” And hear’s this whisper from God. And he ends up saying, “We’re gonna rebuild this. We’re gonna protect this temple at all costs.”

And then I started to get curious. I don’t know if this happens with you when you’re reading the Scriptures, but I had my laptop right there. And I just said, “What does Nehemiah’s name mean in Hebrew?”

Just googled it up. And it said, “Comforter.” I thought, oh, that’s interesting. So I kinda just went and just trying to back-check and see if it was true. It was true. And then, all of a sudden, I started to think, that’s interesting. When Jesus says that He’s gonna leave, He says that this great Advocate’s gonna come. This great Counselor. And the word that He uses to describe the Holy Spirit is this Great Comforter. Comforter.

All of a sudden, I started seeing this. And then God’s like, “Oh, oh, oh, oh—think about this. What is your body?” I started to think about this and... the book of Corinthians, Paul says that our bodies are a temple for the Holy Spirit. And I think about Nehemiah when he walked around the city, and he saw that the temple was open to the potential danger, and he wept. He cried. He got on his knees. He mourned. He fasted and said, “I gotta do something about it.”

And I wonder, if we really believe that our bodies are a temple for the Holy Spirit, how protected is that temple? How protected is your temple from the devil coming in and trying to choke out the Spirit that’s within you? And it was like one of those moments where you just kind of step away from the desk, and you’re like, Oh, my...

I used to be this film major before I kinda switched my major, went into pastoral studies and biblical studies. And one of the reasons I made this switch is because different people started to kind of see a teaching gift, and they started to give me opportunities.

The second sermon I ever gave, I was still a film major; a youth ministry said, “Hey, we need a Sunday teacher, would you, would you mind coming to teach?”

I said, “Sure. Is there anything that you want me to teach on?”

“Anything that you want.”

I was like, “Awesome. I’m going to teach on The Godfather.”

So I was studying it in class. I thought it was amazing. So I show up and I’ve got like this... VHS player—remember those?—and this TV; it was connected. I put it in. And I show this scene from The Godfather. Where the house just gets shot up. Right? And, like, Al Pacino’s sleeping with his wife and his kid, and the house just gets shot up, right? And so I’m like, oh, man, yeah. And so then I start talking, as I’m hitting the fast-forward button. It was like... and I’m talking over it. And all the kids are like, “This is so weird.” And it’s just going, going, going. And then I stop it at this other part. When, all of a sudden, Al Pacino—if you remember in seeing this movie—he walks up to the guy who he suspects has done this, and he goes, “In my house!? In my house, where my wife sleeps, where my kid is!? In my ho-” And he just keeps saying this, over and over.

And so I go, “Maybe God is like Al Pacino. Your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit. And do you ever think that God is going up to you going, ‘In my house!?’” And I just start screaming this over and over: “In my house!?”

Now... I’m like looking down, a girl’s like, “I’ve never seen violence before!” You know? And I’m... terrible sermon idea. But a little bit of truth. Little bit of truth. But I have this moment where I wonder, like, does God ever just go, “Man, in my house!?” And I don’t know if we think about protecting the temple. Because, you know, you don’t do this very often, but when you read through the Scriptures, you gotta understand that there is an enemy that is trying to get into your life. That is trying to strangle your soul. That is trying to bend your will so that you will choose anything but God.

There is this devil that does not want your marriage to thrive. Does not want you to live true to who you were created to be.

And I don’t think we think about the perimeter. And when I read that passage about Nehemiah, I just started to visualize the city of Jerusalem. And I started to think about that temple. And then I thought, man, we are a temple. Our bodies are a temple. And then, around this perimeter, there are holes in our wall. And maybe, for some of you, your hole in your wall has to do with lust. And it’s nothing that you’ve ever addressed.

Someone comes into your purview, and you find yourself just staring. And it’s not just admiring beauty, but it just becomes these thoughts. And leads you to go home and, and you end up, maybe, just getting on a computer. And, all of a sudden, the devil is looking for a foothold to get in, to get at your heart, to bend your will.

For some of you, it’s more socially acceptable. It’s just perfectionism. Just gotta be perfect, right? The stoic side of you. I just gotta be perfect. Everything will be okay if I’m just better than okay. I gotta work harder, and I gotta be better, and if I’m better than the last time, then, ahhh, job security. And job security means I got a title. And if I got a title, then it means I got friends. And if I got friends, then it means I got status. And if I got status, that means, ahhh, I’m okay.

And the devil’s like, “No you’re not. It always can be better.” And, all of a sudden, he just comes at you. And so you just keep working. And working.

