by Marc Bastawrous
There was once a city in a land surrounded by a number of smaller cities and kingdoms. It was a city of wide avenues and little, quiet places to sit and eat. A city to stop and relax as people passed through during their travels across this vast land. There were the villages on the outskirts, where the original inhabitants of the grand city resided. The rest was parks and wild spaces, a chance to walk among nature or enjoy the trails on carriages or horseback. Yet perhaps the most beautiful thing about the city was the river that flowed through the length of the city, crossing the bridges, and terminating at a large body of water that faced the castle at the city’s centre. It was this river that filled its citizens with pride and those of neighbouring cities with envy.
One night, the prince overlooking the city was awoken from his sleep by a loud commotion outside his room. Within moments, his door was broken down and men with torches and forks were standing over his bed. “We have come to take the city – it is ours!” they all exclaimed with ferocious elation. The prince, still in shock and fearful of his life, mustered a response and replied, “but, how did you break into the city?” The apparent leader of the pack, scoffing in his direction answered, “my good sir, we did not need to break in, your city has no walls.”
It’s an interesting little story about a famous city called “I-Just-Made-It-Up” – but what does this city have anything to do with ‘Self-Control’?
The answer? Everything.
This is the exact picture that King Solomon painted when he wrote about self-control in Proverbs 25:28.
“Whoever has no rule over his own spirit
Is like a city broken down, without walls.”
And in another translation:
“Like a city that is open, and without any walls surrounding it,
is a man who cannot refrain his own spirit from speaking.”
The reason this picture of self-control is so extreme is to emphasise its importance in our spiritual lives – or rather, our lives in general. For starters, in our daily lives, we constantly deceive ourselves into thinking we are in control proclaiming proudly things such as:
“I will not eat that donut.”
“I will not be distracted by social media while I try and complete this assignment/work task.”
“I will not honk at that person who cut me off.”
“I will not commit that one repeated sin I have been struggling so long to shake off.”
And many others, but you get the idea.
Biblically, the idea of self-control is prominent to say the absolute least. Indeed, in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it is the climactic fruit of the Spirit. The one he chooses to leave them with right at the end.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23)
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul warns those without self-control to marry saying:
“If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Cor. 7:9)
In fact, I would go as far to say that the idea of self-control formed the centre of St Paul’s thinking regarding the spiritual struggle which he addresses in Romans 7, saying:
“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Rom 7:15-20)
The picture he paints is one we are so accustomed to. It is so easy for us to fall into this repeated sin we have tried so long to shake off. However, even though ee try so hard to do good, we always seem to fall short. We fall short of praying at night when we come home tired from work. We fall short of loving our family and friends when they’ve done something to hurt us. We fall short of waking up early to attend the liturgy from the beginning, even though we prepared so well for it the night before. We fall short of helping our neighbour who is in need because well, “when have they ever done anything for me?” We are so used to falling short of being in control of our lives. So then, what is the solution?
When St Paul asked this very same question, before he had even given himself a chance to ponder it, he already knew the answer.
“O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25)
Through Christ. Christ is the only one who can save us from the wretchedness that is a lack of self-control. And so, our focus then should not be on achieving self-control. True control of self is to submit and allow ourselves to be Christ-controlled.
If we admit to him our weakness and give ourselves to the path He has made for us, only then will we become free of this struggle for self-control. True freedom is found in surrender.
And now, if we look back to our verse in Proverbs, we will discover something interesting. In the original Hebrew, the verse is not translated, ‘man is like a city.’ The word ‘like’ in the original Hebrew is absent – and so, the verse translated is:
“Whoever has no rule over his own spirit
Is a city broken down, without walls.”
We are the magnificent city with a flowing river, created by God to be a light amongst the nations. If we are to protect the city from vandals, we must build a strong wall, and that wall, is Christ. Though your heart may be the prince residing over the city, we must invite Him to be King. And if we surrender to His command, He will guard our kingdom and give his beloved city, the rest he yearns.