When we lack a healthy level of self-control, we resemble a fortified city whose walls are broken down. Think of the image of an ancient city with high walls surrounding it to prevent intruders. When we let the walls fail, we end up vulnerable to attack…
Like a city whose walls are broken down,
is a man who lacks self-control
Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
The fortified city’s walls are thick and there are lookouts on the corners of the wall to watch for attackers. There might be doors and then a gate to protect the entrance. Nothing and no one goes in and out without the awareness of the guards. If someone tries to penetrate, there are defense mechanisms at the ready to safeguard the city and overcome the opponents.
We all have things to protect. We work hard to provide for our families and to take care of their best interests. We have a decent reputation as people who contribute to our communities – we are upstanding. We follow God and identify with Jesus as our Lord: we desire to please God and serve him. Think about what is precious to you and what you desire to protect in your life.
What happens if the city’s walls are compromised? Think about the risks of one corner of the wall crumbling to the point where someone could easily climb over it or access the city? How safe is that city when the wall is not secure? Not safe. There could be enemies inside the gate and we might not even know. Our precious things are at risk if our walls are not secure.
The proverb offers to us that self-control is like that city wall. Our ability to control ourselves is akin to maintaining the safety of a city or a nation or a household from intruder. And who wants to intrude into our lives? The one who desires for us to fail in keeping our commitments to the God we serve and to ourselves. The master of evil, Satan, is looking for people to join him (even without being aware) in rejecting God and God’s best for our lives.
James provides a sequence of events to help us understand how failing self-control and evil desire turn into trouble. Our temptations start from within us. We have the sinful desires inside us because we are born this way. When our desires conceive, they give birth to sin. We formulate ideas which, if acted upon, will be sinful against God. We have ideas which go against God’s designs, his holiness, his intentions for us (his will), and his stated commands for our lives.
We all have those ideas. We don’t even need someone else to give us those ideas. Sometimes they do – bad company corrupts good character (1Corinthians 15:33). Yet we are fully able and actually quite proficient at generating sinful desires on our own.
And sinful activities, when fully-grown, give birth to death. The wages of sin – the consequence of fully-grown sinful behaviour which has momentum and adult teeth – is death (Romans 6:23). The end of the story of the life of sin, James says, is not happy. It’s a tragedy. The end of that life is death. Physical death. And if we don’t have faith in Jesus at that physical death, we can add eternal death on top. Sin causes physical death. Rejection of Jesus causes eternal death. The city is overrun. The enemy pillages. Everything is burned to the ground.
Which brings us back to the proverb. What role can self-control play in our life story? If we think about James’ sin-sequence, self-control fits as the interruption between desire and sin. If we can keep desire from conceiving behaviour we can keep the city walls intact. Sinful thoughts should get an honourable mention here. Fantasy about sin is sin. The desire first presents itself as the idea of adultery. If we embrace it to become our fantasy, the desire has conceived sin. If we think it through and understand that adultery is wrong before God and will be damaging to our relationship and family, and put it out of our mind through self-control, we have protected our city.
How high and secure is your self-control wall? Are there areas where you are more vulnerable? Think about what steps of self-control you could take to keep your city secure.