Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” I’d rewrite that: “I can resist everything except that one temptation.”
Most people are beautifully composed, but struggle with self-control in one, small part of their lives. And that tiny, dark valley shadows their soul and saps their confidence: drinking too much, eating badly, spending too much money, watching internet porn, and even those more amorphous temptations of bitterness, envy, financial fear.
God wants us to climb out of that valley, toward a life of spiritual excellence. Ellen Charry, Professor Emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary, claims that this has always been the bottom line of Christian thinkers: knowledge of God leads to excellent living. Down through the ages our greatest theologians have focused on excellence, but in different forms: some emphasized equal human dignity; some, illumination; some, love; some, inner contentment.
I think we now need to focus on the spiritual excellence of self-control. The New York Times’ Sunday front page brought this home: a story about drug addiction bringing down a successful sommelier, another story about rampant internet porn, and stories about political ambition overriding patriotism.
We’re in a crisis of self-control. And, no wonder: our secular culture has set aside the boundaries religion had provided in past eras. Today’s typical individual has no sacred community of guidance and accountability. Each person must figure things out, on his or her own. And this modern individual is bombarded everyday by advertising, by the internet’s dark corners, by aimless peer pressure.
This Sunday our scripture lessons focus on the Christian virtue of self-control. Our faith and our fellowship offer real help for those struggling with self-control.