The Bible claims that Christians do not grieve as others (1 Thessalonians 4:13). And, of course not. Christians believe that this life is the doorway to eternity. I live now and then I am judged. Afterward comes the resurrection. This life is part--potentially--of a life that will measure with eternity. The Bible teaches not that we are immortal but that immortality is the gift of Jesus to the believer (1 Corinthians 15:53).
In other words, the Christian frame of reference for living takes in today, tomorrow, and eternity. I am accountable for my past actions, my present actions, and I will be accountable for my future actions.
What happened when John lived his faith? Revelation 1:9 tells us:
I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on that island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
One day you or I might be in exile or prison for our faith. Then some self-control will do us well indeed.
Then there is the risk of somehow thinking that we are saved or lost on the basis of our good or bad deeds. Don't go down that alleyway. We will indeed be saved or lost; that is, we will choose transformation into the selfless mindset of Jesus or choose to develop full-on selfishness in ourselves like Satan. But there will only ever be goodness manifest in us if we permit Jesus to dwell in us and change us from the inside out. And then, we will only ever be "saved" by the mercy and goodness of God. Jesus died to save us, to change us, to give us back our humanity and self-control. It is His sacrifice that stands in place of our crooked lives. We want Him to change us so that we embrace humanness, but we are saved by His godness. We are guilty; He is innocent. He dies on the cross to save us; we do not become nice to save Him.
What is the kingdom of God? It is a community of rational, morally-aligned persons who want to do good to God and to those made in His image. We say "I want to be more like Jesus" but we also choose to live our life in the world through Christ-anointed eyes. We see others as being extremely valuable because they are made in God's image. They are valuable because of this heritage which means they can become self-controlled; they can be holy.
Self-control means delayed gratification. You have agency, you have free choice. You could do something now, but you defer that possible thing until later because it is right to do something else right now. There is opportunity to steal. No one would know. But you don't do it. Or, there is opportunity to demand your rights, but you forbear. There is opportunity to get even with someone who has done you evil, but you exercise patience like God has exercised toward you.
In contrast, look what secular humanism brings to the table. There is no eternity to bring into view. All that is in such a person's sights is this life. So, if all that is is this life, then you have to be much more careful with delaying gratification. If you are ever going to enjoy blueberries, it has to be now. If you are ever going to have a nice car, nothing is more certain than this moment. If you are ever going to experience sexual pleasure, you can only make sure of that by engaging in the sex act now. If you believe that this life is all that is, then you have to eat any pie you are ever going to eat sometime between this moment and the moment you die. After this is not judgment, but endless nothing.
In that mindset all that is left is raw, temporary experience. Every person becomes merely an object to get to the experience you want. All is reduced to the material.
There is terminology for this. They call it "high time preference." It is short-term thinking, immediate or near immediate gratification. You don't save for tomorrow because there may not be a tomorrow for you.
In contrast, there is "low time preference," or long-term thinking. Learning how to play a musical instrument takes time. You need to engage in regular practice. You trade time, at least multiple sessions each week, for acquired skill. Thus, quality music is the result of low time preference thinking, or long-term thinking. Designing a rocket, developing a deep understanding of a subject like medicine, take time. Such skills are long-term investments.
Parenting takes time. Why do you parent? You love your children and you want them to be successful, godly people. So you take care of them every day, you nurture them, teach them, train them. If you are able, you save up money to help pay for educational opportunities. You want them to be improvers of the world, not destroyers, so you teach them how to delay gratification and how to do things right.
Time is always scarce. Each person receives His allotment. We need to be wiser in what we do with the time we are given. What it boils down to one of two directions:
- Future-orientation, self-discipline, willingness to forego present gratification in exchange for a better future, or
- Present orientation, hedonism
That is, low time preference, meaning long-term thinking and acting, or high time preference, meaning short-term thinking and acting. Every person faces these decisions. How will I live my life? Will I live it for tomorrow and eternity or for today and what I can experience today? But now, let's go to the Scriptures and drill some core samples.
The Great Controversy
The Bible is filled with examples of time preference in operation. God does not wipe out Satan and his rebellion in a nanosecond. The conflict between good and evil principles is played out over thousands of years. Jesus comes only after some 4000 years of good and evil actions have been conducted in the world, and then Heaven waits another 2000 years at least before the conflict will be ended. Why does God take so long to put an end to violence, rape, cancer, and torture? Because in the end sin will never rise up again. In the end we will have free choice, free agency, for all the ages of eternity, but we will exercise our choice to freely choose the good. Sin will never rise up again. Jesus comes to "save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). And it is still not over. To attain this mighty result God is taking the necessary time, good and evil are playing out, showing their fruit.
The Wilderness Temptation
We see time preference again in the duel between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness temptation. Jesus goes forty days without food. When Satan comes, his first temptation to Jesus is to get Him to use divine power to make stones into bread. Jesus refuses. Jesus is demonstrating the power of self-control. His Father has not released Him from the trial yet, so He waits, He starves, He demonstrates that "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Jesus makes living demonstration of low time preference thinking. It is better to trust God and wait, than to indulge and serve self. "When we learn the power of His word, we shall not follow the suggestions of Satan in order to obtain food or to save our lives" (The Desire of Ages 121).
