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Duration:24 mins 13 secs

Summer Tune Up Sermon Series

“Inspect Your Brakes:  Gentleness and Self-Control”

Ephesians 4: 14-29

July 11, 2021

 

            A mother was driving with her teenage daughter.  The weather was terrible, traffic was heavy, and the mom began to get frazzled, with her frustration erupting in outbursts about the offenses of the other drivers on the road.  The daughter sat quietly through all this, but as they pulled into their driveway, she spoke up.  “I have a question, Mom,” she asked.   “When you’re driving, are you ever the idiot?”1

            That woman was lacking in gentleness and self-control.  Today is the final sermon in our summer tune up series on the fruit of the Spirit.  Just like we give our cars a tune up, we’re giving our lives a spiritual tune up, to make sure we are operating as we should as Christian people.  We’ve seen that love is the engine of our lives, we’ve re-charged the battery of joy, we’ve learned to maintain our cooling system—peace and patience, we’ve made sure our headlights of goodness and kindness are working, and we’ve checked the tires of faithfulness.  Today, we are going to “Inspect Our Brakes:  Gentleness and Self-control.”

            Gentleness and self-control are the brakes that stop us from acting in ways we shouldn’t.  When temper threatens to get the best of us, when we are tempted to speak without thinking, when anger pushes us towards harsh action, we need to be able to put on the brakes, so that we don’t do something that might cause serious damage. 

            Everyone who has driven a vehicle knows the importance of good brakes.  If you’ve ever had brake problems, you know that awful feeling when 3,000 pounds of metal careens out of control.  So all mechanics and insurance companies, too, recommend regular brake inspections.  As the Allstate website says, you should inspect your brakes, because, “Brakes are what enable your car to stop, to hopefully avoid accidents and drive more safely overall.”2 

            The accidents that come from our lack of ability to put on the spiritual brakes can have terribly damaging results, causing emotional hurt and division that is just as serious and harmful as a physical accident. 

            In the list of the fruit of the spirit that we have been using as our tune up check list, gentleness and self-control are together at the end, the final bracket that holds it all together.  Like peace and patience, gentleness and self-control go together.  In the New Testament, the Greek word for “gentleness” has to do with power that is held in reserve; it is power that is not undisciplined or explosive, but that is checked.  Similarly, “self-control” in Greek is literally “dominion from within,” that is, restraint, self-mastery, control over one’s impulses.3

            These are essential qualities for the Christian life, as we see in our passage this morning from Ephesians 4.  In this passage, Paul is writing to help the early Christians—and us--- understand the difference between the old life and the new, life before Christ and life after.  In his typically blunt style, he tells the Ephesians, “You must no longer live like children! You have to grow up in Christ.” 

            Psychologists say that children begin developing impulse control around the age of three, and from 3 until age 9 or 10 are crucial years in learning self-control.  A National Institutes of Health report found “Early self-control has a profound and lasting effect on one's life in adulthood....Possessing self-control in childhood ... predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal-offending outcomes.”  The report said, “The ability to control one’s impulses and modulate one's emotional expressions is the earliest and most ubiquitous demand that societies place on children. Moreover, success at many life tasks depends critically on children’s mastery of such self-control.”4 

            Paul would agree.  Christian maturity, growing up in Christ, means learning gentleness and self-control.  In verse 17, he stresses that living as children is the way the Gentiles, the non-believers live, and then in verses 18 and 19, Paul lists the negative outcomes of that way of life:  alienated from God because of ignorance and hardness of heart, no sensitivity, abandoned to licentiousness and greed.  It is a picture of a life out of control, a person running from one false fulfillment to the next.  Instead, Paul says in verse 22, “you must put away your former way of life...and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God.”

            Then in verses 25 through 29, Paul moves from theory to practice.  He gives concrete examples of how to harness control.  He is clear that ultimately, our gentleness and self-control---or lack thereof---have real-life consequences for our relationships with God and with others.  If we are to live in the unity of the body of Christ, to imitate God and to live in love as Christ loves as, as Ephesians 5:1 says, then this is what we must do. 

            First, he said, our words should be true.  We should not speak falsehood, but speak the truth to our neighbors. Oscar Wilde once said famously at a dinner party, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody----come sit next to me.”5

            How easy it is to tell that little white lie, or to blurt out some piece of gossip we might have heard.  “I saw Jane going into the restaurant with George.  I guess she’s dating again; awfully soon, isn’t it?”  True, not true?  Do we know?  Do we care?  If it’s some juicy tidbit, it’s so easy to blurt it out without stopping to think about the damage we might do.  We need to put on the brakes, and make sure what we are saying is true.

            Second, we should not act in anger.  “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” says Paul in verse 26.  Anger is an emotion, and like many feelings, the initial emotion itself might not be the real problem.  Someone pulls out in front of you in traffic and almost causes an accident.  Of course you’re going to be angry.  Someone says something that hurts your feelings, or fails to keep a promise, or you see someone treated unjustly.  Anger is a natural reaction.  But the problem comes when we allow that anger to grow.  When we yell at the person who pulled out in front of us, and then drive aggressively the rest of the day to make up for it, cutting off other people, running red-lights.  When we carry that anger home to gripe and complain to our spouse about that idiot who cut us off, and when we go to bed that night still steaming about it, that’s when anger becomes damaging to ourselves and to others.  We need to put on the brakes and exercise gentleness and self-control.

