Control is a dangerous word. It’s OK, and in fact vital, for us to have a control for our TV or for our Xbox. It helps when we exercise control of our pets and our vehicles. We may have to control things at work. I get berated in the garden for my poor control of the football. All these things are good and normal… But we have to be careful when we use the word control in relation to our human relationships. However much we might like to sometimes, it is not acceptable for us to control other people; even if they are close to us – our children, our spouse, our friends. The only person I can have any semblance of control over, is myself. You might well know the feeling of wishing you could control somebody else from afar:
“If only I could fast forward this talk/lecture/conversation.. ”
“If only I could put this person on pause… ”
“I’d really like to eject this person from my life…”
This kind of feeling can easily occur in church life. We look at others, and their activity or engagement with faith or mission, and we can’t help but conclude that it would be far, far better if they did it my way. If I could just only control the way they think and approach things, then it would be so much more effective. Working collaboratively can test our levels of self-control. We have to listen to other people. We have to take their views on board. We have to find common ground. We have to stop ourselves saying what we really think. Self-control is vital for the planning stage of mission. If we could all exercise it in equal measure, then it might just be easier to work together and to move forward effectively.
What would be even better, would be to be able to control those we are seeking to reach out to. If we could just make them believe! What a brilliant shortcut to full churches and thriving communities that would be. Mind-control of those around us is attempted by some, and is rightly rubbished. It’s not right to even try this kind of thing. So, how do we exercise self-control? And why is it important in our faith communities and in our mission?
The self-control that St Paul calls us to, is to do with us being watchful and temperate in our physical and spiritual lives. The Authorised Version translated the word as ‘temperance’. Temperance has become associated more with self-denial and the ability (or inability) of some to stave off the guilty pleasures of alcohol and other substances. The Temperance Movement (not the Glasgow-based rockers) is engaged in the social promotion of abstinence and being teetotal. An admirable attempt at austerity, but perhaps not in line with what Paul meant in his litany of fruits of the Spirit.
Paul is writing about a healthy way of being, yes, but one that has a more holistic feel to it. It is not self-control in terms of us controlling our destiny; but it is an earthy, pragmatic encouragement for us to be more aware of our own being. To manage ourselves more positively. To not worry that we cannot control others. To keep ourselves in check. To walk with God’s Holy Spirit, we will exercise self-control. We will continually orientate ourselves to God. We are safe with him and he will keep us on the right track.
Finally, what does it bring to our mission as a church? It helps us have perspective. A perspective that allows other views be listened to. A perspective that gives others the ability to be involved. A perspective that puts us in our proper place – not in control, but much more aware of where we fit in with God’s mission. Working together in mission is such an exciting thing. We are encouraged by Paul to manage ourselves, so that we can listen, contribute and plan our part in God’s story of mission.