In the gospel of Matthew we come to the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), the very "Constitution" as it were, of the kingdom of God. The beatitudes are also characterized by low time preference. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The beatitudes point to a future consummation. Be selfless now, and in the future the earth will be a different place. There are some kinds of suffering, like persecution, where the benefit of faithfulness includes present blessing, not only future. But the beatitudes are described by Jesus mostly in future terms.
Gates Wide or Narrow
Do you remember the narrow gate and the wide way? Matthew 7:13-14:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Time preference is seen here for either a process toward self-destruction or a process toward life. The way that leads to life is narrow, confined, self-controlled. The way that leads to destruction is broad and easy. It is the path of immediate self-gratification. You get all your apple pie now because there might not be a tomorrow and there might not be any apple pie tomorrow.
Love as the Principle of Action
But self-discipline should not be considered in a cold and mechanical way. You can think of control that way, of a machine perhaps where you press a button or throw a mechanical switch and a door locks or a computer is turned on or off. But we are not here merely thinking-through control. We are looking at self-control. This is about humans, people, not machine but character. Hear this paragraph:
The loveliness of the character of Christ will be seen in His followers. It was His delight to do the will of God. Love to God, zeal for His glory, was the controlling power in our Saviour's life. Love beautified and ennobled all His actions. Love is of God. The unconsecrated heart cannot originate or produce it. It is found only in the heart where Jesus reigns. 'We love, because He first loved us.' 1 John 4:19, R.V. In the heart renewed by divine grace, love is the principle of action. It modifies the character, governs the impulses, controls the passions, subdues enmity, and ennobles the affections. This love, cherished in the soul, sweetens the life and sheds a refining influence all around (Steps to Christ 59).
It's so simple. Christians will be at least somewhat like Christ. If you are not consecrated to God, your heart cannot demonstrate divine love. There is a selfish kind of love unconverted people can have, such as a desire for their children to prosper, for a child to win a competition, for someone in the family to be benefited financially. Those are not necessarily bad things but they can be, shall we say, very self-interested.
It is in contrast to this that there is a species of love which has its source in God. If and only if Jesus is reigning in your heart, which is all and only by your free choice, can you express this love.
Where you have this reality, love is the principle of action. What does this love do? Some say follow the money. But another way to better understand is to follow the verbs. Seven verbs are stacked in here:
- sheds a refining influence
And that is what love does. Far from being an empty, meaningless, wax-nosed word, love is active and powerful. If you choose to have Jesus reigning in your heart, and you completely surrender yourself to Him, this will be the result. Divine love chosen by you, adjusts your character and controls your passions. If there is a wrong enmity in you God's love subdues it. If there is a wrong kind of love in you, God's love ennobles it. Your life is sweetened and the lives around you are drawn towards heaven.
The times are more uncertain by the hour. Who among us knows when we might be serving Him in prison, or, off in the forest seeking to endure and to be faithful. Self-control will be necessary then either way. I've been reading Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago vol. 1. The books recount harrowing times in Communist Russia in the 1940s, when millions and millions were imprisoned and sent to hard labor camps or worse, all for the flimsiest of alleged charges. On page 130 Solzhenitsyn helps us understand how important self control can be in that kind of situation. Listen:
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap? From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: 'My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die--now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.' Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.
That might be useful one day. That, combined with some Christian self control.
But you say, it is not in me. No, it is not in you. That is, it does not originate in you. It is in Jesus. So you have to have Jesus in you. But if Jesus is on the throne in you, then His glory will be seen in your hands, your feet, your voice, expressing His love into the world through what you do. And that, exactly that, is Christian self-discipline.
A Starting Place
Some people like lists, starting places. Here is a list of seven points I practice in my life which are a help toward self-control.
- Maintain a regular, suitable time for sleep
- Begin your day with God's Word
- Have a calling, not a job
- Maintain personal health for a clearer mind
- Avoid all uses of significant mind-altering substances
- Trust the trustworthy wholly; distrust the untrustworthy completely
- Today is one day out of eternity. Keep perspective
Many these days struggle at the first point the most. With more care in addressing that point, we will be enabled to become more self-controlled.
Just as Christians do not grieve as others do because they have a much greater span of existence in view (eternity), Christians do not approach other aspects of life having just a moment or a brief period in view. Garbage takes a moment, excellence takes time. Garbage is gone in a moment; excellence endures. We can live a garbage life or an eternal life. You can be self-undisciplined, to the dishonor of your parents, or self-disciplined. Jesus advocates the narrow way, the way that is more restricted, because that is the way that produces unselfish people.
I might add, what the world needs today, are examples of self-controlled people; that is, people who know Jesus by experience. When there is fire in the streets you know that your example of self-control is needed.
Muskegon and Fremont MI SDA churches via Internet Zoom 2020-06-06