Many of you know that I spent some time this spring focusing on my health. I joined a gym, worked out five times a week, and kept to a limited food plan focused on building lean muscle and burning fat. For the six weeks of the challenge, I practiced incredible self-control.
And the week after, I gave myself a break. I stopped worrying about what I ate.
If I’m honest, I haven’t ever found my focus again.
About two months ago, I started back up at the gym. I missed the workouts and the community. My goal is not to fit into some unrealistic ideal of how society thinks I should look, but to be strong and healthy and have the energy I need to do this work.
One thing I didn’t change however, is that I haven’t turned my attention to how I was eating again.
So this past week, while thinking about this sermon on self-control, I thought that perhaps I should at least look at how I was doing in that department.
And I planned really healthy breakfasts, with veggies fresh from my garden.
I packed lunches each day, instead of running out to buy something.
But by dinner time, I lost all semblance of self-control.
Wednesday night, we got Chinese takeout. I ate all my food, PLUS two crab rangoons and potstickers.
Thursday night, we ordered pizza. I had four pieces of taco pizza, a couple of breadsticks, AND a cookie!
And in each case, we were having a lazy night, eating in front of the television, and I didn’t even realize how much I had consumed until I started counting it all up the next morning.
If you aren’t focusing on the task at hand, you will lose sight of your goal. Self-control is all about not allowing yourself to be distracted away from your purpose.
This morning we heard the familiar story of Samson and Delilah – of a man who was tempted into giving up his secret strength.
But to understand this story we need a little bit of background.
There was a man named Manoah whose wife was barren. Try as they might, they could not have a child.
But one day, an angel appeared to the woman and promised her that a child would be born to them – a child that would be holy – a child that would save Israel from their enemies. But in order for this to come to pass, the child must be set apart as holy and must live a certain way.
This vow – this promise was called the Nazarite vow.
And so even before this child was born, the mother lived according to the Nazarite vow and then when the child Samson came into the world, he was declared a nazarite.
Now, being an infant – he couldn’t choose this himself – but according to the tradition – a father can declare his son a nazirite. Samson had the right to refuse this status and to end his promises, but nowhere in the scriptures does it say that he does this.
To be a nazarite meant that he had to follow three rules.
First, he had to abstain from any fruit of the vine. He couldn’t eat grapes or drink wine or even use wine vinegar with his food.
Second, he had to refrain from cutting his hair. As time went on, the long hair on his head would have been a sign of his vow.
Third, he couldn’t touch dead bodies.
So Samson took on these vows for himself and God blessed him with strength as a result of his faithfulness.
However, Samson had a weakness.
He had a distraction in his life.
And that distraction was women.
It’s not so much that his love for women was a bad thing. But time and time again, his weakness for the members of the opposite sex put him in terrible situations.
And eventually, as we heard this morning, Samson was tempted away from his Nazarite pledge because he lost sight of what was most important.
He put this woman, Delilah, before the pledge that he and his parents had made to God.
As soon as he let Delilah cut his hair, his strength vanished, he lost his control over the situation, and was captured.
So, Samson because our poster child for what NOT to do in practicing self-control.
Where do we turn to understand what it means to allow God’s spirit to fill us with self-control? What is this fruit of the spirit that Paul commends us to embrace?
When we look to the gospels of Jesus Christ, one of the places I think we can see this fruit is in the command to stop worrying.
As the gospel of Luke tells us – “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing.”
I could personally take that as a license to never diet again! To just take a deep breath and not focus on how much food I eat at all.
But when we look at the full context of this passage, Jesus is really trying to tell us not to be distracted.
This command to stop worrying is not about trying to save us from anxieties and troubles by promising everything will be okay.
No, Jesus is trying to tell us to stay focused on what is most important.
This advice not to worry about food and clothing and tomorrow end with the powerful statement:
Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness…. And everything else will take care of itself.
In other words, focus on God and what God asks of you.
That really is all that Samson had to do. Focus on God and what God asks of you.
The key to self-control is to let God to have the central place in your life.
The key to self-control is to allow the purpose God has given you guide your actions.
In my scripture study around the sermon today, I learned that the word for demons in the New Testament – daemonia – means “to be controlled by another.”
And in a real sense, every time we let food or worry, power or desire, or anything else to become the focus of our lives instead of God, those things begin to control us.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “the devil made me do it.”
In his sermon on “Self-Control and Freedom,” Charles Rush reminds us that people used to assume that there were spirits that caused us to indulge in pleasure, so anytime someone succumbed to a temptation – they saw it as a demonic possession.
“We no longer believe that,” he says, “but their insight was right about the [spiritual fact that] cravings… become compulsions. At some point… they begin to control us. At some point, our character becomes misshaped and misaligned in order [to] adjust itself to increasing demands our compulsions put on us. We are no longer free, but are driven by our compulsions.” (http://archive.christchurchsummit.org/Sermons-2006/060716-SelfControlAndFreedom.html)
It’s not that things like eating and drinking and sex are evil… but they can spiral out of control if we allow them to be the central objects of our lives.
Self-control is a barrier that prevents other things from distracting us from God’s purpose in our lives: to seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
And discipline or a rule of life allow us to set boundaries that will help us to keep focused on what actually matters the most.
For the Nazarite, discipline and self-control was found in three simple rules – avoiding grapes and wine, not cutting their hair, and avoiding the dead. The purpose of the rules was to constantly remind them that they had been set apart by God for a purpose.
Many disciples of Jesus Christ today also have a discipline that helps them to focus first on God.
Some of you set aside time every morning to pray.
Some of you use the Upper Room daily devotional.
Some of you have made intentional choices about what you will eat or wear or drink because it is a witness to your faith in Jesus Christ.
Whatever it is, it is part of how you are creating space for God’s purpose to be prioritized in your life.
One of the things that I hope for this morning is that this might be a moment to reflect on whether or not self-control is a part of your spiritual life.
What are the temptations that try to sneak their way before God in your life?
Do you have… or do you need… a discipline or a practice that helps you to focus first on God?
As J. Hampton Keathley writes that Samson was a raised up by God to be a judge, a ruler, and was meant to lead Israel. “Samson strangled a lion; yet he could not strangle his own love. He burst the fetters of his foes; but not the cords of his own lusts. He burned the crops of others, and lost the fruit of his own virtue when burning with the flame kindled by a single woman.” (https://bible.org/series/1-2-3-john-comfort-and-counsel-church-crisis/bible.org/ttpstudents.com/sessions/node/5399?page=42)
We should be honest about the things that threaten to distract us from our faith and keep us from being in control of our actions. And then we should pray about how we can turn them back over to God.
I want to invite you to a simple prayer practice right now that helps us to do so.
Close your eyes and clench your hands up tight.
Picture the distractions and worries you have in your life that you have brought with you… even into this very place of worship.
Then in your own time turn your hands, still gripping, over so that they are facing down.
Imagine God’s hands underneath yours and slowly open your hands so that the things you are carrying fall into God’s hands.
If you do this at home or in your own time, you can repeat this several times.
Then turn your hands face up, but this time with the palms open and ask God’s Spirit to fill you afresh.
Let go of your desires.
Turn your heart over to God.
And seek first the Kingdom.