On Self-Regulation

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

–Gal 5:22-23

This past week I was in an ordination workshop. The class was made up of people in the process of being recognized as set apart for the ministry of shepherding God’s flock. What this all means is still being worked out both for me and for my church. For the record, I have no actual agricultural experience. The closest is of the gardening variety and pet-sitting. I feel unqualified and doubtful most of the time. Nonetheless, it’s a journey worth traveling, even if it is rather daunting and lonely.

Daunting because of the weight of responsibility (wandering sheep, wolves, treacherous terrain). Lonely because of the self-sacrifice that’s required (sleepless nights, vigilance, few social benefits). Don’t get me wrong; being a pastor isn’t the only role that’s demanding. Perhaps I’ve wallowed on rusting grass while gazing longingly at green fields a bit too often. Truth is, life can be daunting and lonely for anyone, especially at a time with a great deal of uncertainty and social anxiety.

The backdrop to our preparations is the ongoing turmoil we see evident on our social media and news. What’s happening south to our borders is impacting Canadian ministries and congregations. As a pastor I find that I have to tread a fine line between engaging in what I believe to be important social issues and not alienating those who may hold different viewpoints, especially those within my congregation. In calmer times, there is already enough diversity within the Church to cause division. But with recent events and the unfettered access to un-vetted, un-loving opinions we are seeing the proliferation of fear, disdain, and hostility. It is so tempting for me to drop a comment or two (or three or four) in attempts to defend people, to stand for righteousness, and to silence offensive voices. And when I get the “likes” I inwardly seek, it feeds into my sense of right-ness.

And it’s precisely in these kinds of moments when God’s word breathes life into my soul. Galatians 5 has been foremost in my mind in the area of self-regulation or self-control. In contrast to slavery, God’s Spirit gives us freedom. Freedom to make choices not out of fear of punishment, but out of joy and hope in Christ who reconciles all things through His body and blood. And we are to use that freedom carefully, to serve and to love, not to provoke or exasperate. If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other – Paul’s words, not mine.

As Christ followers, we can feel secure and we can say “no” to our impulses that find root in barren soil. I wonder how we would all behave if we truly believe that God loves the whole world and wants to save it. For many of us who exist on the margins, whether it’s because of our gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc, we have to work out where we place our source of affirmation. We don’t have the benefit of social privilege. For others gifted with power and privilege, we have to take care not to become conceited or unrestrained, especially when that privilege actually means dying-to-self.

I hope that as leaders, we can reflect on what it means to say “no” to ourselves on behalf of those we serve and have influence on. And to take a step further, to see this as gift. Perhaps it means being aware of the stressors that deplete our capacity to love others, and ourselves, well. Or perhaps it means you have been blessed with enough security in Christ that you can extend grace to those who don’t. Or perhaps it means avoiding vanity by living sacrificially and creating space for dialogue and engagement (i.e. Get out of the armchair and into the fray). I do believe that out of that self-control is greater freedom and capacity to love.

We live in fretful times and even the most faithful of us can feel threatened by what the future may hold. And yet, we continue because we feel life is worthwhile somehow. Maybe it’s finding fellow weary travelers. Maybe it’s the lure of greener pastures. Hopefully, it’s the vision of finding a place within God’s Kingdom and sharing it. No, not proselyting, but saying, “Here, take and eat. I’ve already had my fill.”

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

EDIT: This was reprinted by Christianity Today on April 17, 2017