Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I ran into this article about self-control a few days ago, and so self-control as a virtue has been jostling around my head since then. Discipline isn't a common topic of discussion around college campuses these days (at least, not mine). The cultural focus is on self-actualization / self-realization / fulfillment / happiness: the self as god. Self-control postulates the reverse: self as servant to ... what? Higher goals than one's immediate desires, anyway.

I am pretty disciplined about getting my homework done, waking up on time, eating healthily, holding my tongue, showing up to meetings. People consider me responsible. And yet I do things like spend the majority of a three-day weekend reading a novel (and now it's Tuesday night and I'm still in Cryptonomicon's thrall), or eat half a bar of dark chocolate in a sitting, or wander around day-dreaming of fairy-tale love. I indulge in mid-afternoon planning sessions, trying to map out how many requirements I've fulfilled and how many are still lurking on my path, checking off completed classes like I'm collecting scalps.

This is a darker temptation: the need to justify my existence to myself. The need to pass my own standards, to surpass onlookers' expectations. The compulsion to make a good impression, most of all on myself. The drive to be good enough.

In I Samuel 18, everyone loves David, and no one cares about Saul any more. [Now if you'll just bear with me for a moment... (I promise I'm not doing this!)] My Bible study is doing a character study of David, and this is the chapter we're reading tomorrow. But this chapter seems more Saul-centric. David may be the main character, but the emotions we hear about are all Saul's. Saul is very angry, he's galled (v. 8), he's jealous (9), he's afraid (12), he's still more afraid (29). Why is Saul so upset? All his angst comes out when he realizes that "the Lord is with David," and it gets worse and worse as more and more people switch to David's side (that's how Saul perceives it, at least). So is he upset because he's unpopular? I think his loss of popularity is just an exacerbating factor. The actual reason for Saul being so disturbed is that God isn't with him.
Problem: Saul is far from God.
Remedy: (A) Saul should try to kill David because God is with David.
(B) Saul should approach God.
Hm, which one is a better solution? If you ask Saul, the answer is (A). Clearly there's a disconnect here: Saul is disturbed because he's far from God, but the way he deals with the problem is to take actions that increase his distance from God (i.e., attempt murder). What's going on in his head?

I think Saul is in a state of mind where he can't conceive of humbling himself. He's the king of Israel, he's powerful, he's a head taller than everyone else, he's on top of the world--at least, he thinks he should be. He's relying on himself. And that's why he's so afraid. Losing his reputation, losing his kingdom, these losses would destroy him, because those are the only things he has.

A kingdom, and a family, and a reputation are not trivial. However, they are not a reliable foundation for an identity.

Here's the issue: I keep thinking like Saul. Self-reliance is a deadly temptation, and it comes with a complementary poison, self-absorption. The kid's computer game Jumpstart 3rd features a bratty girl who redraws the solar system as the Polly system, with all the planets orbiting around her face. That's my mental image of self-absorption. It's so easy to start thinking as though the whole system as orbiting around my own little notions.

But that's not how it is. In reality, my self-condemnation doesn't count, because God is the real judge, and my self-vindication doesn't count either, because God is the one who gives worth. Worth is all relative (an item is worth something to someone or for some purpose, not just in a void), and God is the agent relative to whom real worth is calculated. I need to have that larger perspective, to see myself in the light of His evaluation and as part of a larger system than my immediate surroundings.

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