Faith in Focus

A Requiem for an Old-fashioned Virtue


 

 

There are a number of chickens coming home to roost at the present time. One of them goes by the name of "Let-it-all-hang-out." He is sitting on his perch crowing very loudly, and with nary a note of mourning in his tune, the funeral rites of Self-Restraint. Does the very mention of the term sound quaint to you?

We see it on our roads with road-rage. The latest version of it is air-rage (if I recall the tag correctly). How foolish we are dreaming up these terms and thus dignifying the behaviour they purport to describe. What will we have next - specialist counsellors administering 'therapy' to the 'sufferers' of these maladies?! (Now there's a thought for some fertile-minded CEO of one of our Edu-corps. Dream up a new course and fill a niche in the edu-market.) There is another one not named yet because of the sensitivities of a victim culture - court rage. Some of the court-house scenes we have seen over the last few years demonstrate the same unrestrained vent that must be given to every feeling in every sorrow and frustration of life. I heard of a suicide that took place recently at a Christian institution. A member of that institution was quite shocked at the anger displayed by many others there. I know people need space to deal with terrible tragedies and that a struggle with anger plays its part in grief often. You see it in Scripture too. You hear in it David sometimes. You hear it in Job despite his marvellous first reaction. Yet there is a limit to it. There is a carefulness in the expression of it. But this person told me that one person he spoke to (not a relative or close friend of the suicide), when he expressed difficulty in coming to terms with it and he suggested they pray about it, the person, a professing Christian, turned on him and with some vehemence, said, "Get real!"

What a lot of silly nonsense all these terms are. For all we are talking about is plain, old-fashioned lost temper or pouting and pouting is simply the sinful reaction to an unfulfilled desire, and just as likely a sinful desire. "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (or lusts)." James 4:1-4

This has happened to our society because, in part, we have lived in and fostered, for several decades now, the spirit of free-expression. That is all it is. There is no great mystery about it. Its expression does not have to be classified as if each different situation in which it manifests itself gives it some uniqueness. Why, even colonial rugby players, who used to carry a certain rugged manliness, act like the effeminate European soccer players now. (Now watch your emotions! I played rugby. My son plays soccer. I now enjoy watching both - the playing part, that is.) Where is the old half-embarrassed Pinetree smirk of satisfaction as he made his way back through his opponents after a try with an unspoken "Gotcha mate" glint in the eye; and then when he got among his own, the congratulatory slap on the back or a handshake or a thumbs-up with a nod of the head we used to see? Now the victor is just as likely to give the crowd the fingers. Or in soccer, the scorer sprints at the crowd full tilt like an over-wound choir master getting them to sing his own praises. Unless, that is, he is not wrapped up by his equally hyped-up team-mates in the sort of embraces and caresses that are appropriate only in quite other settings. Not to mention tennis-players who have been breaking their racquets before the world for twenty years. Watch a little TV and you will see it. The rule is that expressions of emotion will be vigorous tending to extreme. They are artificially engendered. It happens in religion too! And since TV must tell life as it is, that must be normal. And it is becoming normal (in the sense of usual). We see it among ourselves. Children do not know how to be quiet, to be content with less, to enjoy quiet activities. Nor do many of the rest of us.

Thompson, in his beautiful poem, spoke of "running laughter" under which man hid from God. That was in the 30s. Today only constant rushing excitement will do. It's the Huka Falls all the way. There is no let-up, no quiet pools to catch one's breath and rest a little. I suppose that is to be expected when the river of life is so shallow; or confined within such a narrow range of interests, as it is with so many people and must be without God.

Self-expression (as it has been taught in regard to child-rearing) is a heresy and leads only to the expression of sin for what will the unrestrained self express? Sin! "Out of the heart the mouth speaks" and "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:4)." And it is in that state from birth "for I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5)." Of course a child must be allowed to express itself, but not unrestrainedly. And not at all sin. A child must be taught self-restraint and it must be taught what is sin by word and deed. First: "My son, hear the instruction of your father and do not forsake the law of your mother (Proverbs 3:8)." Then: "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him (Pr.22:15)."  (True, discipline is much more than correction or punishment, but it includes those. Equally truly the "rod of discipline" may be taken figuratively; but a figure of speech only has meaning if there is a concrete reality behind it. If you can achieve your object without physical discipline, great. But the verse speaks of a literal instrument of discipline.)

In addition to that, if self-expression is a heresy, neither is it good for us. Its only result is to make us weak. "Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit (Proverbs 25:28)." A city broken and without walls is a city open to the marauder and the plunderer. Be assured, the devil will have his day; "sin, when it is finished brings forth death," says James and "he who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind," quotes Paul. Don't we see it every day? Broken relationships and the resultant misery and financial hardship because people do not know how to turn away wrath with a soft answer (Pr.15:1); or because they do not have the maturity to turn a deaf ear to some insult (Ecclesiastes.7:21f.; 10:4). Instead, they pursue Matthew 18 for every perceived slight. And how some of us can perceive slights! What a sad thing to see adults who have never learned this self-restraint constantly crying about how they have been hurt. Mt.18 speaks about when your brother sins against you, not about you taking hurt. There is a difference. And even when there is objective offence, there is another way. "A man's discretion makes him slow to anger; and it is his glory to overlook a transgression (Pr.19:11)." How inglorious we are often content to be.

So what do we do? Let me address young parents. (Not that I'm that old and not that I'm not still learning, but we have learned a few things over the years.) Teach your children to be quiet. Require them to be quiet at times. Often during the school holidays when our children were younger, we made them spend an hour in their bedrooms after lunch. It gave Sheryl a break and taught them to play or read quietly by themselves. Teach them to read. A reader is never lonely or at a loose end and it is the idle hand the devil finds work for. But reading can be an acquired taste for some and best acquired early.  Teach children to go without. If you are well off, live below your income, but don't deny them this privilege. To go without, to have to wait or struggle for things, or live with unfulfilled desire, is one of the most valuable lessons of life for it is the condition in which most have to live most of their lives. Do not allow temper tantrums. Do not just ignore them. Uncontrolled temper is sin. Punish it promptly. If you ignore it, as is commonly advised, all they learn is that it doesn't work - or at least, it didn't on this occasion with this person. But what are you going to do at the supermarket? I know what you'll do. You will either give in or feel embarrassed and over-react, for where will they take their 'time-out' there? Thus you indulge in double standards. That is not right nor fair. Furthermore, don't require of your children in public what you let go in private. That is not fair either.

I am not saying there are not times to ignore things. There are. Some children go through stages where they seem to commit a punishable offence every ten minutes (or did only we have children like that?). Obviously you cannot fully deal with all that. You will have to learn the knack of seeing without being seen to see, and pick the offences you really cannot let go. But at these times, don't give up! You are not necessarily doing anything wrong. The little blighter is just having you on. One day you will all of a sudden realise the storm is over and all is more or less quiet. By "perseverance in well-doing," and a little surreptitious looking the other way, you beat him!

Finally, deal with all these things - tantrums, pouting, dissatisfaction - as early as they manifest themselves. Anything learnt early is learned easiest and best. And one last point. Training the emotions and teaching self-restraint applies equally to good emotions. Never foster any expression of excessive emotion, not joy or excitement either. Emotion is emotion and if they can give unrestrained vent to joyful emotions, why not sad or angry emotions? In fact, if they are allowed to give unrestrained vent to joyful emotions and excitement, they will give unrestrained vent to anger or sadness.

 

Mr John Rogers is the Minister of the Reformed Church of North Shore.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000