From Emotions to Emojis

From Emotions to Emojis: Self-Control


For the last several weeks, we have taken a hard look at some really common emotions—emotions that are often pretty easy for us to identify. But, this week, we take a look at an emoji that’s a little newer to the scene. The zipped-lips emoji wasn’t even fully welcomed to the community until 2015. Now, it may communicate that you have a secret, or it may be used to tell someone to “zip it.” Keep your mouth shut. And, man, that can be hard for us sometimes, can’t it? In our clip this morning, Dash from The Incredibles had to realize that just because he could easily win the race—and, win is really an understatement for him here—he still had to show some self-restraint. The same is true for us. Just because we could say this or do that, sometimes the best option is to, well, zip it. And, I understand this isn’t so much an emotion in and of itself as it is the hinge upon which the door of our emotions hangs. As someone once said, “You are always responsible for how you act, no matter how you feel.”  That’s self-control. And, self-restraint is a rare quality; but, and maybe this is me just being a guy, when I think of a group of people who demonstrated self-control, I think of the ancient Spartan army.

You are always responsible for how you act, no matter how you feel.

By 650 B.C., the city of Sparta had become the dominant military power in ancient Greece. Unlike other Greek cities such as Athens, which was a center for the arts and philosophy, Sparta was a warrior culture. And, she had no problem flaunting her military prowess. The city stood unique in its social system and constitution which focused entirely on military training and fortitude. Beginning at the young age of seven, Spartan boys would begin their arduous military training and education. Known as Agoge (a-go-gay), the boys were instilled with the values of duty, discipline and endurance. They were subjected to competitions of restraint. I apologize in advance for this imagery, but one legend tells of a Spartan boy who hid a fox under his cloak. The fox, wishing to escape, began to chew and to claw its way out, but the boy remained composed. It wasn’t until he fell lifeless to the floor that the instructors saw the fox. The boys learned discipline to the point of death. That was the level of self-restraint they came to know.

Men were encouraged to marry at age twenty but could not live with their families until they left their active military service at age thirty. Then, the Spartan men remained in active reserve until the age of sixty. Spartan men had but one occupational choice: soldier. Some historians argue the accuracy of this, but Greek histories report that when a Spartan man would go to war, his wife would customarily present him with his shield and say, “With this, or upon this,” basically meaning that true Spartans could only return victorious or dead. It’s no wonder, then, that today the word spartan works as a synonym for self-restraint.

I can confess to you this morning that I have never been described as a spartan. And, believe it or not, it has way less to do with my physical appearance than it does with that sort of self-control. That level of military training isn’t even on the scale of situations that would exhaust my self-control limits. This year, my wife has invited me to participate in several diets. I know I said invited, but what I mean is told me I would be participating in several diets. When your wife asks if you want to do something, there really is only one right answer. So, now I have gone through two Whole30 diets this year, and I am presently on Day 19 of a 21-day sugar cleanse. In case you have no clue what Whole30 is, allow me to enlighten you. No bread or pasta or rice. No dairy of any kind. No peanut butter. Nothing with any amount of added sugar—real or artificial. No legumes. For thirty days. My saving grace is that Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas cookies are right around the corner. Okay, in fairness, I haven’t been terribly miserable, but my self-control is certainly being stretched. Even after all of that, it’s hard for me to act like a Spartan, and I certainly still don’t look like a Spartan.

Yet, toward the end of the book of Judges, we find this well-known story of a man who would make the Spartans look weak. We find this story of a man who had unimaginable physical strength but, as we will see, lacked strength that mattered when it mattered. See, the book of Judges is this narrative of God choosing individuals to rise up and redeem Israel from their enemies. But, Israel is stuck in this cycle of freedom and slavery, so God sends judge after judge. You may remember Pastor Jason mentioning this cycle of the judges: Israel sins; they’re in bondage; they cry out; they repent; God delivers them; there is a season of rest. Rinse and repeat.

And, reading through Judges, we keep hoping they will just snap out of it. We keep hoping Israel will finally learn their lesson. But, at this point, we’ve seen the same narrative again and again and again. It’s tiring, and, even as passive observers, we’re ready to give up on Israel. Then we get to the end of the book, and we find this familiar story of Samson. Samson is the last judge specifically talked about and, yet, we get more information on him than any other judge. Surely things will change with Samson. But, what we find is that his story acts as this summary to the entire book of Judges, and, in actuality, it really does more than that. It points beyond its historical context and becomes a mirror to our own lives.


