Let me start with a brief story about a society in which some people had slaves and attempted to use those slaves for income:
David thought the interview had gone well so far. Huxley Industries needed a slave to answer phones, keep records, and do other office work. David needed some better income and he had a slave to rent. His slave could easily do the jobs that they needed to be done.
“So can your slave be here by 7:30 am every weekday morning?”
David’s heart lurched. “You start that early?”
Well, we need him ready to go before others come to work. We found this position works better if he starts a half hour earlier.”
“Is that a problem?” Sharon, the interviewer sounded completely non-judgmental about David’s slave. He was thankful for her professionalism.
“Well, I have my slave during most of the day,” said David, hating to have to admit the truth out loud. “Body is a good slave and I’m sure he could do the work here.”
“But I’m not completely his sole owner. His other master may make that 7:30 start time difficult to meet.”
“Someone else has ownership that early in the morning?”
David shook his head. Not in the morning, but usually late at night. Wine, Women, and Song are part owners from about 9 p.m. until pretty late. Getting up that early might be a problem.”
Sharon nodded. “That was actually why this position didn’t work with the last slave we tried to rent from someone.”
“Did Wine, Women, and Song have part ownership?”
“No,” said Sharon, “I think it was Late Night Television. It kept the slave up at night and when the other owner got full control back in the morning, the slave was too groggy to work for us effectively.”
“I appreciate talking to you about the job,” said Sharon. “But you have to understand lots of slaves can do the tasks we need done. Our problem isn’t the tasks themselves but the simple fact that the owners are not really total owners. You can’t really rent out a slave if you already share him with other masters.”
Now perhaps you understand the point of my story. To give a clear application of the point, lets think about a couple at their wedding making vows.
Giving Yourself Away In Marriage
When a man and a woman get married, they promise themselves to each other. The assumption is that they are each in a position to actually give the item that they are promising.
I wonder how often that is completely true.
Traditionally, there is a point in a wedding ceremony where the minister asks if there is any other relationship that prevents either person from being legally and morally capable of marrying the other. It is mostly just a formality–though it reminds us that marriage had to be carved out of social chaos.
But while the average couple in a wedding is legally free to marry the other, do they have any real freedom to truly offer and give themselves to the other?
To a certain extent, of course, you can’t learn how to give yourself in marriage until you get married. You are promising to learn how you need to change to become the perfect spouse (not perfect in a generic way but perfect to the particular person you are marrying) and then to do so. That can’t be all figured out before marriage. You have to grow and adapt.
But such growth and change require freedom. And by freedom I mean slavery.
Slavery to oneself.
Slavery to oneself as an integrated decision maker rather than slavery to the bits of you, whether only immature or downright sinful, that you can’t understand.
If you can’t master yourself you have no capacity to offer yourself to another. So two people take vows who have a hundred invisible spouses already chained to their hands, feet, eyes, and mouths. They are slaves to ambitions, greeds, vices, assorted addictions and, probably most of all, fears.
Marriage has to force real change on a person in order to work. The person has to realize that the vow to belong to another entails a vow to capture and dominate oneself so that one has a person to offer to another. That’s why my absolutist language should not be taken too literally. You can indeed offer yourself to your spouse, but it probably involves a promise to capture more of yourself and bring those parts into the family.
Why am I talking about a person as if he was a collection of opposing forces?
Because that is the way we are. Sin aggravates the problem, but anyone who sees a baby discovering it’s own hands and feet should realize that the process of maturation is a process of integrating parts into a whole.
Now, You Can Only Have “An Accident” On Purpose
Perhaps, if you doubt the way I’m describing a baby’s relation to his body parts, you might consider a specific issue (pun not intended).
Many claim that real character comes from “the inside” and must be truly “from inside you.” You are supposed to“listen to your heart” and “be true to yourself” and all that.
This was your way of life when you were first born and for a time thereafter: Once what “came from inside you” was messy diapers but now you would find it difficult to soil your pants even if someone offered you several hundred dollars to do so.
It was the most natural thing in the world to every single human being now reading this blog post to, at one time, let “poop happen.” No control. No concern. This was spontaneous human behavior unconstrained by outward, external imposition.
And now it is inside you, in your heart and in your mind. You have not only the ability to control your bowels, you have such a powerful impulse to do so that the idea of overriding that impulse seems almost beyond your reach.
You get trained and you change…. from the outside in and then from the inside out.
And this applies to much else.
A baby will play with his hands and feet and put them in his mouth because he perceives them as externalities. He doesn’t know how to control them at first. He’s not sure they are part of him.
