Exercise Self-Control if Confronted by Rioters (Galatians 5:22 – 23)
A lot of people are concerned about the behavior of protesters viewed on the national news every night. The rioting, looting, and arson are bad enough, but one particular scene was especially troubling to several people who have consulted with me. People eating in a restaurant were accosted by thugs carrying bull horns. As the restaurant patrons tried to eat their meals, these thugs yelled right in their ears with battery powered bull horns. One man told me, “I don’t know what I would do in this kind of situation, but my inclination would be to get physical.”
This man’s inclination is certainly understandable. In a similar situation, I would have to wrestle with the same inclination. But then I think back to all that Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers had to endure to make the giant strides forward they made. The reason Dr. King and his followers were able to finally see a sweeping piece of civil rights legislation passed in 1964 is because no matter what their oppressors did, they followed Christ’s example of non-violence. Doing so must have taken an incredible level of self-control and personal restraint.
Although it would be tempting to give bullies and thugs such as those seen on the nightly news a taste of their own medicine, that is the way of man not Christ. As difficult as it might be to remember this truth if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the way of Christ is always the better way. Having made this point, here is the real challenge believers face in these kinds of situations: following the example of Christ requires self-control and personal restraint.
Before continuing a caveat is in order. In recommending self-control and personal restraint, I am not suggesting you just stand by and do nothing if attacked violently. There is nothing ungodly about protecting yourself and your family from imminent danger. But reacting physically should be a last-resort response when there is no other way to defuse the situation or to protect yourself and your family. It should not be the response you choose simply because you are annoyed by the bad behavior of fools. Never let another person’s lack of self-control cause you to lose yours.
Galatians 5:22-23 reads as follows: “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Self-control as one of the manifestations of the fruit of the spirit. Unfortunately, self-control and personal restraint are often lacking in a modern culture that seems to grow coarser by the day. Lack of self-control is a causal factor behind not just the violent behavior of rioters but such heart-breaking tragedies as road rage, workplace violence, mass shootings, and sideline rage. It is also the principle cause of Internet flaming. All of these examples of unrestrained behavior are the result of people failing to exercise self-control.
In every instance of rioting, looting, arson, and violent attacks, the perpetrators had a choice. They could have consciously chosen to exercise self-control and demonstrated peacefully, but didn’t. There are a lot of people these days who, if they feel like saying or doing something, barge right ahead with no thought for the consequences. This lack of self-control explains why there are so many embarrassing moments recorded on social media and the Internet, moments people now wish they could erase from their lives but can’t. As President John F. Kennedy once said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Failing to exercise self-control when confronted by rioters can land you in jail alongside the very bullies who accosted you, but there is an important difference to consider here. Run-ins with the law can ruin your life because as a law-abiding citizen with a family and a career, you have a lot to lose. The thugs you see behaving badly on the news every night have nothing to lose; jail time is just another day at the office for them. Their bad choices in life have already damaged their prospects; which might explain why they are angry at the world and want to blame anyone but themselves.
SELF-CONTROL AND RESTRAINT IN THE BIBLE
The Bible has much to say about self-control. For example, 2 Timothy 1:7 states that “…God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” In other words, self-control is not an asset some people have but others don’t; God gave all of us self-control. Some people choose to exercise it and some don’t. This is an important point. Those who exercise self-control choose to do so while those who don’t exercise self-control choose not to. When you fail to choose self-control, you not only degrade yourself, you disobey the Word of God.
Proverbs 16:32 summarizes the value of self-control succinctly but powerfully: “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Obviously, the Lord puts a high premium on self-control. This verse from Proverbs makes clear that God expects his children to be “slow to anger.” In other words, he expects you and me to control our tempers. He also expects us to rule over our spirits, by which he means we are to exert self-control over our emotions and behavior.
2 Peter 1:5-7 lists self-control as one of several God-honoring traits expected of believers: faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Following Christ’s example in difficult situations requires an extra dose of self-control. It’s a safe bet that people in your life will try your patience and press your anger button from time to time. It’s in these moments that self-control becomes especially important. When people behave badly toward you, maintaining self-control can be a real challenge.
Consequently, it is important to remember that when those you are trying to show Christian love are not lovable, practicing self-control is especially important. Showing Christian love to the unlovable pleases God precisely because it is so difficult.
Proverbs 20:11 states unequivocally that those who fail to exercise self-control are fools. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” This is why I refer to rioters as “fools.” This verse from Scripture leaves no room for misinterpretation. When we fail to exercise self-control and personal restraint, we behave foolishly. If you are confronted by bullies and thugs who are angry at the world and want to blame you for their own shortcomings, remember you are dealing with fools. Don’t let them pull you down to their level. The following strategies may help:
In all situations, think before speaking or acting.
Avoid acting out of impulse, anger, bitterness, resentment, or frustration.
When anger begins to bubble up inside, pray for self-control until the anger impulse passes.
Consider the potential consequences of everything you plan to say or do. If it isn’t helpful, don’t say it or do it. Remember you never have to take back something you didn’t say.
When people disagree with you, take it in stride. You may have to disagree with people, but when this is the case, don’t let anger or frustration cause you to become disagreeable.
Apply the front-page test to everything you say and do before saying or doing it (i.e. If your words or actions were to be printed on the front page of your hometown newspaper tomorrow along with photos, would you be pleased with yourself or embarrassed).
This list is neither comprehensive nor prescriptive. Rather, it is provided to suggest ideas and trigger your thoughts as you develop your own list. Take the time to develop a list but don’t be limited by it. Rather, stay in touch with your emotions so you will know when life is pressing your buttons. Anytime you feel as if you are losing control of your emotions and are about to say or do something you might regret, pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and say a prayer. Ask God to help you choose self-control.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Veteran’s Lament: Is This the America We Fought For? and Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press.