Samson and the Fine Art of Self-Control

September 24, 2006

In December 2004 I received an email that changed my life. Right after the tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary, sent an email that contained a simple, one-sentence prayer. He called it a “dangerous” prayer. The moment I saw that prayer I knew that it was going to be my prayer for the next chapter of my life. It goes like this: “Lord, do things we’re not used to.”



Definitely dangerous.

I started praying that for myself and for my family, and on the first Sunday of January, I told my congregation that we were going to make this our prayer for the New Year: “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” It scared some people to death, and I have discovered that if you pray that prayer you’d better get ready because God is going to shake you up and shake your family up. And he certainly has done that for my family.

Until recently I have lived in large cities my entire career. After graduating from seminary, I pastored a church in Los Angeles for five years. Then I moved to Dallas where I lived for six more years. Then I moved to a Chicago suburb called Oak Park where I pastored a church for sixteen years. Even though I grew up in a small town, I’ve lived in big cities for all my adult life. I understand city life, I’m used to the rhythm, the noise, the crowds, the congestion on the freeways, the endless stream of people, the sounds of sirens at night, and the rush of multitudes on their way to work on Monday morning. And I know something about how folks in the city can sometimes be rude to each other, and impatient, and pushy, and not-always-friendly to newcomers. And I learned to love the big city with its endless stream of people, the ethnic neighborhoods, the street festivals, the music, the lights, and all the rest of the action that draws young people away from the farms and the small towns, hoping to make it in the big city, hustling to find their place, eager to start a new life, tired of the slow pace of the hometown where they grew up, and so they move to Miami or Denver or Atlanta or Cleveland or New York or San Francisco or Houston or St. Louis.

Big cities are fun and exciting places to live. I know. I’ve been there for the last 26 years. But all that has suddenly changed in answer to that “dangerous” prayer.

Now my wife and I live in a cabin overlooking a lake. You get to the cabin by going through a cattle gate and driving a quarter-mile down a gravel road. To get to the gravel road, you take a winding country road that connects to another country road that connects to the Natchez Trace. If you travel nine miles south, you come to the town of Tupelo, Mississippi. You would never get to the cabin by accident. You can hardly get here on purpose. This morning as I look out on the lake, the water is perfectly still. The nearest home is about a half-mile away. The lake and the cabin sit on a hundred wooded acres. Soon after moving there, I met a young man driving a pickup truck on the gravel road. He told me that he had been bow-hunting deer, that the field on the other side of the lake was “full of deer,” and that the woods were full of wild turkeys. I knew then that I wasn’t in Oak Park anymore. You may remember that line from Green Acres, the one that goes “Goodbye city life.” That pretty much describes our current situation.

We are here in answer to God’s call, at least for the time being. We are here by God’s direction, to seek his face so that we may know him better and find out what he wants us to do next. We are certain that this is part of God’s answer to the prayer, “Lord, do things we aren’t used to.” I’ve discovered that if you pray that way, you’d better buckle your seatbelt because God will shake things up. He’s not a God of the Status Quo. First he shakes us up, and then he uses us to shake our world. That’s always been God’s method. When God wanted to change the world, he told Noah to do something he had never done before (build an ark) to prepare for something he’d never seen before (rain). When God wanted to bring forth a great nation, he called a successful, middle-aged businessman named Abram and told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. When God wanted to deliver his people, he found a man slow of speech named Moses and sent him to talk to the Pharaoh. When the Lord needed someone to hide the spies in Jericho, he found a prostitute named Rahab. When God needed someone to defeat Goliath, he chose a shepherd boy named David. What God wanted to deliver his people from destruction, he chose a young girl named Esther. When Christ wanted some men in his inner circle, he chose fisherman and tax collectors, a loud mouth named Peter and two brothers called the “sons of thunder,” and told them to drop everything and follow him. Talk about doing things you’re not used to. I repeat. He’s not a God of the Status Quo.

Between Trapezes

“Everyone wants progress. No one wants change.” So said a wise friend of mine a few months ago. He was talking about churches and how they say they want to make progress in reaching the world, but no one wants things to change.

Change propels us out of our comfort zone.

Change forces us out of our ruts.

Change destabilizes our routine.

Change challenges our priorities.

Change disrupts our plans.

Change causes us to ask new questions and seek new answers to old questions.

Change introduces us to whole new set of problems.

Change opens the door to exciting opportunities.

Change stretches us in ways we don’t want to be stretched.

Change upsets the apple cart.

Change kicks us out of the recliner.

Change rearranges our daily schedule.

Change is generally a good thing, but it often doesn’t seem that way when we’re facing it, or just starting to go through it, or trying to find a new comfort zone. Sometimes you end up looking around and saying, “How did we end up here?” And when you ask that question, it’s a good thing not to force yourself to answer it quickly.

One writer describes the process of change this way:

It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change, or so in love with old ways, but it’s that place in between we fear … it’s like being in between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.