Maybe for some of you, it’s anger. And the devil’s like, “I’m just gonna keep sending people to cut you off cause you lose it. And it’s awesome. And every time you lose it, ohhhh. You feel bad. Then shame comes in. And then you find yourself dealing with the shame. And, all of a sudden, I win.”

 

Maybe for some of you, it’s money. You don’t have a budget. Everything’s maxed out. Stressed out. And the devil’s like, “Oh, yes. Just gonna stress you out. I’m gonna break something in your house. I don’t know—just, something’s gonna go out. I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna get after your heart. And, all of a sudden, watch you just crumble.”

Maybe for some of you it’s about relationships. You find yourself just having codependent kind of tendencies. You’re like, “I just gotta, I gotta have those people.” And, all of a sudden, you just find yourself, and it’s like a foothold, and the devil just keeps taking your identity.

Maybe it has to do with other relationships that are just not helpful. Maybe... I don’t know. Maybe you’re looking at this going, “That’s not me.” Then I’ll just say, well, maybe you’ve got pride. See what I did there? It’s good. And the devil’s like, “Got you! I’m just gonna rob you.”

The problem is I think we all look at this and go, “It makes sense.” And I think, in our day, I don’t think we take our bodies as seriously as God does. I don’t think we take what we ingest, what we put in, as serious as God does. And I don’t think we protect our temples the way that the Scriptures tell us to. And here’s the interesting piece. If this is you. You come from a story and generations of people. Who all were bent and chose to actually do things that were tempted in ways.

For me, I came from an Irish-Catholic side. And they loved anger and alcohol. And I think if I don’t, if I’m not aware of that, then the devil’s like, “Just gonna provoke you, just gonna try and set you off, and just gonna take you down.”

And wisdom would say, “Be aware of that hole in your story. Because you do not want the devil to have a foothold.” I’m asking you, do you know the holes in your story? Do you know the areas where the devil can just tempt you and time and time and time again, you take the bait? And I think what you have to believe is, no, this isn’t what God wants for us.

The stoics are just gonna say, “I can manage it all on my own.”

The epicureans are like, “Let’s just have more holes. Let’s just keep having more fun.”

But the way of Jesus is the way of grace.

What I want you to do, is I want us to unpack this from a viewpoint of grace. And then I wanna give you some handles of how you can actually live a life that cultivates self-control.

We’re gonna go to the book of Titus. Which, I know all of you were there this morning. But chapter 2. Verse 11 says this: 

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.

The grace of God. This is all grace. Every breath we take. It’s grace. And it offers salvation to all of the stoics in the room. And all of the epicureans. God welcomes everyone. It says, “Offers salvation to” every single person. Verse 12:

It teaches us...

This is what grace of God does:

It teaches us to say, “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions.

To say no to those moments when we feel bended to try and do something than live from grace. It teaches us...

...to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what’s good.  

Friends, this is all about grace. I’m not asking you to stuff it. I’m not asking you to just try and minimize the things that are happening in your life. And I’m not just asking you to allow your desires to run wild. I’m asking you to receive grace.

And when you understand grace, and you understand that your body, your life, is a temple, and you understand that God wants to actually protect this temple, then it forces you to go, “How am I gonna do this?”

Which leads us to the fact that we can live our lives not as a stoic or epicurean, but we can cultivate self-control by, one, choosing the way of grace. Every day. In every moment of every day. Not be driven to stuff. Not be driven to escape. But be driven to receive grace time and time again.

And then, number two, you gotta take an honest assessment of the holes in your wall. You have to take an honest assessment, in your story, your family background, your own choices that you’ve made, the ways that the devil has tried to tempt you—you’ve got to take an honest assessment to go, “Where am I susceptible to temptation?”

And, sometimes, I’m just gonna say it, Genesis 3, the devil’s crafty. He’s just sneaky.

Yesterday morning, I was up 4ish. I got changed. I came here. Was studying. 8 a.m., went home. Picked up my son. We went to the soccer game. We won. And then... went home. Changed. Drove to that small-group-leader retreat. Did this interview. Left right out of that. Came here. Changed my clothes. Put on a suit. Officiated a wedding. After the wedding, changed my clothes, put on black, got up on stage, taught God’s Scriptures... ran off the stage. Drove straight back to the small-group retreat to lead a prayer time. For about two hours. And then left that and drove straight to a going-away party for a dear friend.

And I was telling my wife my schedule the day before yesterday. And she looked at me, and she goes, “Is there a reason why you’re doing so much?”

