Let’s say that you have an opportunity to speak about Christ to a very influential couple. They pursue you. “Tell us more about this Jesus,” they say. You have to choose your words wisely or like the old Gong Show, they might become offended or bored and immediately stop the conversation.
Given this opportunity, how many of us would include a discourse on self-control? Probably not many. But when Paul was asked to talk about his beliefs before the Roman governor Felix and his wife, he did and here is the reaction he got:
As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” (Acts 24:25)
“Righteousness” – Paul is probably talking about the imputed righteousness of Christ. He is answering Felix’s stated or implicit concern, how can a person be right with God? “The judgment to come” – Paul is saying, “Yes, Felix, your intuitions are correct. We will appear before God and apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ, we will not be right with God and will stand under his judgment.” This is most likely why he was gonged. But sometime in between righteousness and judgment, he also talked about self-control. Since Roman society preferred indulgence, it seems a risky subject for an incarcerated man—so why did he do it? Perhaps he knew that like most people, it’s what Felix and his wife secretly desired but had no way of attaining without Christ.
And sadly, nothing has changed in 2000 years. Every generation both dabbles in licentiousness and hopes for self-control. Every generation discovers that life without boundaries is quickly followed by slavery to our passions, and slavery is followed by misery. If you want to peddle the perfect elixir, offer one that gives self-control. We all want it and need it.
The quest for self-indulgence is inevitably coupled with the dream for self-control, though one desire tends to be stronger than the other. The same magazines that promote sexual freedom are the same ones that offer five steps to loose ten pounds and how not to become overtaken by unruly emotions. The United States may be the first country to outdo the rest of the world in both obesity (licentiousness) and exercise (self-discipline) simultaneously. Up to this point, self-indulgence has been dominant, but slavery to indulgence is taking its toll, and you can almost feel the balance of power changing. We now consult life coaches for help and they aren’t known for their whatever-you-want advice. Whereas we once majored in self-indulgence and minored in self-control, we can now easily imagine thoughtful people asking: What must I do to not be controlled by my emotions and desires?
The problem is that self-indulgence is easy. Self-control—nearly impossible.
At least we can say this: self-control is back in play—even in the secular realm. In reality, it always has been and always will be. Humans were intended to live within boundaries.
We have to wonder what Paul said to Felix. No doubt, he said more than “stop it.” And no doubt, he did not offer any new rules to follow. His letter to the Colossians gives the essence of his thought on the subject:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:18-23)
Fascinating, isn’t it? The Colossians were looking for a leg up in attaining self-control by worshiping angels and adding some new prohibitions, especially some that will cause some pain. This won’t work, Paul says, but there is indeed a secret to self-control and that secret is Christ.
My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:2-3)
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul prefers to refer to Jesus as Christ – the Messiah, the King. This is a strategic choice. He wants to emphasize that Christians have a new citizenship; live in a new kingdom, with a new ruler. This alone will prepare us in the battle for self-control. Christ abolished the law codes that could condemn, disarmed the powers who enslaved you with your out-of-control desires, brought peace in your heart and planted love for others where love of self alone once invaded everything. Now, Paul says, live life under the banner of the King. Do everything in his name.
Welcome to the realm where Christ reigns supreme.
Paul keeps going. So stay connected to Christ by faith, he says. How could you do anything else? Where else will you find power when everything is under him? Would you prefer darkness and slavery when the King has come to free you? Of course not.
With all this in mind and with his help, put to death your residual quest for self-indulgence. Things like “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5-6). Let it be your pleasure to put these desires to death.
And remember to pursue others with compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience. What does loving others have to do with self-control? According to Paul, watch and see. Even Alcoholics Anonymous has discerned that there is a connection between how we live with others and the flare-ups of addiction. Love others and you will be fighting your tendencies to self-indulgence.
In the end, we don’t know why Paul got gonged, but you may find that talking about self-control will at least tap into the secret desire of someone who is asking about the gospel. Try it. If you get gonged—you are in good company.