31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
July 2, 2023
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Peanut brittle. We came home from vacation with the most delicious box of peanut brittle. I have barely been able to stop myself from eating the entire box. I am completely lacking in self-control when it comes to this peanut brittle; however that is not the kind of self-control the Apostle Paul means when he lists self-control as a fruit of the Spirit.
Paul is saying self-control is a gift, a gift we already have inside of us, a gift that makes our lives better, a gift that bears fruit in our lives and makes others’ lives better.
You may have never thought of self-control as a gift, which is why the Message translation is helpful. In that translation, the spiritual gift of self-control is translated as “able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (Galatians 5:23, The Message). This fruit that we have already, this fruit that transforms our lives and others is less about being able to resist the temptations of sweets, caffeine, or social media, and more about being able to resist the pull that things and other people make on our time, those urgent yet unimportant ways we are being tempted to spend our time and energy.
Jesus, himself, was often tempted into using his time and energy in ways that were not wise, in ways other than God’s call for him, in ways that did not bring glory to God.
In our scripture passage from the gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is baptized, after Jesus has been anointed by God and blessed with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Was this a physical wilderness like a desert? Or was this an emotional wilderness, into a place where the path before Jesus was unclear? Or was it both? When we are feeling uncertain and insecure, we can be especially susceptible to misusing our time and talents.
It is curious that the Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Why would the Spirit do that? Don’t we often pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”? And yet, we are daily surrounded with temptations – not just sweets and the addictive pull of electronics and social media. We are also surrounded by the same kind of temptations that Jesus faced – temptations to use our energies and gifts in ways that deplete us, in ways that don’t bring glory to God.
In three different ways, the devil tempts and goads Jesus. The first time, the devil says to Jesus, “ ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ (Matthew 4:3) Now Jesus is hungry, famished scripture tells us, after having fasted for forty days and forty nights. Bread probably sounded amazingly delicious however the temptation isn’t bread. The temptation isn’t food. The temptation is to use his energies to prove his worth, to prove that Jesus is indeed powerful enough to turn stones into bread.
It’s a temptation placed before us as well. Advertisers, in a myriad of ways, say prove you are attractive and desirable by using or wearing our product. In work and even volunteer environments, people goad us to prove we are worthy by saying, “Do more. Can’t you do more? Aren’t you talented and powerful enough to do miracles?”
Jesus doesn’t fall into the devil’s trap. Neither does Jesus succumb to the devil’s temptation to prove he is worthy of God’s care by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. Jesus knows he is God’s anointed one, God’s beloved child, so there is no need to test God. There is no need to prove that he is loved.
Unfortunately, we can sometimes spend a lot of time and energy trying to be pleasers – trying to prove our worth to people who will never be satisfied or worse, trying to prove we are important to people whose opinions shouldn’t matter all that much to us. Too often we worry what strangers or passing acquaintances will think of us when we are called instead to focus on what God thinks of us. Years ago, when I was going through a trying time, a time when I was feeling bullied and afraid, God put this thought on my heart, “You are the child of the God Most High. What can those people do to you?”
You, you are the child of the God Most High. You don’t have to spend a single moment proving how smart you are, how capable you are, how amazing you are. You are a child of the God Most High. You are loved.
The spiritual gift of self-control, the spiritual gift of using our energies and talents wisely is the gift of knowing we are God’s beloved children, without the need to prove our worth to anyone, just to let that love and light flow out from us, all to the glory of God.
And because Jesus is secure in his identity, secure in his relationship with God, there certainly is no need to own all the kingdoms of the world – especially if it means worshipping the devil. Jesus has God’s unconditional love. Jesus knows that God will provide for him and protect him. He doesn’t need anything more than that.
Over and over again, throughout his ministry, Jesus will be tempted. He will be tempted by those who want him to come to their town and teach. He will be tempted by those who want him to heal one more person and then one more after that and another after that. He will be tempted to avoid Jerusalem and his crucifixion.
Each time Jesus is tempted to be something he is not or to do something God is not calling him to do, Jesus embodies the spiritual gift of self-control. Jesus marshals and directs his energies wisely and stays true to his calling, giving glory to God.
And here is where the spiritual gift of gentleness comes in. After resisting the devil’s taunts and goading, after resisting the evil one’s tries to get him to use his energies unwisely, Jesus is waited upon by angels. Jesus opens himself up to God’s care and allows God’s angels to nourish and refresh him.
Gentleness, not forcing things, is an important part of embodying the spiritual gift of self-control. To use our energies wisely, to use our talents well, as blessings to ourselves and blessings to other, we need to be gentle with ourselves, to be kind, to not keep going when the going seems forced.
I love the Message translation of the very familiar passage “Come to me all you who are weary” from the gospel of Matthew. In the Message translation, Jesus says “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:29, The Message) The unforced rhythms of grace. The spiritual gifts of gentleness and self-control are about embodying Jesus’ unforced rhythms of grace, of not needing to prove our worth, of not needing to force ourselves to following the bidding of others or to spend our time and energy – or money trying to please anyone by God.
The gifts of gentleness and self-control are already yours. You are already blessed with gentleness and self-control. You are already blessed with God’s love. Pause and soak in that good news. Learn the unforced rhythms of Christ’s grace and let it be a gift that blesses your life as it bears fruit, blessing the lives of others.