We live in an age where taking personal responsibility for oneself and one’s behavior is an endangered commodity. Increasingly, we have become a culture of “victimitis,” where no one is really ever a fault for anything. Instead, our problems, whatever they may be, are the result of the malfeasance of another or some series of bad breaks and misunderstandings. When all else fails and we can’t find someone or something to blame our troubles on, we can assert along with Stooge Curly Joe: “I’m just a victim of circumstance.”
Let’s face facts and not seek to become overly intellectual or get bogged down in a mire and muck of philosophical sophistication. The reality of the situation is actually quite simple: until you establish control over your thoughts, feelings, and behavior you life is going to be characterized by instability and difficulty. Until you develop personal discipline, you will exist but never truly live.
Referring to an undisciplined person, James Allen states:
He does not intelligently reflect upon life, and lives in a series of sensations, longings, and confused memories which are unrelated to any central idea or principle. A man whose inner life is so ungoverned and chaotic must necessarily manifest this confusion in the visible conditions of his outer life in the world; and though for a time, running with the stream of his desires, he may draw to himself amore or less large share of the outer necessities and comforts of life, he never achieves any real success nor accomplishes any real good, and sooner or later worldly failure and disaster are inevitable, as the direct result of the inward failure to properly adjust and regulate those mental forces which make the outer life.
I still clearly recall the time I first read these words by James Allen, along with the above cited comments about taking a meandering route down “trackless wastes of perplexity.” If ever a message described my undisciplined nature, especially related to my thought life, this one surely did. Allen’s words hit me between the eyes with the impact of a 2×4. It was, in short, one of those personal epiphanies that we are blessed with from time to time. I’ll be the first to admit that at the time it didn’t especially seem like a blessing, but in retrospect, that is exactly what it was. It was this revelation, engineered no doubt by divine forces, that began the process of a profound change in my thought life. Did that transformation take place overnight? Of course not; but it did take place and I am forever thankful. Allen, in his remarkable little work entitled, Byways to Blessedness, continues by describing the necessity of getting a grip on our cognitive life:
Before a man accomplish anything of an enduring nature in the world he must first of all acquire some measure of success in the management of his own mind. This is as mathematical a truism as that two and two are four, for, “out of the heart are the issues of life.” (Here Allen is referring to Proverbs 4:23). If a man cannot govern the forces within himself, he cannot hold a firm hand upon the outer activities which form his visible life. On the other hand, as a man succeeds, in governing himself he rises to higher and higher levels of power and usefulness and success in the world.
We all seek a North Star, a point of reference to which we can align ourselves and thereby judge our position. Without such a point of reference, we waste valuable time and energy, flitting here and wandering there and ending up nowhere. John Wesley wisely taught that when seeking such an anchor for our lives, we can turn to four sources: tradition, scripture, reason, and experience. During the course of my life, there have been occasions where I have used any one or combination of these sources to make proper judgments and reach vital decisions. Yet more than any other source, I have found greatest value in that “inner light” which God deposited in me. Known by many names, this is indeed the “light which lights every man that comes into the world” as John so aptly put it in the famous Prologue to his gospel. It is this same inner luminous core that George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, spoke of as the radiant wellspring of Christian revelation.
If we are to reach any degree of mastery over our lower self, we must establish, deepen, and maintain steadfast contact with this inner light. James Allen, speaking in context of establishing an anchor for our lives, describes the process in very succinct terms:
A man does not commence to truly live until he finds an immovable center within himself on which to regulate his life, and from which to draw his peace. If he trusts to that which fluctuates, he also will fluctuate; if he leans upon that which may be withdrawn he will fall and be bruised; if he looks for satisfaction in perishable accumulations he will starve for happiness in the midst of plenty…Be contented that others shall manage or mismanage their own little kingdom, and see to it that you reign strongly over your own. Your entire well-being and the well-being of the whole world lies there. You have a conscience, follow it; you have a mind, clarify it; you have a judgment, use and improve it; you have a will, employ and strengthen it; you have knowledge, increase it; there is a light within your soul, watch it, tend it, encourage it, shield it from the winds of passion, and help it to burn with a steadier and ever steadier radiance. Leave the world and come back to yourself. Think as a man, live as a man. Be rich in yourself, be complete in yourself. Find the abiding center within you and obey it.
