When Paul wrote Timothy about the qualifications for church leaders, he included self-mastery as an important requirement (1 Tim 3:2). Though David had his shortfalls, he demonstrated self-restraint on one occasion. David’s son, Absalom, led a rebellion against his father’s kingdom. David had to flee Jerusalem. As David and his company of loyal followers traveled, they encountered a descendant of Saul named Shimei. Shimei took advantage of this opportunity to let David know how he really felt about him, “He pelted David and all the king's officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David's right and left,” and he cursed David, "Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel!”(2 Samuel 16:5-6).
One word from David and his warrior soldiers would have eliminated the annoyance for good. David refrained his soldiers from killing the man, and he refrained himself from abusing his authority. David’s men and the people watched how David controlled himself that day and behaved as Solomon said, “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
C.S. Lewis so capably illustrates what self-mastery is in his book The Great Divorce. He writes about a young man who is badgered by a red lizard that just sits on his shoulder and talks to him. This lizard is antagonistic, and he often mocks the young man. The lizard represents the inner struggle that we all have with our sinful natures.
An angel appears and proposes to liberate the young man of the irritating lizard. The young man is delighted at the offer until it slowly dawns on him that this will not be painless. The angel will use fire to kill the lizard. The young man is fearful of what the fire will do to him, so he begins to counter-offer the angel. “Maybe it won’t be necessary to kill the lizard completely; maybe we can just wound him. Maybe another time would be better—a later date? The angel says, “In this moment are all moments. Either you want the red lizard to live or you do not.”
As soon as the lizard sees the hesitancy of the young man, he begins to reason with him. “Be careful. He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will. Then you’ll be without me forever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’ll only be a sort of a ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless, abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it’s not natural for us. I know there are no real pleasures, only dreams, but aren’t they better than nothing? I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams, all sweet and fresh and almost innocent.”
That young man is any of us, and that conversation with the red lizard is a snap shot of our conversations with our own sinful natures. It’s how we reason and rationalize, “Just this time and then I’ll put a stop to this. It’s not that bad really. God will forgive me.” These are ways we compromise with the lizard that we know too well.
Bryan Chapell writes:
The angel in C. S. Lewis’s story does grasp the lizard and with fiery hands begins to choke it so that it finally dies and falls to the ground. But when it hits the ground, it becomes a stallion, and the young man gets on it and rides. What had been the ruler is now ruled. What had been his master, he now masters. What had ridden him, he now rides. It’s C. S. Lewis’s great expression that when we actually kill the sin, the things that were so hard actually become good and freeing and wonderful to us. Secular surveys of the sexuality in our culture say that those with monogamous, faithful marriages claim greater sexual fulfillment than those who are promiscuous. How can that be? Because God is saying that to honor him is to actually find the greatest fulfillment, the greatest riches that we were made to find.