“This Sunday, come and hear about how you need to show more self-control. Everyone welcome.”
Not an advert that is likely to attract a thronging herd of visitors, stampeding the doors of the church down on a Sunday morning. Yet the Bible is rich with examples of people who were impeded by a lack of self-control, and there are many lessons that can be garnered from examining this topic. Equally, examples of integrity and diligence, such as Joseph’s refusal to retaliate to injustice, (both when sold into slavery in Egypt and subsequently wrongly imprisoned) have the potential to underpin a message on the importance of honouring God with our attitudes.
Self-Control: A Delicate Topic
So how do we preach it without appearing judgmental? And without alienating our listeners? And without their trudging home under a cloud of condemnation? When handling the subject of self-control, it is important that we deliver it as a message encapsulated by the gospel of God’s grace. Equally, we must be careful not to preach the topic as a message of salvation in itself, since our salvation has been made possible by God’s grace alone – the extravagance of which is not measured by our efforts (or, indeed, our shortcomings).
However, the bedrock of an effective sermon is its ability to stir its listeners into a response, not through duty, or in an attempt to elicit affection from God, or even simply because we preachers tell them to, but a response inspired by the magnitude of God’s devotion to us. Effective sermons cause us to willingly examine our character, motivating us to realign ourselves with God’s will. The skill of teaching on self-control will be rooted in your ability to challenge your congregation sensitively, whilst exposing them to the wonderful message of God’s grace.
Six possible sermon illustrations have been suggested below, deliberately offering varying angles for you to examine. They should all have the potential to provoke your listeners to seek God more hungrily as a result of highlighting our fragile human condition.
1. Mastering Temptation/Knowing your Weakness
If we were never tempted into sin, never tempted to seek revenge, never tempted to chase earthly treasures, or tempted into anger by situations outside of our command, there would be no need to exercise self-control.
Lack of self-control is initiated by a temptation, or a weakness. When Jesus was in the wilderness at the start of his ministry, he was challenged three times by the enemy to satisfy some common desires of the flesh. These were very real temptations, and were genuinely attractive. Jesus’ resistance was not because of their lack of appeal (he would have fancied that bread, for example), but was based on the premise that his dedication to the Father (and His purpose) superseded his own short-term desires.
A classic three-point sermon could be derived from using each of the temptations Jesus was confronted with, concluding that our devotion is what drives our resolve to exercise self-control, and that we always have the power to overcome evil.
2. Buttons, Dials, and Levers
Our sound-desk is an impressive piece of kit, boasting an array of fancy buttons and switches. Whilst I am not endowed with the technical expertise to master the controls, I am aware of its capacity to influence the volume, style, and effects of any musical equipment connected to it, and I am a grateful beneficiary of its capabilities.
But if it’s not plugged in, if it’s not receiving any power, it doesn’t do a lot. It just looks nice.
Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and we can only be fruitful and influential if we are rooted in Christ. The Holy Spirit fortifies us, and we grow in character so long as we are plugged into the power supply – God. You can use a similar example that you can relate to, or that will resonate with your listeners, unpacking the value of depending on God for wisdom and fruitfulness, whilst underlining our virtual redundancy in the absence of power.
3. Lack of Self-Control Reaps Consequences – No Ifs or Butts
The 2006 FIFA World Cup Final is chiefly remembered for a single incident. Zinedine Zidane was the greatest soccer player of his generation, and his stellar career yielded many personal triumphs and accolades, and he was well-decorated with his achievements, not least a World Cup winner’s medal in 1998. He received plaudits for his goal that won the 2002 Champions League Final here in Europe, widely regarded as the best goal the final has ever witnessed.
The 2006 World Cup Final was his last game. The stage was set for him to showcase his supremacy one last time, and for him to bring the curtain down majestically in the showpiece final. What possessed him to head-butt an opponent, resulting in his being sent off in disgrace, potentially costing France the World Cup (they lost on penalties without him) has never been fully established.
Although his reputation is now being restored via his exploits as a manager, his lack of self-control inflicted some serious damage, and he is now often remembered for one moment of indiscretion. Your sermon could incorporate this (or another) sporting example into a message which acts as a deterrent to rebellious behaviour, demonstrating that we (and sometimes those around us) reap the consequences of our actions.