Often the Holy Spirit brings to our attention areas of our thought, feeling, action, or belief that are either inaccurate or no longer serve a useful purpose. It then is incumbent upon us that we cast aside these aspects of our being. Paul speaks to this theme repeatedly when he tells us to take off the old and to put on the new. James Allen tells us:
He who would be clothed in new garments must first cast away the old, and who would find the True must sacrifice the false. The gardener digs in the weeds in order that they may feed, with their decay, the plants that are good for food; and the Tree of Wisdom can only flourish on the compost of uprooted follies.
At first glance, it would seem this process of personal mastery and changing problematic behaviors would be simple. We just identify those behaviors and make up our minds not to engage in them anymore. However, as anyone who has ever tried to change deeply ingrained behaviors will attest, this process is far more difficult that it seems. Further, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of personal mastery.
From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years.
I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop. For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates.
The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove.
A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was find thank you very much.
One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing an hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold.
Two days later I bought a new glove.
My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament.
Many of my old behaviors, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be
There is no need to complicate this issue of self-mastery beyond what it is. On a very practical level, mastery of self involves nothing more complex or arcane than saying no to self. Granted, this is often easier said than done, but let’s not kid ourselves by inserting all sorts of esoteric metaphysics or psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo into the equation. Like James Allen, let’s cut right to the chase:
By his personal indulgences a man demeans himself, forfeits self-respect to the extent and frequency of his indulgence, and deprives himself of exemplary influence and power to accomplish lasting good in his work in the world.
Remember the runaway bestseller The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck? The author could have started the book in an infinite number of ways, but Peck chose this as his opening sentence: Life is difficult. I think he started the book that way because that theme, the difficulty of life, is universal. Everyone could relate to those words.
As Christians, we also know that life is difficult. We are going to fact all kinds of problems. The good news is that no matter how difficult our present circumstances might be, God has got our back. He never presents us with something that we just cannot overcome. Bishop Jim Lowe, in his excellent book Achieving Your Divine Potential, makes the following cogent observation:
This is God’s promise. Every problem or issue you encounter in life has a solution. It is merely a matter of time before you discover it. Don’t give up hope; keep on pursuing your goal relentlessly. For all you know, the next thought you have may be the one that reveals to you how to subdue that one issue or problem that has been confronting you.
The word dominion basically means to “rule.” It implies the act of taking one’s authority over something for the purpose of establish order, discipline, and positive control. We have been given the divine directive to subdue, but that is only half the equation. The other half, dominion, means to take control of the situation by exercising your God-given, God-mandated authority.
Whenever you decide to exercise your dominion authority, however, be prepared to meet with resistance. This inevitable counter-force to your authority is, like most other obstacles that arise in the spiritual journey, comes from one of three sources – the enemy; the world; or yourself.
Of these three, most people think Satan is the hardest to deal with, but I don’t think so. True, the enemy is still a formidable foe, but he has already been defeated by Christ and his ultimate end has already been scripted in God’s overall plan. Granted, the enemy is still shrewd, cunning, and clever, but he has for the most part been defanged. His bark is still there but his bite is gone. Yes, he can still gum you half to death, but he can no longer chew you up unless you allow him to by abdicating your divine power. The world is also a considerable source of trouble but if we have established a solid biblical worldview and are grounded in its principles, we can consistently deal with the world.
Of the trio of troublemakers, I am of the opinion that we are the most difficult to get under control. I firmly believe that self-mastery is essential if we are to become the optimal version of ourselves. Now please understand that we can’t master ourselves under our own power – we must and do have the power of the Holy Spirit. But we can do quite a bit and we should work as hard as possible to discipline ourselves.
Often we are our own worst enemies. Paul spells this out clearly when he talks about doing the things he doesn’t want to do and not doing the things he wants to do.
One of the most significant lessons we can learn on the spiritual journey is the fact that we cannot effectively take charge of any situation, person, place, or thing until we have effectively assumed charge of ourselves. The words of Gandhi sum this inescapable principle up quite well:
I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him, I seem to have very little influence.
