Lent is a time of fasts and self control. Yet, self-control is a mystery.
Self-control is the last of the fruit of the Spirits Paul lists in Gal 6. Seemly, the one fruit with nothing to do with relationships, with other eight are all about the space between the other humans. Self-control seems to be the work our own strength, our own wills and our own powers. It seems the domain of the self help gurus teach us by seminars and books to have an iron will. Paul, counter common sense, places it as a work of the Holy Spirit, beyond our will and power. It is not us pulling ourselves up by our own boot straps, but as a result of God’s love. This contradiction use to baffle me, until my son and our relationship clarified the mystery for me.
Usually, self-control is thought of as self-mastery. The language of self-mastery comes from the world of slaves and masters. It means that we treat ourselves as a slave to overpower by our wills. Like holding a hand over a candle flame ignoring the pain, we use our own strength to overcome our desires and pain. We, in a sense, oppress our self, a self define by desires. The self, like an overseer holding a whip, controls the slave. Strangely, the slave is also the self. The self oppresses the self, and to what purpose?
What is being controlled? Desires. But to what purpose? Other desires. If one desires to lose weight, then control the desire for food. The self is still defined by desire, though. A desire controls another desire. Desires, desires, desires, always desires controlling desires. Is any wonder we have problems with self-mastery? Forcing our will on ourselves causes resistance within ourselves. To lose weight, we go on diet. Food becomes an obsession.
Is the self being nothing more than hierarchy of desires? Does the self rise out from this sea of desires? From where does the self flow beyond the level of desires and hardens into a solid mass where life can blossom? Surely, Easter means more than different desires controlling us. Easter is about liberation.
Jesus draws us into relationship, grace defined. The self then transforms from one defined by desires into one grounded in love. My son will soon be one. He is an infant learning the world. When cries in the night, my wife or I answer him. It is not desire that runs us, but our relationship. So, when we give up something for Lent, we do ourselves no favor if we do it as a show of strength.
Once, I gave up chocolate for Lent. On a Sunday during that Lenten season, a friend, who knew I gave up chocolate saw me take a large bit of a fudge brownie. He was shocked. I explained that for Lent, Jesus redeem us and as such on his day, Sunday, we are allowed what we gave up. He said it was just wrong. What he did not understand, maybe due to my weak explanation, that Lenten fasts are less about the power of self and more to remind us of Jesus and our relationship to Jesus. I enjoyed the goodness of Jesus during Lent that year. I, also enjoyed my weekly chocolate.