So, Samson’s unique story begins in Judges 13. Not only was he the last judge of the book, but he is the only judge who was promised before birth. Every other judge was grown when they heard the call of God; but, Samson is set apart from the womb. So, we read in Judges 13:1-5, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.’” Samson’s story begins by reminding us that Israel was doing evil in the sight of the Lord. This is a phrase that we find recurring throughout the book of Judges, and yet this is the last time we find the phrase mentioned. Later, we find the author using the phrase that Israel did what was right in their own eyes. So, we get this contrast between what was evil in the eyes of the Lord and what was right in the eyes of man. And, this is important. See, though the people of Israel did what they thought was right, it’s made clear that it displeased God. Sin is not limited to violating our conscience or our personal standards. Something can seem right in your eyes and greatly displease the Lord. Sin is ultimately a violation of God’s will for us. And, we are once again reminded that Israel is so entrenched in their sin at this point that it all just seems right in their eyes; and, we will soon see that Samson is not entirely different. Perhaps neither is ours.

And, this is the guy who we’re told would begin to save Israel—that’s a bit of an odd word to find at the end of a book. We don’t usually find the word begin at the end. But, Samson was called to lead a life of incredible self-control before he was even born and to honor the Nazirite vow. This meant he couldn’t cut any of his hair ever. He couldn’t drink anything from the vine. This obviously meant no alcohol, but it also meant no unfermented juice either. Basically, in those times, he’s left with milk and water. I think this might have been the original inspiration for Whole30—who knows? And, then, we’re told that he couldn’t touch any dead bodies of any kind.

Usually, people would only commit to the Nazirite vow for a short period of time—typically when they were in need of God’s help during a crucial time—because it was so intense. But, Samson was called to the vow from birth. So, Samson’s life begins with a call to self-control. Samson’s life was to serve as an image of a life set apart from its very beginning. And, this leads us to our first point this morning. A self-controlled life is a surrendered life. Control must begin with surrender. This seems so counterintuitive to our minds, but there is nothing more powerful than a life surrendered into the hands of God. Samson’s strength was to come from his surrender to God. And, I think this is where we fail in our understanding of self-control. We often convince ourselves it’s just about trying more or trying harder. We get stuck in the same cycles of sin and freedom and sin and freedom, and we just tell ourselves that we have to do better to stop in the future. We think self-control is about doing. But, that never works, does it? I mean,  it didn’t work for Israel. It won’t work for Samson. It hasn’t worked for us. And, the danger in thinking we just have to keep trying is that we fail to realize that self-control is a fruit of His work and not our own. Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

Andy Stanley has a great illustration that I often use in my pre-marriage counseling called Mr. & Mrs. Mug. See, there’s things within each and every one of us—and they’re not always the best things. There are things we would rather people didn’t see us do or hear us say. But, sometimes we bump into each other or life shakes us up and stuff just comes out. Our reaction so often is to say, “Look what you made me do! Look what you made me say! You made me so angry I just couldn’t help myself.” We blame the people and the circumstances around us for our actions. But, really, why did that come out of you in the first place? Is it not because it was within you? It only came out because it was first within.

This is where our self-control kicks in. And, so often, we convince ourselves that we just need to be a little more careful. We need to suppress those sorts of reactions. If life doesn’t shake us up so much, then those things won’t spill out anymore. But, life is hardly that fair. So what are we to do?

We must understand this important truth: self-control is not about suppressing what is there; it’s about surrendering what is there. It’s not about pushing those reactions further down but rather giving them up entirely. So, as we surrender ourselves to God, He begins to pull these things out of our lives. He begins to take what we have surrendered to Him and instead replace it with the fruits of His character. It won’t happen overnight, but we’ll soon begin to see where we would have acted out of control or spoken out of turn, instead things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and, yes, self-control will spill out of our lives instead. But self-control begins with surrender. Don’t forget the God-factor.

Now a word of caution: surrendering is not the same thing as relinquishing responsibility. This is not license to throw in the towel and say, “Well, I’ve surrendered to God and I’ll stop when He makes me.” Man, sometimes we would rather God control us and make us to do the right thing, wouldn’t we? Put all the responsibility on Him; take the pressure off of us. You still need surrender. You still need to trust Him with your circumstances. You still need to honor Him and seek to do what is right in His eyes and not your own. You need to pour yourself out so He can pour Himself in. He meets us in our surrender. He empowers our efforts. He turns our trying into becoming.

Surrendering is not the same thing as relinquishing responsibility.

