Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Young men and self-control

In more conservative Christian circles, one of the hotter topics of discussion is modesty of attire for ladies and girls. The thought, of course, is that through maintaining a certain standard of dress, they may avoid undesired sexual encounters between the young'ns, as well as prevent married and unmarried men from going where they ought not go with their thoughts. On rarer occasions, however, if ever, do you hear a sermon about the obligation of the male to be self-controlled.

Paul tells Titus: Urge the younger men to be self-controlled (Tit 2.6). This is something that almost never gets preached; the sermon is almost always directed at the women as "stumbling blocks" for the guys. I don't doubt or deny that there are certain standards of modesty that ought reasonably to be maintained in the church, of course. My point is merely that there is often an unfair asymmetry as to the mode in which this problem is approached.

The requirement is that the young men exercise self-control, an essential component of which is self-denial. Like my friend Bill has said, No one preaches self-denial anymore. We have become a nation of moral wimps. But you can't be in control of yourself without saying a firm `No` to all of those desires for evil which will inevitably arise. In fact this is the first principle of being self-controlled: you must accept that not everything that arises within you in good, that you are not naturally upright or even good, and so if you want to be good, you can't just live life in auto-pilot. Being self-controlled involves being deeply aware of yourself, of your mental state, and being determined not to acquiesce to every impulse which might rear its ugly head in whatever context.

There is a difficulty here, however, one which arises because of a theological overemphasis on human incapacity to do good. It is certainly true that apart from the grace of God, we may do nothing good or worthwhile; our natural inclinations are to evil and to what destroys us. But Paul can urge that young men be self-controlled because he knows it is within their power. Why is that? Because Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (2.14). It is Christ's will that his children and disciples be free from the power of sin, and therefore he provides us with the means to accomplish all of this.

What are these means? The ways in which we unite ourselves to Christ: through baptism and the Eucharist; through his teaching in the Holy Scriptures; through the Holy Spirit which he gladly gives to all who ask; through the fellowship of believers in the church; etc. You will never take control of yourself and avoid sin if you try to separate yourself from Christ and his Body. Being a solo Christian and ignoring the sacraments are a recipe for disaster. Apart from these means, you will never control yourself; but through these means, the self-control which is necessary for youths (and those who are older!) is also possible.

But there is a further element here: no moral improvement comes automatically. You have to make an effort, a powerful effort, a determined effort not to fall victim to the same old temptations as in past times. What is required, I suppose, is some critical reflection on yourself and on your moral state: you have to learn to hate the person who sins and whose sins impede fellowship with God, and become determined to change. Apart from such a determined effort on your part, self-control can't be realized.