            It is harmful if a loved one says something that hurt our feelings, and after that initial anger, we can’t let go of it.  We allow it to take up residence in our hearts, and we feel it there like a lead weight, and it presses against us so that we blurt out things that are unkind, we speak harsh words, we carry it around as a grudge that we can’t let go.  Then, as Paul says in v. 27, we have made room for the devil, and things go from bad to worse.  Instead, we need to practice self-control and let go of anger, rather than carrying it with us.

            Third, Paul says in verse 29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” I like what Will Rogers said: “Live so that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”6 Or we might say, Live so that if someone cell-phone-recorded your words when you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t be ashamed to have that video played in church.

            Children without impulse control blurt out things they don’t really mean; think of a child resisting bedtime and shouting, “I hate you!” at her parent.  But as adults, we should have self-control to prevent those outbursts.  It’s so easy to blurt out a harsh word, and so hard to take it back. 

            There was a man who had the bad habit of saying things that were unkind.  A criticism about someone’s appearance, a suggestion about someone’s fidelity, a rumor about dishonesty in business.  It inflated his ego when others commented on how clever were the cutting things he said, and his habit grew until it consumed him; he hardly knew how to speak unless he was uttering something wicked or salacious.  Finally, the man’s rabbi came to visit him one day.  He confronted the man about his words.  He told him the hurt he had caused—the marital discord that flared because of his false whisperings, the businessman he devastated with his suggestions of dishonesty.  The man’s conscience burned as he finally realized the harm he had caused.  “Rabbi,” he said, “I’m so sorry.  Surely there is something I can do.  Tell me how to undo the damage I have caused.  Anything at all, I will do it.” 

            The rabbi asked if he had a feather pillow, and had him bring the pillow into the room.  “Now cut it open,” the rabbi said.  The man did as he asked.  “Shake the feathers out into the room,” he instructed.  Again, the man complied.  As he shook the pillow, feathers flew everywhere.  On top of the mantel, in the fireplace, under the sofa, out the open window, everywhere.  

            “Now,” the rabbi said, “go gather up all the feathers and put them back in the pillow again.  Every single one.”  “Back?” the man asked incredulously.  “But that’s impossible!  I could never get them all back again.”

            “Just so,” the rabbi replied, “it is impossible to take back the things you have said.  Once you speak an evil word, it flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back.  The damage is done.”7

            Words have power; and words can be used for good or ill.  Think of the power of negative phrases.  “You’ll never amount to anything.” “Can’t you ever do anything right?”  “Why do you always have to ruin things?” “I wish you had never been born.”

            We can’t take back such words.  Paul says we grieve the Holy Spirit when we do such things.  That’s why we must put on the brakes, and exercise self-control, so that we do not say what is evil.  We should stop ourselves from saying those kinds of things, and instead, Paul says in verse 29, we should “say only what is useful in building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” 

            What a wonderful thought:  our words can be the means of grace for someone.  With gentleness and self-control, our words can have power for good:  “You know, you really have a gift for that.”  “Good job!  I knew you could do it!”  “Thank you so much!  You made my day!” “I appreciate all your help and your hard work.”  “I care about you, and I’m praying for you.”  “I understand, and I forgive you.”   “I’m so proud of you.”  “I’m so thankful for you.” “I love you no matter what.”  Our words can be the means of grace for someone.

            “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths,” Paul said, “but only what is useful for building up.” Our words can build up other people; our words can build up peace; our words can help people know the love God has for them, to know---in a world that tears down, that criticizes, judges and condemns---to know that God loves them, loves them so much that God put on flesh and came to live among us, to show us what love is in the fullest in the person of Jesus Christ.

            What would it be like if we really stopped to watch our words, if we really took care in our speech, if we used only words that are good, words for building up, and not for tearing down. My friends, I challenge you: before you speak, before you email, before you click post or send, stop.  Stop and think about the words and ask if they are good or evil.  If they are not words that are “useful for building up,” don’t say them.  Let us take seriously the words of Paul:  “Be angry but do not sin. . . . Do not make room for the devil. . .  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

            May we no longer live like children, but may we grow up in every way into Christ, putting away our former life, and learning to live with gentleness and self-control.  Gentleness and self-control are qualities we can develop, the brakes that we use to put a stop to impulsive words and actions that might cause hurt or harm, and instead speak and act in such a way that others are built up and experience the love and grace of God.

            Gentleness and self-control, like the other fruits of the Spirit, are part of our character as Christian people, the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us:  “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  When we live out these things, we lead a life worthy of our calling, and we demonstrate God’s love as we imitate Christ our Lord.  In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.

Notes

  1. “Reinventing the Wheel,” Homiletics, August 13, 2006.
  2. “DIY: How to Check Your Car’s Brake Pads,” Allstate.com
  3. Strong’s Greek Concordance, “gentleness/prautes-4240,” “self-control/egkrateia-1466.”
  4. Ting Tao et al, “Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: Perspective from a dual-systems model,” December 11, 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
  5. “Good Gossip,” Homiletics, September 13, 2009.
  6. Source unknown.
  7. Jewish folk tale, Chabad.org and other sources.

Rev. Dawn M. Mayes

Manassas Presbyterian Church

Manassas, Virginia

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