Fruits of the Spirit (10) (Galatians 5:22)
Joan and I had a fascinating week. We traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico to attend a conference with Baptists from Lubbock, Texas, an ecumenical experience that caused me to reconsider everything I’d ever thought about Baptists from Texas. We stayed an additional three days after the conference, visiting Native American sites in northern New Mexico, where I saw lots of things I wanted to buy, but couldn’t because I didn’t have room in my luggage to carry it home. Some people have self-control, and others have self-control imposed upon them. Then, fortuitously, we visited Santa Fe Friends Meeting, where I found a small, beautiful rock in their garden and it fit right in my pocket, so that became my souvenir. Joan, being virtuous and not given to self-indulgence, said the only souvenirs she required were her memories.
On Wednesday, we flew home, stopping in Dallas for a layover right around lunchtime. There were two restaurants close to our gate—a McDonald’s and a French bistro-type, vegetarian, organicy kind of restaurant called Au Bon Pain (pronounced Oh Bon Pan), which I’ve always pronounced Ah Bon Pain, like it’s spelled, which translates as “It hurts to eat here.” Joan, being virtuous and not given to self-indulgence, ate at the pain restaurant and I, lacking virtue and self-control, had a Big Mac, and supersize that for me, please.
Gosh, it was good.
We’ve been reflecting on the fruits of the spirit, those qualities the Apostle Paul believed embodied the Divine Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When these virtues are present, we believe God is especially present. Today, we’re thinking about self-control, and its opposite, which I thought was impulsivity, but when discussing it with Joan this week was told, “Oh, no, the opposite of self-control is indulgence.” Or the habit of giving ourselves everything we want with little consideration of the consequences. I should mention she said this while I was eating my Big Mac. Nevertheless, I think she might be on to something.
While in Santa Fe, we were watching television and a car commercial came on, an announcer describing the luxurious qualities of a particular vehicle, then telling the listener, us, that we “deserved” this fine car. That was the word the announcer used—deserved. I was thinking to myself, “Darn right I deserve it,” just as Joan said, “I hate that word, deserved. What’s deserving got to do with owning a car?”
“Only everything,” I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud.
But doesn’t this describe our situation? Our culture too often urges us to indulge ourselves, and too seldom encourages to exercise self-control and restraint. We are told we deserve luxury cars, nicer homes, newer clothes, more vacations, special treatment, until it becomes impossible to exercise self-control, tell ourselves “No,” and live within our means and circumstances.
I was speaking at a church this past fall and a woman who had been instrumental in bringing me there, introduced herself, said she worked for a college securing guest speakers and lecturers, and told me my speaking fee was way too low, that as a published writer I was worth five times more than I charged. I thought of nothing else the whole evening—I’m worth five times more than I’m being paid. I felt taken advantage of. So the next morning, bright and early, I phoned Stacey, who handles my speaking schedule, and said, “Hey, I was talking with a lady last night and she told me I’m worth five times more than I’ve been asking.”
She laughed. No, she snorted, then said, “No, you aren’t.”
It drives me crazy when Stacey fails to indulge my illusions of grandeur.
But isn’t that what we need? Maybe not all of us, but maybe we white males, who were born on third-base and keep thinking we hit a triple. We need people in our lives who teach us self-control, who don’t indulge us, who urge us to exercise restraint and discipline, and help us keep our egos in check, so that we are bearable. Otherwise, who can live with us?
Who can live with us? Who can live with leaders accustomed to being indulged? Who can have a healthy relationship with spouses demanding constant luxury and extravagance? Who can live with demanding and difficult children, unable and unwilling to master their impulses? Who can work with someone who must always be right, must always be appeased?
When our quality of life is measured by indulgence, we become the slave of every petty whim and desire. We will delay our happiness until every craving is satisfied, which is to say never, for happiness will be just out of reach, beyond our grasp, elusive.
Several weeks ago, I decided it was time to clean the garage, just clear out all the stuff I once thought imperative. So I started throwing things away, and guess what happened? The more I threw away, the more I found. That’s right. The more I threw away, the more I found.
I found I could live without things I once thought essential.
I found I could live without things I once thought would make me happy.
I found I could live without things that took all my time to maintain, all my money to own, all my energy to organize .
The more I threw away, the more I found.
Maybe we all need to throw away a few more things.
Maybe we need to throw away our love of ease, so we can find the value of work.
Maybe we need to throw away our satisfaction with easy answers, so we can find the value of wisdom.
Maybe we need to throw away the cold hand of ambition, so we can find the warm clasp of friendship.
And maybe, the Apostle Paul thought, maybe we need to throw away our iron grip on indulgence, so we can find the freedom of self-control.