By the time he is two, that stage is over. He has “brought” his limbs “into” his consciousness. Or he has “extended” his self into his hands and feet. They are part of him now. They are tools. He has dominion and from there he can do new things.
Learning To Drive
Or consider teaching a teenager to drive. Once you know how to drive you no longer think, “I need to slow down so I had better push the pedal on the left.” If you are thinking that way, then you don’t know how to drive yet. But when you do learn, the car is part of your body. You never need to think about the controls.
It is true of language. You can no more think of the individual letters in order and the sounds they make as you read this post, than you can drive by first thinking about what the controls for the car do. Language, both written and spoken, is experienced without noticing the different parts that, when you were young, you had to figure out.
This is called wisdom. The same principle applies to learning to listen before you speak or learning to restrain anger.
When a teen first gets in a car, the car’s power scares him. It bucks and jerks. Why is the engine so rough?
But it is not rough. You just don’t have control. The car couldn’t function without an engine and brakes. You need those things. But you need to know how to use them right. The same with your emotions. You have to learn to drive them or else they will drive you off the road.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding (Proverbs 17.27).
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,
but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly (Proverbs 14.29).
Good sense makes one slow to anger,
and it is his glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19.11).
The vexation of a fool is known at once,
but the prudent ignores an insult (Proverbs 12.16).
A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back (Proverbs 29.11).
These are barely decisions at all but much more habits of behavior. They are how you drive yourself in a way that glorifies God and keeps you out of unnecessary traffic jams. They are the habits that give you the time you need to reflect when reflection is called for.
It is all about how you train your body.
Sin In Your Body Parts
Sin complicates this process. But the Bible encourages us, in Christ, to conquer the enemies and bring them into submission to the Lord. Note the way the Apostle Paul describes the imperative of victory.
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
And then Romans 6.19b:
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Does this see an odd way to write? But (among many other parts of the Bible) it is right out of Proverbs wherein we are warned about wicked or foolish eyes, ears, hands, feet, and hearts, etc. Just one example among many:
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers.
The evil man is ruled by his parts.
This solution here is not intellectualism or a mind-good/body-bad-until-domesticated doctrine. The point is that the intellect or brain does not master the body simply by force of will. You would never get done tying your shoelaces if the brain/body system was supposed to work that way. When you integrate your body into the service of God you are changing both your fingers and your fore-brain. As I pointed out here, taking control of yourself is compared in the Bible to taming an animal. If I remember correctly, this has been confirmed by scientific studies measuring the brain activity of amateur and pro golfers. The amateur’s brain activity spikes as he thinks so hard about what he is doing, but the pro’s shows much less activity. He is simply riding the body that is already trained (as well as had a natural and inexplicable talent from the beginning, in many cases).
Parents Rule You So You Can Rule Yourself
I was recently reading a novel by a rationalist atheist who portrayed a heroine who, though she had never allowed anyone to make her do anything she didn’t want to do, and who despised labor, was able to engage and succeed at the pursuits of goals that she desired once she became an adult. There are prodigies and there are amazing leaps in progress in human life some times. But normally that is not the way it works.
Normally, if you haven’t been forced to get up in the morning, you aren’t going to be able to make yourself get up as an adult. If you haven’t been forcibly stopped from yelling, or shooting your mouth off, when you are angry as a child, it will be extremely difficult to stop yourself as an adult. It isn’t impossible, but it is going to be difficult. You will struggle to arrive where others already are. (Of course, it if encourages you to humility, you might be better off in the long run than some others. Self-control doesn’t guarantee you will evade the traps of sin. It only promises you that your sins will tend to be more self-consciously chosen, though perhaps under the power of a delusion.)
But the point here is that learning to force yourself to do things to avoid unpleasantness with an external authority can actually help you grow up and, when you have left that authority, take authority over yourself. As far as I know, if children survive their parents, they can spring back from all sorts of horrible situations. But, if memory serves, feral children are virtually feral forever. To be completely ignored is deforming to the human personality. And the next worse thing may be a childhood in which one’s parents spoil you.
In the Bible slavery leads to dominion. The primary instance of this truth is growing up with parents and then leaving home or becoming master of the estate. Thus:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 3:23-4:5, ESV)
And the mark of childishness, it seems, is instability–the inability to stand firm for a purpose:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14, ESV)
How Service To God Gives Autonomy
We often hear Christians oppose autonomy to “theonomy” or to obedience to God. But the word, “autonomous,” can mean simply the ability to rule oneself. And with that in mind we might notice that the only path to autonomy is theonomy:
- If we take the -nomos suffix as “law” then theonomy is good and autonomy is evil, because one should submit to God’s law rather than be a law to oneself.
