Leading Question: To what extent does self-control simply flow from a changed heart, or does it involve blood, sweat and tears as we grapple with temptations, passions and people who irritate us?
1. Two stories: Joseph and Samson (Gen. 39:7-20; Judges 13-16). Can we identify the factors that enabled Joseph to resist temptation while Samson capitulated?
2. People-centered issues: (Gal. 5:13-26). In Galatians 6:8, Paul contrasts flesh and spirit: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow in the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. From the context, what is the clue that flesh (self-indulgence, NRSV) is not simply focused on sexual passions?
Note: The immediate contrast in 5:13 is between flesh, and being slaves to one another. In other words, to succumb to the flesh is to embark on a course of thinking or action which hurts my brother or sister. Paul immediately follows with a quotation of Jesus’ second command: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
A second clue that “flesh” is not just involved with sexual sins, is the list of the works of the flesh. One can analyze them as follows:
A. Sexual passions: fornication, impurity, licentiousness
B. Wild living with potential sexual overtones: drunkenness, carousing
C. Religious issues: idolatry, sorcery
D. Interpersonal Combativeness: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy
Clearly the dominant issue is simply relations with people. How does one learn to love people more? Can we make efforts in that direction? Is it simply a gift of God?
3. A controlled burn: 1 Cor. 7:9. In counseling those who are haunted with sexual challenges while they are on the verge of marriage, Paul simply says: “But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9, NRSV). In the context of diet, Ellen White counsels something similar for those who are struggling to get on board with the health-reform diet. Her counsel is very practical, but could almost be seen as libertarian. The parallel with Paul’s counsel is in the last sentence:
B has been very deficient. While in her best condition of health, his wife was not provided with a plenty of wholesome food and with proper clothing. Then, when she needed extra clothing and extra food, and that of a simple yet nutritious quality, it was not allowed her. Her system craved material to convert into blood, but he would not provide it. A moderate amount of milk and sugar, a little salt, white bread raised with yeast for a change, graham flour prepared in a variety of ways by other hands than her own, plain cake with raisins, rice pudding with raisins, prunes, and figs, occasionally, and many other dishes I might mention, would have answered the demand of appetite. If he could not obtain some of these things, a little domestic wine would have done her no injury; it would have been better for her to have it than to do without it. In some cases, even a small amount of the least hurtful meat would do less injury than to suffer strong cravings for it. – Testimonies 2:383-84 (1870)
To what extent and in what circumstances is it preferable to moderate one’s cravings instead of simply denying them entirely?
4. Beating up the body: 1 Cor. 9:24-27. Paul uses strong language to indicate that he faced some real struggles in self-control. The alternative was being a “castaway.” Is that likely to the case with most people? Or do some people simply have an easier time of it? This quotation is suggestive:
People who are born even-tempered, placid and untroubled – secure from violent passions or temptations to evil – those who have never needed to struggle all night with the Angel to emerge lame but victorious at dawn, never become great saints. – Eva le Gallienne (1899-1991), The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleanor Duse (1965)
5. God to the rescue: Phil. 2:12-13; Rom. 8:1. In Philippians, Paul neatly combines the human and the divine: “Work out your own salvation – for it is God who is at work in you.” Both are at work, but how they relate to each other is not explained. In Romans 8:1, Paul simply indicates that he can find peace in Christ’s righteousness, leaving the battles of Romans 7 behind. But will those battles continue – albeit without condemnation? Or is the battle an indication that we are subject to condemnation?