TIP: Cushioning this message with a reminder that the cross has paid the price for our sins (thus we are set free from the chains that bind us and labels that tarnish us) will bring a more palatable flavour to this otherwise stark illustration.
4. The Moon and the Waves
Often, our reluctance to bend to God’s wishes is driven by our lack of heavenly perspective. We choose to see things our way, and when our ambitions are thwarted by outside influences, it causes a reaction from us. We are emotionally-charged beings, and when our emotions fuel our behaviour, it can lead to our losing control.
God wants to steer us from “emotional” reactions which are based purely on how we feel about something, and to be godly in our approaches. We can only achieve this be drawing close to Him, which adjusts our outlook to His perspective.
The reason the moon and the waves obediently comply with His commands is because they have no ambitions of their own, and are not emotionally-driven to pursue alternative pleasures. They are not seduced by culture, or persuaded by enticing opportunities to veer from their purpose.
So why don’t we find it so easy to be as predictably reliable, like the waves and the moon? First of all, we were not pre-programmed to follow a set of commands but were purposefully instilled with emotions. These not only allow us to have compassion, and demonstrate love, but it means that we are given a choice to follow God. However, it is by learning self-control that that we do not allow ourselves to be piloted by our feelings, at the expense of obedience to God’s intentions for our lives.
In 1972, a break-in at the Democratic National Committee HQ at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. sparked a political scandal, as President Nixon’s administration resisted probes into its involvement, leading to a constitutional crisis.
Accusations of Nixon’s abuse of power would surely have led to his impeachment, had he not proactively resigned in 1974.
The more power or influence we have, the harder it can be to show self-restraint. If we are governed by our own agenda, our perspective is off-centre, and we can become hypnotized by ungodly ambition. This facet of the affair could be applied to your sermon to encourage those in a position of influence (either at work, school, church, sport) to act with integrity.
6. Watergate II
Referencing the same events, your sermon could centre on the need for us to confess our sin, and our conceding that we require forgiveness. Since President Nixon felt he was acting for the good of the country, he was initially unrepentant, claiming that his position afforded him the privilege of autonomy, permitting him the authority to disregard the law if he deemed it appropriate in his capacity as President.
We cannot repent of our sin (which stems from lack of self-control) if we believe we are excused from the boundaries of God’s law by our extenuating circumstances. Pride prevents us from accepting our dependence on God and our need for a saviour. Continual denial of our need for godly guidance can lead to an eroding of our conscience, and our moral compass can become corrupted, resulting in our hearts hardening towards God.
A great way to package your sermon with the message of God’s grace would be by proclaiming our justification by Jesus’ blood. We now stand in righteousness because of the price he paid, and not because we believe we can justify our own indiscretions.
NOTE: It is not a good idea to promote character assassination, or to preach from a judgmental position towards Mr. Nixon (or anybody else for that matter), so tread respectfully! Watergate is merely a high-profile illustration of the lure that any one of us could succumb to on some scale.
Any sermon that challenges the receiver’s moral integrity can be a daunting proposition. However, a yearning to exercise self-control is born out of a commitment to Jesus and a desire to honour God, and this topic represents a platform to present the gospel in its purest form: we need a saviour, we have a saviour, we are saved by grace.
Your sermon should compel its listeners to follow Jesus’ example. After all, his popularity (and, indeed, infamy) didn’t influence or redirect his mission, and his attitude was impervious to any attention he received.
As humans, our security is often dictated by the acceptance of others, which, in turn, fosters pride. It can also lead to earthly ambition as we seek to replicate previous successes in order to impress our peers, which then drags us away from God’s calling.
Preaching this topic is a wonderful opportunity to underline our human frailty, and to help us realign our attitudes, reignite our devotion to the Father, and prompt us to earnestly desire a godly perspective.
Alec and his wife Andrea live in Cumbria, England, where they homeschool their five children. They attend Grace Church, Whitehaven, and, over the years, Alec has made contributions as a songwriter, worship leader, and preacher.
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