Getting Ourselves Under Control
Galatians 5:23 (NKJV)
by Bob Burridge ©2001, 2018
A while ago a steady handed researcher who obviously had very good eyesight began surgical experiments with house flies. The researcher was trying to determine how flies controlled their appetite. The story is recorded in the book, “To Know A Fly” by Vincent G. Dethier.
It wasn’t easy finding out how a signal was sent to the fly’s brain telling it to stop eating when it was full.They tried surgically altering various body parts so his team could eventually discover the mechanism. They ruled out chemicals in the blood stream, a full stomach (or the fly’s equivalent), and various other theories.
Finally they hit on success. By surgically cutting an almost invisible nerve in the fly’s neck (no easy job) the fly gained an insatiable appetite. It grew larger stretching the abdomen and flattening the internal organs against his sides, yet it wouldn’t stop taking in food. The altered flies would become too heavy to fly or even do much moving around, until finally death stopped the eating binge. When the fly wasn’t getting the message to stop, it kept eating. Even when it was destroying itself and bringing on its own death.
It’s also important to know when to say ‘No’ when it comes to our own moral choices. When the moral message isn’t getting through to say ‘Stop’, a person may keep indulging himself with harmful behavior. He may be destroying everything important to him, yet he continues.
In Eden Adam and Eve chose to indulge themselves in something that was forbidden. God had given them every tree for fruit but one. This was a moral limit. Instead of limiting their behavior to what God gave them, they chose to go beyond God’s limits by eating the forbidden fruit. Their act effected the moral conscience of all of humanity. It was like cutting the nerve in the neck of that fly.
We are now all born with a depraved sense of moral judgment. It’s as if a moral nerve had been severed. Our desires get out of control so easily. We are born with no moral interest in saying ‘No’ to things we enjoy. With total disregard for our Creator’s warnings and law we go beyond wise judgment and indulge.
We are created with important natural desires as creatures of God. We’re driven to eat, drink, sleep, relax, feel pleasure, socialize, have children, and so on. These desires are not evil in themselves. But God set up boundaries in his word to govern our desires. However, in our fallen condition we tend toward imbalance. The 9th characteristic of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is “Self-control“.
Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”
There are moral limits built into creation. Without the restoring work of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in us, the moral message doesn’t get through. Like the modified flies we never get the message to stop. When we indulge ourselves beyond God’s boundaries, we exchange satisfaction for satiation. Like the unfortunate flies, what God created to be a blessing is abused to our own pain and destruction.
Our fallen hearts are so easily drawn to habits that take us to extremes. Even good things can become obsessions that cause harm and offense when abused. In Proverbs 25:16 we’re told, “Have you found honey? Eat only what you need, lest you be filled with it and vomit.”
Sometimes people choose to indulge their desires without limits. This was the problem in Galatia. Galatians 5:19-21 lists examples of things they had struggled with. They are called the works of the flesh, things people engage in when they indulge their desires. They are called, “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.” These describe the natural tendency of the fallen nature.
King David faced the awful price of indulging his desires (2 Samuel 11). It was a spring evening when all the able men had gone off to war. King David got out of bed to take a walk around the roof of his house when he saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing. David asked and found that she was the wife of Uriah who was off at war.
David decided to indulge his desire for her. He sent for her and they committed adultery in the palace. When he found out she had become pregnant, David indulged his desire to cover up his sin. He tried several schemes until finally he arranged to have Uriah killed. After an appropriate period of mourning, Bathsheba married David. Verse 27 tells us, “But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the LORD.”
Nathan the prophet was sent to David to confront him with his sin. 2 Samuel 12:9-14 records that encounter.
Nathan on behalf of God asked him, “Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.’ ”
So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.”
When David indulged his desires in ways that violated God’s law it didn’t bring him pleasure for long. It brought him guilt, pain, and deep suffering.
Humanists and Libertarians promote a twisted form of self-control. They often quote Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics who said that self-control was a cardinal virtue. But to them the goal is freedom from all general rules. They see self-control as the power to liberate the self from all limits. Self-control is viewed as “the ideal of the free and independent man, of the man who is under no control but who freely controls all things and who in self-restraint maintains his freedom in face of (what) would deprive him of it…” This is self-control perverted to mean its opposite.
This is what our modern society is teaching our children today. This morality (or immorality) is the foundation of much of our modern music, art, films, television, books, magazines, and school texts. Instead of moderating our desires, it indulges them without rules or restraint.
When the Creator’s moral law is blocked out, people indulge themselves like the fly who could not stop eating.
When fallen humanity sees the problem of excessive indulging, some swing from the one extreme to another, missing the center completely. They choose to deny and condemn their natural God-given desires. They try to deprive themselves of all pleasures. Fallen humans misuse God’s creation one way or another.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk. In his earlier days his awareness of his tendency to sin led him to take vows against good things. He vowed against marriage, against enjoying any pleasures, against owning anything for himself, and other normal desires. When he felt these desires, he would beat himself with whips, isolate himself, and go without food. It was only his discovery of salvation through a true faith in Christ that set him free.
To these ascetics, self-control is the power to avoid pleasure. They think they improve on God by going all the way to abstinence from things not forbidden. They try to avoid over-indulgence by total self-denial. They begin to see all material things as evil. Spiritual things are seen by them as the moral opposite of all physical things. But, it’s certainly wrong to condemn the physical things God made, along with the natural desires he put into us, as long as we appreciate things within the boundaries the Creator set for their proper enjoyment.
