Power, Love and Self-Control

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

In this week’s second reading, St. Paul tells Timothy (and us) two important things about the gift that God’s Spirit (the Holy Spirit) gives to us. He tells us what it is and what it isn’t.

First, what it isn’t. It is not a spirit of cowardice. Cowardice is not the same as fear. Fear can be good. If an angry bear is running after you, you ought to be afraid! Fear will give you the adrenaline you need to run faster. Fear can keep you from doing stupid things, like standing too close to the edge of a cliff or driving your car too fast. We ought to be even more afraid of things that would harm our souls — standing on the edge of moral precipice, as it were.

(Sometimes an unmarried person — usually a young man — will ask, “How far can I go with my girlfriend before it’s a mortal sin?” My response is always, “If you think of mortal sin as falling off a cliff, you wouldn’t try to get as close to the edge as possible, but instead keep a safe distance back, especially if you love the person you are with.”)

Fear can be good and healthy, as long as it is not an irrational fear. Cowardice is different. Cowardice is a vice; it is the opposite of courage. Cowardice is never a good thing. It’s the fear of doing what is right. It’s a failure to help others because you fear it may cause you harm — even if the only harm might be to your reputation. Cowardice is incompatible with Christianity because it is incompatible with love. God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.

Instead, God gave us a spirit of three things that St. Paul names in this passage (he names other gifts of the Spirit elsewhere; see 1 Corinthians 12). These three things are power, love, and self-control, and they are related.

Power by itself is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, undirected power can be quite dangerous. Power is only useful if it is directed toward a good purpose. The Holy Spirit gives us power, but for what? St. Paul tells us: it is the power to love. Real love — not the puppy-dog stuff — takes power because love means giving yourself and giving yourself requires sacrifice, and sacrifice takes strength and courage. Our natural inclination is to love ourselves above all else; in other words, self-preservation at all cost, which leads to cowardice. God teaches us to love Him above all else and to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves. This takes a bit of effort on our part.

This is why the third thing St. Paul mentions is so important. We cannot make a gift of ourselves to others in love without the virtue of self-control. To have self-control means recognizing that our very selves — our bodies, our minds, our souls, our gifts and talents, our attributes and inclinations, our temperaments, our strengths and weaknesses, everything about us — is meant for a purpose and can (and should) be directed toward that purpose by the higher faculties of our reason and our will. Being in control of yourself means not only knowing the good and desiring the good, but directing your thoughts and actions accordingly. And the highest good to is to give yourself in love to God and neighbor; not to give yourself to yourself (that is selfish) or to give in to every whim and passion that you experience.

Self-control helps us to love more fully. St. Paul’s message of encouragement to Timothy, and the Church’s message of encouragement to us, is that you can do this. Self-control does not always come easy, especially in the beginning stages of discipleship (which has the same root as discipline), but it is possible. God gives us the power to do this by doing it first himself; the power that he gives us is nothing other than God’s own self — His Spirit — given to us in love. God doesn’t ask us to do anything that he has not first done for us in Christ.