“You had one job to do!”
That’s the quote that comes to mind whenever I read this particular verse in Paul’s letter to Titus. It’s a simple verse, but one that causes me to chuckle a bit every time I read it.
“Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.”Titus 2:6
HA, Ha, ha…? Wait, what exactly is it that makes this humorous? In fact, it doesn’t seem funny at all.
Let me clarify. You see, the joke isn’t exactly nested within the verse itself. But it emerges once the preceding verses are considered.
“But as for you, teach what is consistent with sound doctrine. Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.
Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited. Likewise urge young men to be self-controlled.”Titus 2:1-6
Paul’s letter seems to indicate that while older men and women and younger women are capable of bearing a lengthy list of responsibilities, younger men are to be entrusted with but one.
You have one job to do. Self-control.
Boy, does it hurt to hear that. Does Paul really think that little of guys like myself? Is Paul correct that young men are uniquely susceptible to this one particular error? Is that fair? Is it true?
Men Uniquely Challenged in Self-Control
Having taught a Sunday school class for middle-school-aged boys, I was always shocked how well all the girls stayed in their seats, while the boys ravaged the room like animals. How the girls raised their hands politely while the boys constantly tried to talk over one another. How the girls listened to directions while the boys were tempted constantly to act on every impulse. Personal experience seems to indicate clear differences and that’s why I find this at least a little humorous.
But one can look at trends in our society more broadly and see a dark side to this. Consider the relative struggles for boys in public schools as compared to girls and the admission trends going into college. Or even the overrepresentation of men in prison as well. Sure some may say these disparities are entirely or mostly socially constructed. That it’s only because we raise boys differently than girls that these different outcomes arise.
But maybe Paul’s point shows that this same pattern of behavior is observed across cultures and across times. That something written a couple millennia ago can still have relevance today. For biology really doesn’t change nearly as quickly as our cultures and circumstances do, right?
Why Resist Temptation At All?
So what’s the big deal about self control? Whether it’s food, alcohol, sex, or drugs – just to name a few – our body is prone to these prompts to indulge our most basic cravings. The marketing industry has boomed over the past century or so capitalizing on these subconscious desires. Video games are designed around them. Streaming services do their best to keep you glued to the TV. I’m sure all those snack brands have a few tricks up their sleeves. And one might ask, why should we even attempt to curb these desires?
As adults many of us have learned that overindulgence or addiction to any of these can be detrimental to our health. There’s a reason we know we shouldn’t let kids eat whatever snacks they want whenever they want. Or let an addict have unfettered access to their substance of choice. We understand the need for AA and dieting programs.
That even though a person thinks they need to cave to that craving to be fulfilled, there’s a very strong argument to be made that giving in to everything their body longs for is detrimental to their health at the very least the long run and oftentimes the short term as well.
Self-control is the skill that helps us regulate these cravings. Yet we aren’t exactly born with it. In fact, we humans seem quite unique as compared to the animal kingdom in our ability not just to regulate ourselves but to actually export that restraint to our kids and by domesticating other animals. But how do we best control ourselves and help teach others like our kids how to manage their impulses? And how should it be approached in communities like our schools and churches?
How do we best control ourselves and help teach others like our kids how to manage their impulses?
The 3 Typical Approaches to Self-Control
The first is an approach of absolute prohibition or abstinence. Often this is done out of a heightened sense of caution and a belief that it is most effective to establish a consistent and firm boundary that is never to be crossed than possibly concede any ground, especially with kids by attempting nuance. No alcohol. No candy. No video games. And scare the kids with horror stories of STDs and teenage pregnancies to discourage any sexual deviance. Maybe even threaten that you will show them the door for disobedience. The method of establishing this type of self-control doesn’t really matter as long as the end result occurs. No indulging in these actions whatsoever. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
The second approach is on the opposite end of the spectrum, and is something I think is beginning to occur with more regularity. It’s the habit of choosing to indulge in whatever craving may arise instead of resisting it. That any inhibition to acting on our desires is not living as our “authentic self.” If you want sex, seek it out with whoever through hook-ups or do it privately through porn. Eat as much as you want of whatever you want and know that obesity is now celebrated as healthy despite all the studies that say otherwise. Or the constant and steady increase in the prevalence of recreational drugs and alcohol. Why should we limit our desires? “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
And the third approach is what I associate with the commonly stated phrase “everything in moderation.” It can be viewed as a middle road option as compared to the first two approaches. We all know that for most of us, there are certain things that aren’t allowed even in moderation. But this approach indicates that most everything should be permissible but that too much of even a good thing can be bad.