And I was like, “Get behind me, satan!”

Um...

Well, she’s asking, she’s asking an honest question. She’s asking, “Is there more to the story? Have you taken an honest assessment of the holes...?”

And, truth be told, my family is... someone that’s really near and dear to me in my family, his health isn’t doing very well. And so, for me, I’d rather not engage with that pain. I’d rather keep myself busy. And what my wife was leaning into was just, “Do you see how this situation, how the devil just can use this, and put opportunities, and you can just keep yourself busy, and it’s socially acceptable, but you’re missing out on experiencing the grace and the presence and the peace of Christ in the moment?”

And what you have to understand is all of us do this.

And maybe for some of you right now, you’re going through a really difficult time. But I’m asking you, where is the devil trying to bend your will? Is it towards the bottle—pills or alcohol?

Is it towards just food and then sitting on the couch and just eating? Or watching Netflix—an entire season in one night? Is it towards just taking your credit card and going straight to the mall and just saying, “I just gotta buy something.” And to not sit in it, and the devil’s like, “Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.” And then the shame comes on. And the feelings come on. And you’re just like, ahhh. And you look at the temple, and you’re like, “Ugh, I did it again.”

And the healthiest thing is when you choose grace and then you take an honest assessment of your story and you’re like, I’m susceptible here, and I’m susceptible here, and I’m susceptible here. And then, once you’ve named the places where you have honestly said, “I am susceptible,” you go to this: “I gotta invite the Comforter to rebuild.” And who’s that Comforter? It’s the Holy Spirit.

Every one of the Fruit of the Spirit, you know what it’s trying to do? It’s trying to make you holy. And you know what holiness is? It’s setting you apart. All of those nine virtues coming into those areas of your story and of brokenness, trying to redeem and restore. You choose the way of grace. Honest assessment of the holes. Inviting the Comforter to come rebuild. And then, fourth, and it’s so important...

Number four. You must have a vision for the eternal that is profoundly greater than the urges of the moment. Because you’re gonna have urges in the moment. To say things. To do things. To buy things. To experience things. And if you do not have a vision of the eternal, the urges of the moment, the desires and the passions of right now, will probably, most likely, win out every time.

And the healthiest Christ followers I know are people who are able to say, “I have this vision of eternity. What really matters. And it’s loving God, and it’s loving my neighbor. And it’s loving God, and it’s loving others. And it’s loving God, and it’s about loving people.”

And when you begin to live with that mindset then, all of a sudden, all of the urges that come, you begin to put it into that line and go, “Is this grace? Is this like loving God? Is this loving my neighbor? Or is this just trying to escape?”

And you’re gonna have moments where you are gonna choose urges. And when you choose that, can I just tell you, go back to the way of grace. Then go to the assessment. Invite the Comforter. And remember the vision for the eternal.

This is the way of you surrendering before Christ and you actually living a biblical view of self-control.

Let me just ask you right now. Are you living like a stoic? And if that’s you, you’re doing good stuff. But can I just tell you, grace is so much better than good stuff.

Maybe for some of you in this room, you’re living like an epicurean. And everything’s about escaping and experiencing and experimenting and trying and letting your desires fuel you. And I’m just gonna tell you, grace is better. Grace is always better. And when you choose the way of grace, you can look at your life with an honesty going, “I need more grace. I need a Savior.” And you can surrender to the One who is willing to give Himself on your behalf so that you could be made right for all of eternity.

And I want that for you. I can’t stand the devil. I can’t stand sin. I can’t stand brokenness. But you know what I want more desperately? I want the church to be the kind of people who know themselves and know where they’re susceptible and say, “You know what? I see it. And I’m not gonna allow myself to go to those places. I’m gonna live the posture of surrender. And I’m gonna trust the Scriptures. Trust the Spirit. Trust what Jesus says. Trust what the apostles have said. And I’m gonna live into that. And I’m gonna trust that, in that, God is gonna do something that cultivates the best kind of fruit.”

And the people who do this... they have love. They have joy. They have peace. They have patience. They have kindness. They have goodness. They have gentleness. They have faithfulness. And they have self-control. But without self-control, I don’t know if you can get those other ones.

So how are you surrendering to grace?

It begins there, friends. And if you can do that, I think God will cultivate something so beautiful in you. So profound that, when people see it, when people experience it, when people taste it, they’re gonna wanna know more. And it’s in that you’re gonna be able to tell them about what grace really is. And in that... I think people’s lives will be changed.

But it begins with you choosing grace. Amen? Amen.