Facets of Faithfulness, VIII: Self-Control, “In such a world”
Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of you pasture? — Ezekiel 34:18
In preparation for Worship: The Well Rising, by William E. Stafford
The well rising without sound,
the spring on a hillside,
the plowshare brimming through deep ground
everywhere in the field—
The sharp swallows in their swerve
flaring and hesitating
hunting for the final curve
coming closer and closer—
The swallow heart from wingbeat to wingbeat
counseling decision, decision:
thunderous examples. I place my feet
with care in such a world.
Lesson from the Prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34
“‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
“‘I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety. I will make them and the places surrounding my hill a blessing. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing. The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid. I will provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land or bear the scorn of the nations. Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they, the Israelites, are my people, declares the Sovereign Lord. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”
Lesson from the Letter to the Galatians 5
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
Self-control is our final Facet of Faithfulness in our summer sermon series. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to be faithful in this complex world, and I think this sermon series has offered me, and hopefully you a chance to turn over in my hand the many-sided jewel that can be and is a life-long relationship to God, neighbor, and self.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control each offer us the dual gifts of promise and struggle—challenge and innate treasure. While there is something natural and human about each of these facets of faithfulness it does seem as if self-control is one of those all of us struggle with and experience in a heightened way. Self-control is a close cousin to self-discipline and married to willpower. It’s defined by the hyphen stuck right there in the middle: self and control—partners in an internal, personal struggle to do the good we wish to do.
Our understandings of self-control are influenced by the ancients. Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates understood self-control to be a virtue, so maybe it’s no surprise that St. Paul would come to the same conclusion, and put it on his list, too—after spending his life swimming in the Graeco-Roman worldview. In Greek Philosophy self-control is just good math—if you know something will cause more pleasure than pain: green light, go. If it will cause more pain then pleasure, red light, no doubt about it. In order to control yourself you need willpower, the mental strain and conscious effort required to resist temptations and master emotions. We still talk about this mental strain today: We say “mind over matter”, or “if there's a will there’s a way”, or as the Music Man says use that “think system”.
In 2010, social science researchers published a 30 plus year study of the impact of self-control in individuals from childhood to adulthood. Those with the highest measures of self-control had better health as adults, lower obesity, fewer STDs, better financial stability, stable long-term relationships, and (no surprise) healthier teeth: it takes serious self-control to floss. In another recent study researchers used a scale to measure self-control in young adults: self-control was the only virtue that predicted a college student’s grade-point average better than chance. Self-control was a better indicator of college grades than IQ or ACTs, probably because self-control was what caused students to show up to class, finish homework on time, and spend more time on coursework. In the working world, those with higher self-control had more empathy, could consider things from other people’s perspectives, were more emotionally stable and less prone to depression, eating disorders, drinking problems, anger, and aggressive behavior.
Self-control is looking pretty good, and we haven’t even talked about our spiritual lives yet.
But first a story: In 1971 on a day filled with thick fog John Francis witnessed two oil tankers collide under the Golden Gate bridge. Half a million gallons of oil spilled into the San Francisco Bay. It wasn’t the first oil spill, and it wouldn’t be the last, but John Francis filled with just enough self-importance to believe that his actions might influence others, stopped riding in cars or motorized vehicles.
He started walking. “I’m walking for the environment,” he’d tell people when they asked. But everyone was worried he was walking to make them look bad: Californians knew about pollution in 1971. John really thought other people would follow him. As he walked, John always found himself in arguments with people.
He argued so much that he decided to give up talking for just one day. He woke up and was silent. At breakfast he was silent. As he walked, he was silent. He had never been silent before. And he began listening. He had been an argumentative kid, but now at 27 years old he spent the day silent, and realized he never really listened. And so he decided to listen one more day. He was learning. Listening let him learn. He stayed quiet another day, and another day, until one day he decided to stay quiet for a whole year.
That one year turned into 17 years. He learned. He listened. He played the banjo. He walked (he still wasn’t using any motorized vehicles). He wrote in a journal. He read as many books on the environment as he could get his hands on.
At one point he decided he wanted to go to school, so he found a school in Oregon that taught environmental studies, and he walked there. He showed up at the registrar’s office, still silent, still not riding in cars, and they said, “yes we have a special program for you.” And he graduated in two years with a bachelor's degree.
Over the next two years he walked to Missoula, Montana to the University of Montana. He had written two years earlier telling them he’d like to enroll but that he’d take about two years to get there. When he graduated with a master’s degree his dad asked him what he was going to do with a master’s degree and a pocket full of silence.
So he threw on his backpack and started walking and went to the University of Wisconsin. He spent his time in Wisconsin working on a dissertation and writing about oil spills. No one was writing about oil spills. No one cared. And then Exxon Valdez. Even though he was still silent John Francis was the leading voice in oil spills at the time. He was hired by the coast guard after completing his PhD and wrote oil spill regulations. He was made a UN Goodwill Ambassador.
He jokes about all this saying, “I wouldn’t have listened if someone had said to me 17 years ago, ‘Hey, John, do you really want to make a difference? Just get out of your car and start walking east.’ And as I walked off a little bit they’d say, ‘Yeah and shut up too.’”
