June 11, 1996
Ever wonder about terms like an original copy? Or a loud silence? Or sweet sorrow?
These figures of speech are called oxymorons, from two Greek words meaning sharp and foolish. In the first example, a copy is so true to the original that they call it an original. In the second, silence is so profound it seems loud. In the third, sorrow is mingled with joy so even its pain has a sweetness to it.
These contradictory word pictures are found in many pieces of literature as well as throughout the Bible. In one instance, two experiences that are not normally associated with each other describe the pain of death as “birth pangs.” Other Bible oxymorons include “living sacrifices,” “their glory is in their shame” and “you killed the author of life.”
Someone told me this week that “self-esteem” is also an oxymoron. Those who do not have it simply cannot give it to themselves because no one can rate themselves favorably when they are convinced their own opinion is worthless!
What about “self-control?” Is it also an oxymoron? From the Bible’s definition of self-control and what I know about human nature, it seems so.
Human nature has a built-in perverse tendency to say “no” to God and to all that He is and represents — but says yes to everything else. For instance, God is a Being of order and arrangement but we resist being ordered and arranged. Even when we try to work at it, it is just that, work! Drawers, desks and closets are a constant battle. Those who win the battle do so with less than saintly motives. We are not trying to glorify God, we just do it so we can find our socks.
Self-control is a biblical term in many English translations. It is from two Greek words: one means “temperance” and the other refers to someone with “a sound mind.” Since Scripture says people are generally anything but temperate in their behavior and sound in their thought-life, this form of “self-control” is unique. It is not talking about restrained outward behavior but something far more significant.
Placing self-control alongside sinful human nature produces two pictures. One is what the Apostle Paul calls the flesh, or the old self, or the old nature. This describes someone who lives without constraint and without concern about sin. Obeying God is not their goal. Yet this also describes people who appear religious, those capable of a “form of godliness” but who “deny the power of God.” Their religion is only a show, an outward pretense.
The second picture is the new man or the new self that comes into existence when Christ forgives and cleanses a sinner and by faith, they receive Him into their life. The process is called regeneration or new birth. The new self is the new nature that the Spirit of God controls. With Christ in charge of this “self,” temperance and sound thinking are possible.
However, none of the second picture is a product of “self-control” in the sense that the person himself produced it. As the Gospel of John says, the children of God are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” New life and the resulting self-control happen not because we decide it should, but because God decides He will give it to us.
Paul affirms this by declaring godly thinking and godly living — self-control — is a fruit of the Spirit. He produces it, not we ourselves. This wonderful virtue is the ability to say “no” to that sinful nature, the old self. It is the capacity to live under the control of a contradictory self-discipline — it can only be ours when we are yielded to God.
With that, it seems “self-control” is one more delightful oxymoron.