But I don’t think any of these three approaches cut it. The more I’ve pondered these questions as to how and why we are to control ourselves and the verse that prompted them, the more I’ve realized how this challenge to self-control serves as a microcosm of what God wants most for us in this life.
And this exact issue is present in the opening chapters of the Bible.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin[and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”Genesis 2:8-17
From the very beginning God supplies man with multiple trees with fruit that were good for eating and but puts one restriction in place. You must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Let us consider the three approaches mentioned before and see if this qualifies as any of those. God prohibits the consumption of the fruit from one tree in particular, but not all the others. He doesn’t allow them to indulge in whatever they want to consume. So maybe there’s an element of moderation involved, but he doesn’t necessarily limit how much they eat from the other trees. Hmmm… what’s going on here? Well in the next chapter it gets more interesting.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”Genesis 3:1-7
While it commonplace to interpret the serpent as Satan in this passage, it wasn’t initially interpreted that way prior to the introduction of the concept of demons that from my understanding emerged not too long before the events documented in the New Testament. Simply read, early Jewish readers could have interpreted the serpent as the most earthly of all the creatures God had made. It slithered along the ground and was therefore furthest from the heavens and most “beast-like” of all the beasts. It had no self-restraint. What it longed for, it acquired.
You can see how in his first question to Eve, he distorts God’s command. “Did God really say ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?‘” The answer of course is no. God did not say that. In fact, he said it was permissible to eat of any, including the tree of life, with the exception of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent insinuates something that God did not in fact say. God did not prohibit them eating from the trees. God does not take the first approach with these earthly desires by prohibiting them in their entirety.
When Eve explains the warning God gave for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent responds, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Here the serpent is taking the second approach, stating that by actually choosing to consume that which was pleasing to her eye, she would have everything that she could desire. That God, by placing this restriction in place, was holding out on them.
And yet, when she and Adam eat from the fruit, they are immediately filled with shame over their nakedness and wind up outside the garden and unable to enjoy the fruits of the tree of life that God had given them.
John Milton in his book “Paradise Lost” quotes Satan as saying the following, “Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.” This quote, while short, encapsulates the stark difference between these two approaches to life. In many ways, making our desires subservient to the desires of God is an act of service. Similar to the child who chooses to obey their parent even when it goes against their own wishes, our self-control to follow the commands of our God is an act of faith, of love, and of trust.
We could have our own way. We could, as John Milton puts it, reign in hell. But can hell deliver what only heaven provides in both this age and the next?
If the serpent depicted in Genesis 3 and Milton’s version of Satan are correct, God is holding out on us. And it would be incumbent upon us to seek our own pleasure and fulfillment in whatever way we deem appropriate. But is this true? He gave Adam and Eve access to an abundance of trees including the tree of life for their enjoyment. He gives the gift of sex to be enjoyed within the confines of marriage. He turned the water into wine. And he has given us the Lord’s Supper and promises a wedding feast when we will be rejoined with him.
He doesn’t offer absolute prohibitions to most of our longings. He discourages us from the self-affliction of unbridled indulgence. And he doesn’t simply offer moderation as the best road.
No he makes all of these longings that much more beautiful and fulfilling when they are placed in their proper context. And that is what self-control is about. Trusting God that these longings, when pursued in the right place and the right time, can help us encounter and appreciate God more than ever before. That we are choosing to trust and serve him in the process. And that all the inner turmoil of keeping ourselves in check will all be worth it in the end.
That’s a lesson not just for young men to learn. I think we all need it, myself most certainly included.