For John Francis, walking instead of driving in a car was self-control for the sake of the earth. And for John Francis, remaining silent was self-control for the sake of listening. This was self-control, not for the sake of some personal gain—wealth, beauty, happiness—but self-control for the sake of others. Selfless self-control.
Self-control is not easy. Odysseus knows not to trust himself, tying himself to the mast as he sails past the seductive sirens. Who has ever filled a swear jar, $1 per profanity? Or do you have an accountability partner? A friend who you work out with, because you know otherwise, you won’t go? As the proverb says, “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together.” Our phones have built in accountability systems too: have you set up a time limit on your social media usage yet? It’s easy to become complacent, make excuses, or just plain give in to temptation.
There are individual and communal aspects of each fruit of the spirit, and each of us have our own areas in which we need more individual self-control, but scientists who question the evolutionary value of human traits say that self-control is distinctly social. Self-control helps primates as social beings get along with the rest of the group, and because they depend on one another for the food they need to survive, evolution favored those with self-control who could resist the urge to eat all the food immediately. Baked within our DNA is a kind of self-interested self-control, a survival of the fittest kind of self-control.
But selfless self-control is, I think, at the heart of this facet of faithfulness: self-control for the sake of others, not for the sake of our own well-being. If you were to do one of those “read the whole bible in 365 days” programs you’d find that day after day someone—a prophet, God, Jesus—is urging the people to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan. In order to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan, you have to put someone else first, that takes self-control, and selfless self-control. And it takes even more selfless self-control to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan (and the earth, I’d add) in an era of complete lack of self-control.
For example I knew we’d reached peak oil: the point at which there is less oil on earth to be drilled than has been drilled since the beginning of drilling. And we reached peak helium a decade or more ago. But I didn’t know it was possible to reach peak sand. We use sand to make glass, which I knew, and to make concrete, which makes sense, but also to make silicone chips. Now according to some reports our global lack of self-control in using the largely abundant resource—sand—has caused violence because of scarcity such that there’s even a so-called Sand Mafia in India, organized crime that controls the construction industry’s need for sand.
Globally we lack self-control—as a species, because we “can” design a way for us to have more, we will, and “more” for us means destruction for the creation God holds dear. For the sake of the earth we lack self-control. Culturally too I think, we lack paths to participate in communal selfless self-control.
In the prophet Ezekiel self-control is about leaving something for those who come after you. God asks the sheep: "Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?”
These are life or death questions for the sheep who are coming after: trampled pastures and muddied water won’t cut it and it’s preventable. These are life or death questions of self-control in a world of indulgence. So often the muddied waters, the trampled pastures impact the least, the poor, the vulnerable, more quickly than they impact the powerful, the wealthy, the fortunate. There’s a reason why—when we travel internationally with our IMPACT mission trips—we see kids scavenging in garbage piles in Guatemala and not in the suburbs of Chicago.
John Francis, after 17 years of remaining silent spoke for the first time on Earth Day 1990. And when he did finally open his mouth he said that he realized that the way we treat the earth is directly synonymous with the way in which we treat our neighbor. In other words we will walk gently through the pastures if we love our neighbor. We will use self-control and not trample and muddy the waters if we are trying to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan. And in turn such gentleness, such self-control, for the sake of our neighbor, will impact how we care for the earth.
Self-less self-control is hard. Even more difficult is the kind of communal, shared vision for self-less self-control that can make an impact the world over. Is it possible that St. Paul put self-control at the end of his list because he knew we’d need those 8 other facets of faithfulness in order to really live with self-control? That we’d need first to love one another because selfless self-control must be rooted in love for neighbor. That we’d need joy because selfless self-control might not always feel joyful, so we need to partner with joy for the way to be clear. That we’d need peace because selfless self-control will upset the current social order, and when people’s place in the world feels threatened, even if it is for the sake of someone else, then peace will be imperative.
We need love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness in order to live under all that is hard about a sacrificial self-less self-control. I don’t have, necessarily, any answers for how to move forward toward a deep love for our neighbors rooted in a selfless self-control, but I do know that through prayer and with God’s help, there is a way forward nonetheless. May God be with us in all that is difficult, all that is beautiful, all that is life-changing, all that is possible in self-less self-control.
Let us pray: O God, who through the lure of love can conquer all in us that is out of control: change our way of seeing. Give life. Move in us with the dual imperatives of urgency and peace. Do not let us deny our own potential to live attuned to your spirit. Call to us as we call to you and bless us as we sing your praise. Amen.
 Bermudez, Jose Louis. 2018. Self-Control, Decision Theory, and Rationality: New Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press.
 I originally came across the story of John Francis in the 2014 book by Carolyn Finney called “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press and then listened to him tell his own story on his 2008 TED Talk called “Walk the earth…my 17-year vow of silence.” www.ted.com/talks/john_francis_walks_the_earth.
 Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press.
 Mars, Roman. Ninety Nine Percent Invisible: Built on Sand, Episode 361. July 9, 2019. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/built-on-sand/.