There are some of you in this room this morning that have been stuck with the same bad habit, the same old sin, the same monotony in life—and you just can’t seem to shake it. You’ve tried so many different avenues to fix it. You’ve read the books. You’ve done the steps. You’ve sought counsel. You’ve put up safeguards and parameters only to fall back into the vicious cycle. And, don’t get me wrong: these are good things. Don’t stop those, but have you tried surrendering to God? I mean truly surrendering all of it. Not just the easy parts of life, but all of it. When things get tough, have you tried running to Him first and not just when you lose control? He will empower you through your surrender because self-control is a fruit of His work and not just our own.

And, so we read towards the end of the chapter in Judges 13:24-25, “And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him…” So far, it seems we’re off to a good start. This is the last judge of the book—Israel’s great hope to be rescued from their enemies. He’s been divinely called and set apart from birth! Samson seriously looks like the real deal.

But, you see, more than the Spirit of God was stirring within the heart of Samson. And, as we soon begin to witness, if you are not fully surrendered to the Holy Spirit, you will fall victim to the control of your circumstances. Instead of this great hope, we find the most flawed character who is a violent, impulsive, sexually-addicted, emotionally immature, and selfish man. How in the world is this possible? How do we go from this called, self-controlled person with the Spirit of the Lord stirring within them to the chaos we will soon see unfold? Unfortunately, I think we each own a little bit of the answer to this question. We understand that struggle. We know what’s coming next because we’ve all lived it before.


So, in the very next verse, we read, “Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines. Then he came up and told his father and mother, “…Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.” And, there it is. Samson began to seek what was right in his own eyes. The man called to lead Israel fell to the same vices. See, Samson wasn’t pursuing just any woman; he wanted a Philistine. The man called to deliver Israel from the Philistines goes to their territory. Timnah was in the heart of Israel; it didn’t belong to the Philistines originally. In the Chronicles, we find that the Philistines declared war, raided, and seized many towns—one of which was Timnah. And, to that day, it stood as a reminder that Israel’s enemies occupied her land. It stood as a reminder of what was taken away from Israel. But, in time, they grew comfortable with that. So much so that Samson is going to marry the ones he is called to deliver Israel from. And, this is just the beginning of a downward slope we see Samson descend. In what may at first seem to be a harsh word, commentator Michael Wilcock says of this passage, “There is no such thing as harmonious co-existence between the church and the world, for where there is no conflict it is because the world has taken over.” Complacency had captured the heart of Israel and the heart of Samson. It continues to steal hearts to this day.

There is no such thing as harmonious co-existence between the church and the world, for where there is no conflict it is because the world has taken over.

Michael Wilcock

And, where Samson was called to begin to redeem Israel, he instead begins to make concession after concession. Compromise. Toleration. On his way to Timnah to meet this woman, we’re told that Samson encounters a lion. Ordinarily, I would take that as my cue to turn around. You usually don’t fight lions and win… unless you’re Samson. And, we’re told that with nothing in his hands, he simply tore the lion into pieces. Picture that; that is some gnarly imagery. But, it’s what he does on his way back from Timnah that is even more unsettling. We read in Judges 14:8-9, “After some days… he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. He scraped it out into his hands and went on, eating as he went. And he came to his father and mother and gave some to them, and they ate. But he did not tell them he had scraped the honey from the carcass of the lion.” Samson, you’re nasty. And, we can’t even blame that on historical context and say, “Well, that’s just something they did.” No, that’s always been nasty. But, did you catch it? He tolerates a break. Samson’s not even supposed to touch a dead body of any kind, but here he’s using one as his dinner plate. He defiles himself and then defiles those around him with his actions. This was supposed to be the man of God who brought about redemption; instead, he brings the people of Israel into further defilement. And, so begins Samson’s regression to an out of control life. And, this leads us to our next point this morning. Yes, control begins with surrender, but you won’t surrender what you have learned to tolerate. Our areas of toleration and compromise reveal areas of our lives that remain to be surrendered to God.

And, Samson tolerates a violation of his vow because he got a little hungry. He breaks his Nazirite vow, and for what? A bit of honey? Seriously? That’s it? That’s all it took? Who in the world would risk trading being the strongest man on earth for a little bit of honey? But, man, don’t we do that all the time? We frequently trade away the great things of God just for a little taste of earthly pleasure. God desires a healthy and vibrant marriage for us, but we trade it away for a bit of innocent flirting or a few megabytes of erotic imagery. God desires to bless the work of our hands and to provide for us, but we trade it away with dishonesty and shortcuts. God desires to speak to us and work within us, but we trade it away with hours of Netflix and episodes we’ve watched a hundred times before. Are you trading the great things of God for a little bit of honey this morning?