I don’t know about you, but I can relate very deeply with Gandhi’s words. All too often we are our own worst enemy, sabotaging every noble thing we set out to do. I firmly believe, however, that the key to self-mastery, like all other directives we have been given, lies in the realization and application of our identity in Christ. As we have seen, we are far more powerful spiritual beings than we have realized and we need to apply this understanding to dealing with our own chronic tendencies to sabotage ourselves. Bishop Lowe offers the following sage advice:
God has given you authority and power to take dominion over all things on earth. Your first responsibility, however, is to subdue and take dominion over the only enemy that can defeat you – YOU! You cannot triumph over the external world until you subdue and take dominion over you! You will have to wage war against every argument within you that challenges what God has said about you.
You have been taught by the world to see yourself as inferior to what God’s original plan was for you. Your years of conditioning and indoctrination will cause you to doubt what the Almighty said about you. You will find yourself struggling against what God has said. Doubt and unbelief will be unrelenting in their challenge to influence you to believe what God says cannot be true.
It will take some time to undo the conditioning of years of misinformation, but God’s Word is sure and powerful. If you continue hearing the Word of God over and over again, your thinking will become aligned with it and your mind will be renewed. Then, because of our persistent and diligent efforts, your life will be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Let’s keep one other important principle before us at all times. Just as David faced a seemingly unbeatable foe in the Philistine giant Goliath, we also face our own giants – giants of fear, lack, poverty, discouragement, depression, illness, abuse, addiction – the list goes on and on. But just like David, we must come to understand and accept that our victory will not come from our own power, but instead, will flow down like a mighty blessing from the spiritual realm. No matter the nature of our problem, the solution is always a spiritual one. That is why the prophet Zechariah reminded us of the Lord’s words
Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit (Zechariah 4:6).
If you believe your situation is hopeless realize this: that is a perception that is both erroneous and self-defeating and further, it is from the very pit of Hell. God can and will help you if you ask and this is a reality that has been proven over and over again in countless lives. Does that mean you have nothing to do but plead your case before God and wait for him to fix your problem? No. What it does mean is that God will supply you with all you need in terms of perseverance, fortitude, and inner resources. You, however, have to do the leg work. James Allen, in his own straightforward, no-nonsense way, lays it out clearly:
However tightly a man may have bound himself round he can always unbind himself. Into whatever morasses of trouble and trackless wastes of perplexity he may have ignorantly wandered he can always find his way out again, can always recover the lost highway of uninvolved simplicity which leads straight and clear, to the sunny city of wise and blessed action. But he will never do this by sitting down and weeping in despair, nor by complaining and worrying and aimlessly wishing he were differently situated. His dilemma calls for alertness, logical thought, and calm calculation. His position requires that he shall strongly command himself; that he shall think and search, and rouse himself to strenuous and unremitting exertion in order to regain himself. Worry and anxiety only serve to heighten the gloom and exaggerate the magnitude of the difficulty. It is a great day in the life of a man (though at the time he knows it not) when bewildering perplexities concerning the mystery of life take possession of his mind, for it signifies that his era of dead indifference, animal sloth, of mere vegetative happiness, has come to an end, and that henceforth he is to live as an aspiring, self-evolving being. No longer a mere human animal, he will now begin to live as a man…
I don’t know about you or your past, but speaking of my own history I can readily identify more than a few occasions when I found myself in a “morass of troubles” and even more often, discovered that I had lost valuable time and energy by wandering down “trackless wastes of perplexity.”
The only way out of this morass of confusion and perplexity is to gain some degree of personal mastery in general and mastery of the mind in particular.
As we have seen, establishing and maintaining self-discipline has many rewards, the chief of which is an internal sense of strength and confidence. Rather than some willy-nilly, unfocused, and nebulous sort of confidence, the confidence that comes from being a master of oneself is a practical, concrete and highly efficient trait that serves as an anchor in life’s sometimes turbulent seas. Allen concludes:
With the practice of self-discipline a man begins to live, for he then commences to rise above the inward confusion and to adjust his conduct to a steadfast centre within himself. He ceases to follow where inclination leads him, reins in the steed of his desires, and lives in accordance with the dictates of reason and wisdom.
© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved