“Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.”
Do you recognize those lyrics? Can you name that tune?
In case you’re drawing a blank on that line- it’s from America The Beautiful, near the end of verse two.
Whether you’re more ashamed at the state of our nation or “proud to be an American” this post is for you.
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
What One Ought To Do
A nation’s soul can’t be stronger or more free than the sum, or soul, of its parts. And without individual ability to self-govern, without willpower, national government has no hope. A nation of souls enslaved to their sinful ways will not a free nation make.
Michael Novak explains that true freedom is not being able to do what what desires at the moment or is impelled by passion to do.
To be free as a human being ought to be is to be able to discern, not only what one desires to do or is impelled by passion to do, but also, and even more clearly, what one ought to do…In short, in “the American ideal”… is not the capacity to do what one wishes but the capacity to do what one ought. It is, in short, to be capable of self-government, self-mastery, and self-control.
Paul knew this too.
For he knew that true freedom is not found in following our hearts and acting out our selfish desires. Rather, it is found in subverting our desires to serve one another. Paul knew how easy it was stay slaves to sin:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Strong (Joyful) Souls Are No Accident
Add to the self-control mix, this common refrain I keep hearing as I talk with strong Christian friends. Can you hear the repeating theme?
Believe me, I could definitely down that whole pan of brownies tonight. I could. That’s why I can’t even sneak a bite. I’ll share them Friday.
It’s hard to get to bed by 11. There’s so much I can do when the kids are asleep. But when I stay up so late I overeat. Then I’m short and grumpy come morning.
I’d sure love to sleep in, but I make myself get up and work out early. There is some value in exercise. I’ve learned it won’t happen if I wait.
It seems a little over the top, I know, but I add my husband whenever I text or email another man. It’s just a safeguard. I’ve watched affairs start.
I try to practice giving others the last word, especially when we disagree. It’s hard to bridle my tongue and resist setting the record right. But it’s good.
In short, my faithful, fruitful Christian friends didn’t get that way by accident. They had all learned to exercise self-control.
No One Drifts Toward Self-Control
There was quite a lot of Spirit-powered, self-control happening behind the scenes. They don’t toot their own horns, but day after day, they discipline themselves. Oh, sure, they stumble and fall sometimes. Then they get back up because they know the joy of self-control.
Do you know that joy? The joy of going to bed on a hungry stomach? Or of leaving a well-deserved zinger unsaid?
It’s counter-intuitive, the joy of self-control. Because the pleasure of Spirit borne fruit is way deeper than the fleeting joys of giving in to sin. Knowing that you didn’t cave, but by grace overcame- now that feels great.
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Like a city with walls broken down
Like a city with its walls broken down is man who lacks self-control. Proverbs 25:28
Cities with broken down walls will crumble. They are open to enemies and become slaves to invaders.
A person without self-control is like an unprotected city. When we don’t exercise self-control, when we don’t say yes when we should and no when we shouldn’t, we are vulnerable to our soul’s enemies. In time, our city-souls will crumble.
Self-control matters. In this age of distraction and endless temptation to drift online and through social media, we so need self-control.
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, President Lincoln said, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
Soul-strength or city strength depends on walls of self-control. When we lack-self control we destroy our city from the inside, as individual and as nations. But exercising self-control confirms and bolsters the soul.
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Foundational, Not Flashy
Being self-controlled is central to what it means to be a Christian. With love and holiness, self-control is used to describe the essence of Christian conduct (2 Timothy 1:7; Titus 2:6, 12; 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 1:6).
When Paul was called to explain the Christian faith to the Roman Governor Felix, he summed up the Christian gospel and worldview as “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). He didn’t tack on peace or patience or kindness with Felix. He talked about self-control.
Not surprisingly Sir Secular Felix didn’t drop to his knees and convert. No- he was alarmed. “Go away for the present,” he said. Self-control is not flashy or flamboyant or fun. In the moment, anyway.
Author David Mathis describes self-control as not terribly attractive, but, frank and functional. And difficult.
It doesn’t turn heads or grab headlines. It can be as seemingly small as saying no to another Oreo, French fry, or milkshake — or another half hour on Netflix or Facebook — or it can feel as significant as living out a resounding yes to sobriety and sexual purity. This is the height of Christian virtue in a fallen world, and its exercise is quite simply one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do.
Self-control is not easy. But it is possible.
Not only is it possible, but if Christ’s Spirit dwells in you, His fruit will come. And self-control is a fruit of the Spirit.
But as with any fruit, tending the soil can help it grow. So, the really difficult thing might be to take Jesus at his word and take time to abide in the Word. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, Jesus said. We must abide to be self-controlled.
But even then- I won’t kid you- it’s still a fight. Reining in my tongue, my stomach, my controlling appetites.
By the grace of God, self-control is possible.
And America, you listening? God has shed his grace on thee.
But America? The grace God shed on us is one and the same as the grace that confirms our souls in self-control, our liberty in law.
So, yes, America: Happy Independence Day!
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
-Catherine Lee Bates