- But being “autonomous” does not typically mean being a law unto oneself in all contexts. It can means simply being self-governed. A child becomes “autonomous” to a degree at the age of eighteen because the child becomes an adult and is permitted to make choices for him- or herself. One becomes “autonomous” when one is given space and time to make one’s own decisions without immediate supervision.
- In other words, you are autonomous when you are expected to supervise yourself rather than be supervised by someone else.
- Autonomy can be a matter of degree: you can be told to report back in two weeks or six months on a project. You are autonomous in that you are “on your own” until the appointed time of review. Or you can be given a mission without being given minute instructions on how to succeed at the mission. Determining your best strategy to complete the mission is part of the mission itself. So in both cases you have a lesser or greater degree of autonomy without denying a higher authority.
- So God has left us largely autonomous, or rather, with the charge to become autonomous and thus complete the mission He assigned to us.
- In other words, God wants us to grow up. We have to learn to supervise ourselves rather than come under someone elses’ perpetual supervision.
- And if we are supposed to supervise ourselves, then each one of us must be obligated to bring one’s self under one’s control as a unified person in order to be a fit instrument and weapon for for an end.
- But to what end? If we don’t have at least an overarching plan for human beings in mind, then how can we unify our desires, perceptions, and impulses toward an intelligible goal? With no goal, we become slaves to vices. With a false goal, we will eventually find that our “autonomy” is actually slavery to some principle that doesn’t truly suit us.
- If God is truly the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit revealed in the Bible and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then only by governing ourselves to serve him and model ourselves on him can we be truly self-integrated and self-governing.
- So, this is the conclusion of the matter: The only real autonomy is found in theonomy.
Is This Why God Subjects Us To Unpleasant Or Hostile Forces?
Let us consider two common statements by Evangelicals:
1. “we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but
2. more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”
Yes, but what about the third truth?
3. We can be greater than we would ever dare attempt.
So, if one accepts only 1. and 2., one will find great comfort. But if one accepts 3. along with 2. then one might suspect that Jesus is gong to make one’s life a living hell for quite some time.
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Notice that the writer of Hebrews is not telling them to repent of any particular sins. He is simply promising them that their troubles are to help them gain mastery over sin. By being slaves we become masters. But if we never become masters of ourselves we will always be slaves to others, and to our own passions or desires.
To Be A Profitable Soldier In God’s Army You Need Trained Soldiers In Your Army
No matter how awesome your battle plan or how ingenious your general, a conflict can only be won by trained troops. If the soldiers run in the face of danger, don’t listen to orders, or don’t follow orders; if they get into arguments that distract them from their duties, they are doomed.
Soldiers can’t expect to do well without weapons and armor, but also weapons and armor will be wasted if the soldiers aren’t trained to constantly care for their equipment.
Likewise, sports. The greatest coach in the world cannot bring a team to victory if the players won’t exercise or practice.
Solomon knows that God has given the law. But he also knows that you can’t follow it naturally. No, I’m not talking about “the natural man,” I’m talking about the impossibility of relying on thoughtless habits and untrained impulses to guide you in a course of action.
Any course of action.
God made us this way. Sin had nothing to do with it at this level. If all humans were supposed to do one and only one thing throughout history, then it could have been wired into us. But God had more diversity in mind. So we can shape ourselves (or commit to shapelessness). We can drive ourselves (or be driven by forces outside our control).
And since this is the way we are, submitting to God’s commands takes a similar form. You can promise yourself not to say unpleasant things if you get angry, but until you’ve trained yourself to keep quiet and think before you speak it won’t mean much. Oh, you can “decide” all you want. But until you’ve got your body parts working in formation, it will be a fruitless promise. “Let not him who puts his armor on boast as he who takes it off.”
I was talking to one of my sons about some of these concepts. He watches basketball a fair amount. He told me that he’s noticed that some players, when they disagree with the referee, simply cannot shut up. They end up getting their whole team penalized–a situation that was worse than the original problem and one which the player could have avoided. Or maybe he couldn’t because his mouth or his temper is not under his control.
Here are people who have forced their bodies into shape doing amazing things and yet they unable to overpower their own mouths?
You are not just a soldier in God’s army, you are a heavenly host. Your eyes, hands, feet, and mouth are your soldiers. Your soul is your drummer keeping time. You need to get him to slow down if he is prone to charge at the wrong occasion.
Self-mastery must be learned. Without it, freedom is meaningless. But the easiest way to master yourself is to serve another for a time as a child. If you can’t obey orders you will never be able to command yourself.