(Author’s note: Dateline: January 2023. In view of the horrible events in Memphis where a gang of unrestrained men hiding behind badges killed an unarmed, underweight man in the city streets, I felt the need to write about restraint as the bedrock of civilization. When a peace officer puts on his/her weapon he/she also puts on restraint. It must be so. I discovered today a devotion on this topic I wrote in 2016 and I have updated it to address the subject on a national as well as a personal level. Let us be thankful for leaders at all levels of our civilization from homes to businesses to churches to local and national governments, who are invested with power but who exercise their power with restraint.)
If human life depends on the discovery of fire and human industry flows from the invention of the wheel, human civilization is made possible by restraint.
If people were simply really smart animals with no spirit within and no soul to organize an inner life, we would be creatures of instinct alone. We might still be able to do remarkable things like animals can do—
- perform long distance migrations like hummingbirds and butterflies,
- build intricate construction projects like ants and wasps,
- form complex societies like chimps and wolves, and
- adapt to absolutely hostile environments like mammals who live in the water.
But none of these accomplishments would reflect the gift of a free will. We would simply be following pre-programmed instincts installed by the Creator and passed from generation to generation.
We can see no evidence of any initiative on the part of animals to reform their conduct—they are captives to their instincts. Any restraint they may show, such as a lion crouching in the high grass stalking a calf straying from the heard, is merely a temporary tactic to complete the kill. It is never an action prompted by a stricken conscious laden with guilt over the lion’s innate taste for blood. Wild animals have been domesticated, but we should not be surprised if we see just a glimpse of the wolf in a friendly beagle.
The Will and the Restraint
For reasons known only to Him, God wanted people to have a free will—the ability to choose our own actions.
When the world was a perfect place called the Garden of Eden, the first two people were also perfect. They enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God. This unrestrained voluntary righteousness did not last into a second generation.
The spiritual history of the world is one of possessing restraint or lacking restraint. The truth is that each of us cannot follow our every impulse. We cannot nibble on everything that looks like it tastes good. We have been given a mind and a will that are intended to help us exercise restraint. In society restraint is called “the Law.” In the individual it is called “discipline.” In our government it is called “checks and balances.” In each of these arenas, a human will informed with the truth can rule a human soul and body, or a nation, filled with selfish impulses and drives.
When the will falls into sin, the mind operates on faulty information. In this post-modern society, young people are taught that they are simply really smart animals. It is unreasonable to expect purity of thought and deed—but it is profitable. Whole industries plan, promote, and profit from the public lack of restraint in all things. This dim vision of who people really are makes morality a personal design springing only from base instinct. Thus, we have only the responsibilities we choose to have and there is no judgment to face when this life ends. We can cast off any restraint that does not suit our plans. On a national scale, temporary restraints are means to a profitable end and are subject to revision and repeal as the manipulated public mind is bent toward the morality of the moment.
A Better Vision and a Reason for Restraint
The Poet knew nothing of 21st Century life, but he faced the same challenges in ancient Israel. His wisdom still speaks to us today:
“I restrain my feet from every evil way, that I may keep your word.” (Psalm 119)
Because Jesus took on all the temptations we can ever expect to face and never gave into a single one of them, His remarkable restraint is at work again in those of us who choose to follow Him.
Another Poet links the desire for restraint to a commanding vision for living.
“Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.” (Proverbs 29)
The Christ-follower resists temptation because he/she knows that
- Jesus will empower;
- Jesus will be pleased; and that
- Jesus will reward.
This vision of a Judgment Day filled with joy inspires restraint of all kinds:
- Daily discipline,
- Dynamic worship,
- Determined prayer, and,
- Delayed gratification—perhaps the greatest restraint of all!
If human life depends on the discovery of fire, and human industry flows from the invention of the wheel, human civilization is made possible by restraint, personally, privately, publicly, and politically.
Oh, how I love your law! all the day long it is in my mind. Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my study. I am wiser than the elders, because I observe your commandments. I restrain my feet from every evil way, that I may keep your word. I do not shrink from your judgments, because you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste! they are sweeter than honey to my mouth. Through your commandments I gain understanding; therefore I hate every lying way.
Hebrews 2:16-18; 4:14-16 NIV
For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Proverbs 29:16-18 NIV
When the wicked thrive, so does sin, but the righteous will see their downfall. Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul. Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.
Song of Discipline
Show Me Your Ways
Words and Music: John Fragar
Show me Your ways That I may walk with You
Show me Your ways I put my hope in You
The cry of my heart Is to love You more
To live with the Touch of Your hand
Stronger each day Show me Your ways
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved (Revised January 31, 2023)