Self Control

Abraham Lincoln is remembered today for many things.

The Civil War.

The Gettysburg Address.

The Emancipation Proclamation.

And many many more.

But one thing you may not know about him is his mastery of self-control, specifically through an exercise he practiced of writing what he called “hot letters.”

Whenever he was angry, or felt the need to tell someone off, he would channel all of that anger, disappointment, frustration, sarcasm, and displeasure into the composition of a note.

He called these “hot letters.”

And there is literally a treasure trove that have survived until today.

He would compose them and channel all of the rage he felt into their construction, then allow his emotions to cool. He could better sort through them that way.

More often than not, he’d return to the note and file it away, labeling it “Never sent. Never signed.”

There they would remain. Kept in secret, under lock and key, alone in a box.

Until later, someone found them.

So when he was angry at his Union General George G. Meade, for instance, for allowing General Robert E. Lee to get away after Gettysburg, in a situation in which he could have easily caught him and possibly ended the war, Lincoln had the wisdom to know he had no other general ready to take Meade’s place. So he also knew that, should Meade receive a letter from his Commander-in-Chief expressing his massive displeasure, he would certainly quit, leaving Lincoln (and the United States) empty-handed in terms of a general.

So instead, Lincoln wrote a scathing evaluation of Meade’s lack of effort, including this excerpt:

“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely… Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

He wrote it. Then he placed it in a box, never to see the light of day.

He found Ulysses S. Grant, promoted him, and never had any need of the note from then on. It had served its purpose- a purpose which was not to have been read by Meade.

That is self-control.

What the King James calls “temperance.”

The Greek word egkrateia.

It is the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions. To have power over oneself.

This is my favorite synonym: restraint.

And it is the next character trait in a long series that Peter says we need to work on developing within ourselves:

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins” (2 Peter 1:5-9).

And it’s not something you develop on accident. You have to practice it. You have to work.

To learn to become aware of the gap between your causes and your effects.

There is a space there. A space between what sets you off and how you respond to it.

We live in a culture where that gap is nearly nonexistent. Nothing is anybody’s fault anymore. We are simply the results of our causes.

We are animals, mammals, who have been reduced to nothing more than the sum of our desires. Anything external to us that baits from us an expression of those desires is to blame when we fail to practice restraint.

We are not.

But there is a separation there. And you can become aware of it, especially if you pray for the Holy Spirit to make you aware of it.

I have found this personally to be true.

In the car line to pick up my kids, when it takes an hour and fifty five minutes to get to the curb where my son is standing.

On the road, when the truck towing another truck is going twenty-five miles an hour in the fast lane.

At the grocery store, when I have one item but still have to wait in line behind three people with full carts, only to arrive and find that THEN the other lane opened.

We live in a culture where stimuli stand behind every turn and every corner.

And what is worse is that because every one of us now owns a smart phone. We can get angry, blow up, and let 6,000 followers all hear our moaning and massive displeasure in just one instant.

Who needs restraint?

Peter says you do.

There is a gap between what sets you off and how you respond.

You cannot change getting set off, but you can change how you respond.

In my experience, the Holy Spirit enters into those gaps when you pray to be made aware of it. Once there, He gives a gentle nudge. A slight elbow to the ribs.

“You know where this is headed, don’t you?” He whispers.

“You can master this now. This is an opportunity to not react.”

The other day I had to pick up my six year old from school. The car line usually takes over an hour, and I live on a “grazing” diet, where every other hour I need something to nibble on. Not having something nearby when hunger strikes turns me into a monster. More, I am a junkie when it comes to feeling productive. An hour sitting still in a line makes me want to jump out of my skin. And if it happens when the hunger is setting in, it isn’t pretty.

Through practice, I’ve gotten to where, like Lincoln, I know the repercussions of giving into my vulnerabilities. So I packed snacks, brought my laptop, and looked forward to the opportunity to prove I could master my response to the car line.

And you know what? I killed it. By the time I pulled up to the curb, I was a little disappointed it was over.

I have a long way to go, but I’m making every effort.

Lord, make us more aware of that gap. Pour your Holy Spirit into that space. Amen.

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