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December 4, 2013

Self-Control, Legalism, or Moral Schizophrenia

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Written by: Duane Covrig
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“Dad, you’re talking to yourself again,” My daughter chided.

I do that to coach myself.

I like to use my last name.

It was disconcerting to my daughter who shares the same last name.

“Covrig, pick up your feet. Keep it moving.”

That day, I was coaching myself to keep up with my daughter on the tennis court.

Sometimes I talk to myself around the house when I am getting behind on a project.

I also high-five myself when I reach a goal.

It’s self-talk, self-coaching.  I don’t think I am alone. I don’t think it’s schizophrenia.

It’s just a form of self-control.

Self-control—where part of your mind tells another part of your mind or body they are falling behind expectations, or congratulating the “self-team” on their great accomplishment.

“Way to go, Covrig.”

At least I hope it isn’t not schizophrenia.

I do admit, sometimes it gets pretty focused and sounds intense. But don’t worry I love myself…but I have learned I don’t love myself when I indulge myself.

Self-control makes the list of Hall of Fame virtues in Galatians 5 where it is considered a normal outgrowth of the Spirit’s working in our lives:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  

Spirit talk, Spirit walk, Spirit truth, Spirit passion and desire manifests itself in Self-control.

But for some, self-control has become a legalistic thing….That nasty performance talk when it should only be about Jesus’s love.

Self-control is about Jesus’ love. Ask those recovering from years of poor self-control.

If we as a Christian community take it as our gracious activity to call each other to love and to do good,  and we challenge ourselves to foster peace with all people, and do acts of charity and kindness, it makes since we would also call include other “fruits” in our Spirit fruit salad. Those include faithfulness and self-control (part of those sterner virtues we covered in another blog).

It’s the tough stuff of not-eating too much, practicing regular exercise, telling your mouth to shut up before someone else has to, passing up a good deal because “You don’t need it Covrig. Covrig, walk away from the sale item. Covrig….walk away, now!”

I hate self-control…but it sure loves me.

When the Spirit win’s one of those “talk downs,” I recognize that God is parenting me, leading me to better outcomes, wanting me to learn the joy of self-control.

Its part of moral and spiritual growth that the SPIRIT is creating in my life.

Can you be too harsh? Yes, I went through years of being too harsh. It was wrong. But then I also swung the other way. God is parenting me into a joyful balance.

This is Spirit working stuff. It is powerful grace forming. He is creating attitudes, actions and thinking that will benefit me and others. IT IS GOOD.

However, we need to remember the whole context of Galatians 5 and put self-control in its context.

I am not a Greek scholar nor do I do exegesis for a living, but the basic message of Galatians, as I read it, was to dislodge legalistic predispositions and propensities and remind the people they had “freedom.” Freedom is GREAT. I love freedom. But this type of “freedom” was to energize their self-initiated actions toward loving each other.  (Any pastor or elder will tell you that congregations freed to love each other are always happier places.)

Paul was coaching the “foolish Galatians” about being “bewitched” by the opposition and driven back from their position of freedom back into slavery to nit-picky legalism of the “circumcision gang.”

And Paul takes on that “circumcision stuff” throughout his chiding them to both freedom and self-control (twin engines of moral growth).

To be honest, I can see why the Galatians got suckered back into the “circumcision thing.” They wanted to have faith like Abraham and well, if you are starting to read the Bible as a new convert or even as a back-sliding Jew coming back to God, you can’t get far without reading Genesis 17 (in “Read-the-Bible-in-a-year-plans” it can come up on day 3 or 4).

“My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.  Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (v 13 ,14).

Kind of sounds serious.

“Paul, we are following God’s command to Abraham. Do you think your better than Abraham?”

My point here is not to talk about circumcision nor challenge Paul but to see this as a tough issues for them to work out theologically.

My interest is the link to self-control.

(I love John Ortberg’s sly comment on this passage  It goes like this: He portrays Abraham talking to God.  “Adam got a promise, Noah got a rainbow. Couldn’t we just shake on it or something simple.”

No, the covenant idea was circumcision. That hurts. Its cutting off the foreskin of the penis. Even nail clipping can be painful, but this is a whole lot more involved!!!

Quite a covenant. But not a bad idea.

And sometimes I wonder about the timing of God had with Abraham on this. He was 99. He had one teenage son, and as we would learn later, one on the way.

You could get sociological and medical on this covenant and not just theological. Abraham needed not only a renewed experience with God, but maybe a little pruning was good for other things, and maybe even a great experience for his  son, Ishmael.

“On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him.  Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

It appears dad went first—what a leader.

“You can start by cutting me.”

And then the son.

And then the rest of the men.

Ouch.

Ouch.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.Ouch. Ouch. Ouch

Okay, I guess you get the picture.

I am convinced that this was as much for Ishmael as Abraham and that is what made it so brilliant.

Especially for a young teenage boy who has already shown signs of not being able to have self-control.

All this ties into “self-control” very well.

The pain of stopping your mouth from talking, immediately can create a powerful moral experience, not only for you but for others. If they are following, all these Fruits of the spirit get multiplied.

Now, I am not going to unpack this theologically, except to say, God had his reasons for instituting it and Jesus had is reasons for moving beyond circumcision of the flesh to focus on the heart.

My point is self-control can feel like the circumcision rite has continued only because it hurts the flesh to curb our appetites. We don’t need to get legalistic about it, but we can focus on the benefits.

“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Gal 5:6

Love requires both those soft virtues and the sterner ones. The rewards are well-outlined in Galatians 6.

“Holy Spirit….keep trimming me today. I know it will hurt, but I trust You.”

“Covrig, you can handle it. It’s part of God’s love to me.” …..Self-talk, Spirit-led 🙂



About the Author

Duane Covrig
I teach leadership and ethics at Andrews University. I am a Seventh-day Adventist eager for the Second Coming of Christ and positive about His judgment hour work (Rev 14:6-12). I use that reality to understand morality and ethics.




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