So, as Samson learns to tolerate these violations, we see him become more comfortable surrendering less to the things of God. And, as a result, self-control begins to erode away because Samson doesn’t stop there. Shortly after, we find him preparing dinner for some guests, when he decides to share a riddle. The problem is that it’s almost too good; no one can solve the riddle. So, after four days, the guests are starting get ticked and convince his new wife to get the answer out of him. So, she puts on the puppy eyes and weeps before Samson for a solid week, imploring his love for her; and, in a pattern that will lead to his demise, Samson opens his mouth. We read in Judges 14:18-19, “And he said to them, ‘If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.’ And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.” First, a word to the wise: never refer to your wife as your heifer. It just will never work out well for you. Samson should have just shut his mouth. But, there is something curious that occurs in the midst of Samson’s impulsiveness. He’s broken his vow; he’s murdered a group of men because someone solved his riddle, and, yet, in the midst of all that it says that the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.

See, the Bible has always made a distinction that I fear a lot believers are unaware of. It is possible to have the gifts of the Spirit, yet lack the fruit of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul tells us that gifts of the Spirit are skills for doing. But, as we have already read in Galatians 5, Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is character traits of being. Samson was good at doing, but he was missing who God called him to be. Honestly, Samson conformed, but he was not transformed. He had gone through the motions and honored his vow for some time, but he didn’t remember the God of the vow. Samson had become emotionally-driven—not spiritually led.

And, I wonder if the same couldn’t be said of us this morning? Friends, it doesn’t matter what you have going for you outwardly. You can look at all the seemingly good things you are doing, but I ask you, “Are you being?” Are you being who God called you to be, or are you going through the motions? We must be cautious to never allow the gifts of God to replace our need for the fruits of the Spirit because I promise you that your enemy will find your weakest spot—your tolerations—and he will exploit them. He will use the gifts of God against you if you lack the fruits of the Spirit. We are warned in Proverbs 25:28, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” You’re vulnerable. You’re tossed around by your circumstances. And, because we have tolerated parts of our lives that we have not surrendered to God, we have brought damage upon ourselves. So, what are we to do?


This leads us to our third and final point this morning. You know that won’t surrender what you’ve learned to tolerate, but what you tolerate will also determine the condition of your heart. Like a city without walls, you can only remain defenseless for so long before more damage is done. We so often convince ourselves that the things we tolerate are small enough to not matter. But, it is often those tolerations that ultimately affect our heart’s condition. We’ve read that Samson married a Philistine from Timnah. He’s broken his vow by eating honey from the lion. He’s had a temper tantrum that involved him killing groups of men in fits of rage. Not too long after, he visits a prostitute. And, his insatiable desire for women is still unmet, so he married another woman—a woman named Delilah. Judges 16:4-6 says, “…He loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah. And the lords of the Philistines came up to her and said to her, ‘Seduce him, and see where his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him, that we may bind him to humble him…’ So Delilah said to Samson, ‘Please tell me where your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.’”

The Philistines are fed up with Samson, and they want him gone. The enemy sees Samson’s weak spots; he’s strong, but he’s a city without walls. So, Delilah approaches him and she isn’t even being subtle here. She’s not even trying to be clever and hide her intentions. Samson’s arrogance and pride are glaring in the fact that he actually sticks around. At this point, Samson is convinced he is unstoppable. He has defeated armies of men single-handedly. Samson has convinced himself that victory on the outside must mean all is well with God inside. But, as Puritan theologian John Flavel said, “Outward gains are ordinarily attended with inward losses.” See, Samson has been doing what has seemed right in his own eyes long enough for him to be blind to his inward losses. He is using his outward success to mask that his heart is wildly out of control. So, even though Delilah literally tells Samson that she desires to subdue him, he plays her game and he sticks with her. He doesn’t give her the truth the first time, but it doesn’t take long for Samson to tolerate yet another concession. Delilah eventually comes to Samson and says, “‘How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?’ And he told her all his heart, and said to her, ‘A razor has never come upon my head…’” See, this is where the zipped-lip emoji came just a couple thousand years too late. Samson needs to learn to keep his mouth shut. Samson needs to remember what he has been called to do and who he has been called to be. But a lack of self-control will always manifest itself with the words we speak. It may be saying the wrong things. It may be saying things at the wrong time. It may be saying things to the wrong people. But, it’s not just your tongue that’s the problem; all of it is symptomatic of a heart that’s out of control.