This dualism is still seen today, even among some well-intended extreme groups of true believers in Christ. Rather than practicing godly moderation and restraint they condemn things never condemned in the Bible. But the soul not directed by a sound foundation of God’s word gets things mixed up. They might abstain from wearing jewelry, makeup, going to movies, drinking coffee, any use of alcoholic beverages, and a whole list of other things. Yet they are no closer to overcoming sin than anyone else.
They fail to show reasonable self-control over things that satisfy our God-given desires thereby to enjoy creation for Christ’s glory. It’s as if they presume Satan’s lordship over God’s material creation. This modern dualism sets the spiritual against the material. But in creation, God made them to work together for his glory.
God made us to enjoy the blessings of his material creation. Ecclesiastes 3:11-13 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God.” The Psalms also repeatedly point out the beauties and wonders of the physical creation.
The physical isn’t opposed to God. It displays his glory! Jeremiah 32:17 says, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You.”
The overwhelming and consistent message of Scripture is that God created us to enjoy his creation in ways that please him. We are not to condemn it.
It’s wrong to indulge our desires without regard for God’s law. It’s wrong to condemn our desires and physical pleasures as if they were evil in themselves. Both extremes defy God’s word.
God created people to have their desires satisfied in ways that please him. God’s Word teaches us to take only as much as is sufficient and moral. As we saw the warning in Proverbs 25:16 “Have you found honey? Eat only what you need, lest you be filled with it and vomit”, verse 27 adds the good advice, “It is not good to eat much honey…”
The fruit of the Spirit includes moderation. Galatians 5:23 uses the Greek word “enkrateia” (ἐγκράτεια) for “self-control”. It means power, control, dominion over the self. It’s translated “self-control” (NASB, NKJV), and “temperance” (KJV).
The Holy Spirit in us makes us able, and the Bible tells us that its our duty to develop that trait. An evidence of being born of Christ is our moderation, our self-control, our temperance. Rather than abandoning ourselves to our lusts,
or denying ourselves the pleasures God blesses, we are to enjoy what God made, within the moral boundaries he sets.
God provides the ability in Christ, but the responsibility of obedience is ours.
2 Peter 1:5-8, “But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-25 Paul gives the illustration of an athlete striving to win the prize; “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things…” That is, he avoids things that might hinder reaching his goal.
Our ultimate goal is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q-1). This can only be done his way, not by our own innovations. We must not do what he forbids. We must not condemn what he creates and provides. We must make moderate and obedient use of all God has made and given.
When we feel the desires God created in us for food, drink, sex, authority, enjoyment of what God has made, we should faithfully obey God and use, not abuse, the things and abilities he gives us.
Sexual desire in the unmarried is a good example which is so confused in our culture today. The Libertine says, “Indulge your desires in extra marital sex.” In so doing they call down God’s judgment, not His blessing. The Ascetic says; “Punish and deny the flesh by abstaining even from marriage.” Meanwhile they burn with unsatisfied lust and desire. As Luther said, his guilt troubled him day and night.
God’s word in 1 Corinthians 7:9 says, “if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Those who struggle with sexual desires should marry, not to just indulge those desires, or try to deny them. Sexual moderation is taught in Scripture, not total abstinence.
The same could be said of other strong desires. We need to show moderation in eating, drinking, watching TV, playing games, spending money, using the internet, enjoying our hobbies, or anything in our lives. Too much time and resources spent on these types of things can keep us from faithfully engaging in worship, encouraging friends and family, studying God’s word, and providing for our needs. The sin of immoderation eventually brings regret and sorrow to the believer. We need to learn to be content by finding ways to live within God’s moral boundaries.
There is blessing in moderate living. God is the only source of real blessing and satisfaction. Only when we enjoy God’s creation as he says we should can we expect the satisfying pleasures he promises. Our inheritance in Christ is to enjoy the blessings of all he brings into our lives.
We must not be like the fly who couldn’t stop eating. He never got the message that he had enough. He didn’t get blessed by his non-stop binge. He was destroyed by it. So are we in our immoral binges.
The interrupted message of the fallen moral conscience must be repaired by faith in Christ. But once restored, its our duty to employ the means of God’s grace. The repaired conscience must be fed with God’s word so we will more and more respect the moral boundaries and the ways God prescribes for satisfying our desires. The word of God reminds us of the moral principle of moderation and self-control.
The repaired conscience must regularly engage in sincere and humble prayer. This is how we show our trust in the power he provides and in the promises he makes. We need to bring our struggles to him regularly trusting in his strength and help.
The repaired conscience must worship. This keeps our focus on the glory of God. It exercises us to remember his presence and our duty in serving him thankfully in all we do. It strengthens us in humble kingdom service.
The repaired conscience must seek out godly fellowship. We all need to draw upon the encouragement of Christian friends to provide support. Ecclesiastes 4:10, “For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up.”
Unlike the unfortunate fly in Dr. Dethier’s laboratory, the moral message must get through. With the path restored by regeneration in Christ, the abiding Holy Spirit will produce this fruit in us.
Within the boundaries of what pleases our Creator there is great blessing and satisfaction for the children of God in all the natural desires he built into us at creation.
Philippians 4:19, “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”
Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.