There are some people here this morning that are wildly familiar with uncontrolled words. We’ve shared things with people who had no business hearing that information. We’ve spoken harshly and quickly out of anger. We’ve talked about people behind their backs. Friends, just like Samson, this will be our demise. I’m guilty of it. And, I’m guilty of trying to hide behind my outward success, too. I’ve shared from this platform before—and, I wish it wasn’t the case—but, I’ve spoken harshly. I’ve allowed my anger to get the best of me when I should have kept my mouth shut. And, I’ve tried to justify those words by saying, “Well, I was right, wasn’t I?” That’s what a city without walls does. It pulls at straws to find a defense rather than resting in the defense of God. My tongue has so often exposed parts of my life I did not realize were left un-surrendered.

So, Samson shares his secret, and falls asleep, lying on Delilah’s lap. And, while he is sleeping, of course, she cuts his hair. And, it’s at that time that his enemies decide to ambush him. Samson’s not worried though; we read in Judges 16:20, that “he awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’” and we find the most tragic sentence in this narrative: ”But he did not know that the Lord had left him.” Now, how did Samson not realize his hair was shaved? He had to have known, right? I mean, that’s a lot of hair missing. So, why did he think he still stood a chance and still had his strength? I think he knew, but I also think he didn’t really believe that the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength; he thought he was the source of his own strength. See, his tolerations had deeply affected his heart. He no longer considered the Lord to be the source of his success; Samson was the source of his own victory. Timothy Keller puts it this way,  “Samson’s heart used God’s blessings as a reason to forget God.”

Samson ran with the gifts from God and neglected the fruits from God. And, what really mattered wasn’t so much that his hair was cut but that the Lord had left him. That’s where his strength was. The presence of God had left. This is a heart in its worst condition. Friends, we sometimes get so caught up on the consequences of an out of control life. What often compels us to seek self-control and to make change is when our schedules become unmanageable or our marriages become irreparable or our finances are finally deplenished. It’s the consequences of being at wit’s end. But, what if what compelled us was not merely the physical consequences of our actions but whether we were driving the very presence of God out of our lives? What if the greatest harm wasn’t that you were caught in over your head, but that you become deaf to the voice of God? What if it wasn’t the prospect of an unmanageable life but of a Spirit-void life that drove you daily to surrender? At this point for Samson, the presence of the Philistines isn’t his greatest tragedy; it’s the absence of God’s presence. And, there are some of you in this room this morning that, if you’re honest with yourself, you haven’t felt the presence of God in some time. You know Samson’s story because it’s been your story.

As we move to our close this morning, I want to return to where we began. Again, Judges 13:5 said, “…and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” See, there’s a little more to Samson’s story. The Philistines capture him, and pluck out his eyes. And, while he is in captivity his hair begins to grow back. Samson cries out to God once more to restore his strength and Samson brings down the building killing the Philistines and himself in the process. He avenged his captivity and torture, but Israel was not redeemed. See, Samson’s story points beyond himself to a greater warrior. We find that King David defeats the Philistines in 1 Samuel. And, yet, while David provided rest from Israel’s enemies, he couldn’t free Israel from her sins. So, King David points beyond himself to a better king. It is only through Jesus Christ that salvation is complete.

Samson was strong, but Jesus is so much stronger. Samson tore the lion to pieces; Jesus has crushed our enemy. Samson sought to save Israel through his power and his honor, but Jesus accomplished salvation through the shame and the disgrace of the cross. Samson made compromise and became emotionally-drive, but Jesus kept every facet of God’s law and was Spirit-led. Samson was controlled by his impulses, but Jesus was controlled by the will of God. Where Samson felt entitled, Jesus was entitled but humbled Himself to the humiliation and death on a cross. Jesus lived the surrendered life to finish the work of salvation for you and me. Jesus is the true and better and stronger Samson. He is the finisher of our salvation.

This morning, if you are unsure of where to begin, go to the One who finished it. This morning, if you feel like your life is spinning out of control, I want to challenge you to fully surrender all areas of your life into His hands. This morning, if you know you have tolerated things that are right in your own eyes but displease the heart of God, I want to challenge you to repent and allow God to pull those tolerances out of your life. Allow Him to fill you with the fruit of His Spirit. This morning, if it has been some time since you have felt the presence of God and your heart is hurting—perhaps you’ve been hiding behind your outward appearance—I want to challenge you to remember God this morning.

Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 1:7, “…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” It’s His gift. It’s His fruit. It’s His work. So, this morning, as the band plays through this last song, I want to invite you to these altars. The altar is and always has been a symbol of surrender. But, don’t go through the motions. Don’t come to this place of surrender this morning without leaving it all behind. Give up the little bit of honey this morning because, friends, God has something so much better in store for you. At the least this morning, if you’re standing there thinking, “I don’t have anything left to surrender,” (I don’t believe you, but…), pray as David did: search my heart, O God, and see if there be any hurtful way in me.

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