Between trapezes. That an apt metaphor. There are moments when life suddenly turns into a big game of Fruit Basket Turnover. Suddenly all the familiar landmarks disappear, and you find yourself floating through the air (not necessarily with the greatest of ease), reaching out for something to hold on to. When you look down, you realize that either there isn’t a net there or you can’t see it. Fourteen months ago I was still living in Oak Park, our oldest son (Josh) had just come home from China, our youngest son (Nick) was in China, and our middle son (Mark) was about to go to China. Marlene was going through her breast cancer treatments, I was still pastoring a church, and Josh had not even started dating Leah. Now we’re living in a cabin in Mississippi, Marlene’s health is much better, Josh and Leah have been married for two months, Mark has returned to China for a second year, Nick is in his senior year at Samford University, and I’m traveling and speaking around the country. We’re learning to trust God in new ways all the time. Marlene continues to gain strength, and we don’t have a clue about where we’ll be in six months.

Not long ago I was watching a certain speaker on TV when he uttered words that seem profoundly true to me: “If you want what you’ve never had, you’ve got to do what you’ve never done.” Most of us know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results.

Joe Stowell’s Comment

What is it that keep us from living on the edge? Why do we constantly play it safe? Several years when he was still the president of Moody Bible Institute, I heard Joe Stowell say that someone had asked what was the greatest challenge he faced. I remember thinking to myself that the answer would probably be about the pressure to raise the millions of dollars necessary each year to keep the doors open. Or if not, it was probably something about all the administrative duties he handled. Or it might be something about dealing with the faculty or the students or the parents or the supporters. Or it might be the challenge of setting a clear vision for the vision. But his answer was completely different. He said that the greatest challenge he faced was himself. Every day he had to face the man in the mirror. If he could handle the man on the inside, he could handle any challenge from the outside. I think there is enormous wisdom in that perspective. It reminds me of a line from the comic strip Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Generally speaking, we are our own worst enemy and if we can only conquer the man within, we can face whatever else life throws at us.

When the Apostle Paul was writing about the qualifications for spiritual leaders, he included a quality that we tend to overlook. He says in 1Timothy 3:8 that a spiritual leader must be “self-controlled.” The Greek word in these verses describes a person who has a “safe mind.” The NIV translates the Greek with several different English words—”Self-controlled,” “reasonable,” and “clear minded.” Other translations use words like “prudent,” “sober,” “discreet,” and “master of himself.” That last phrase is fascinating. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode about being the “maser of your domain.” The phrase is apt because if a man cannot control his inner urges, he is easy prey for every sort of temptation. What does it mean to be “master of yourself?” It implies that you are in full control of yourself at all times. Sometimes we men are accused of thinking with our stomachs and being “walking hormones.” And sometimes the accusation is all too true. I know a man who left his wife for a young woman barely out of her teenage years. I know another man who left his wife and now is with his second young woman. Both men have achieved some degree of success in their chosen professions, both have risen to a degree of prominence, and both had wives who love the Lord and would have been happy to stay with them forever.

What happened? How can smart men be so stupid? They have lost so much already–their wives, their families, their reputation, the admiration of their friends. They have traded it all for the thrill of a fling with younger women. But there is always a price to be paid for self-indulgence. Not long ago I spent time with a man who has for years headed a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He commented that 95% of the top executives are still married to their first wife. If a man won’t keep the most sacred promise he ever makes, how can you trust him with something as trivial as a billion-dollar portfolio? A man who would “cash in” his wife might do the same with the company gold.

An Old Testament Baby Boomer

The Bible offers many examples of men who failed because they lacked this essential element of self-control. But no one sticks in my mind like Samson, the undisputed heavyweight champion of ancient Israel. His story is found in Judges 13-16—that’s in the “White Pages” section of your Bible, the part you don’t read very often. But we ought to read about Samson more often than we do, because his life is filled with lessons, examples and applications. In one sense Samson is one of the best-known heroes in all the Bible. Generations of children have marveled at the story of Samson defeating the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Many teenagers know about Samson’s long hair and how Delilah tricked the secret out of him. Most of us know that he had his eyes poked out and as he was dying he pushed the pillars apart and killed 3,000 Philistines. If you go to church at all, you know about that. It is a story both heroic and tragic.

Sometimes we read the stories of men like David or Moses or Abraham and we think, “I could never be like them.” They seem to be in a different category, as if we should label them “Special Cases” and the rest of us as “Regular People.” After all, Abraham was the friend of God and Moses saw God face to face and David was a man after God’s own heart. Those are great stories and we profit greatly from reading them, but those men don’t seem very much like us. Not so with Samson. He’s a lot like us. Many of us know what it’s like to come from a godly home. And many of us entered life with great expectations laid on us by other people. Most men know what it means to be tempted by women. All of us struggle at times with the desire for revenge. We’ve been there, we understand, and when we see Samson struggling and falling, we know exactly what he is going through.

Here is a man who would feel right at home in our generation. He’d have a ball “Looking Out for Number One.” Give him some Dockers, a BMW and a condo, and he would fit right in. Lindsay Lohan would find him fascinating. Donald Trump would party with him. Katie Couric would interview him. Jay Leno would make jokes about him. Kids would hang his posters on their bedroom walls. Eminem would make a rap song about his affair with Delilah. Yes, he’d feel right at home in America in 2006. Perhaps more than any other Bible character, Samson is one of us.

Samson’s Two Spiritual Flaws

In the end he stands out as a man who wasted his life on things that didn’t matter. Although he started out with every spiritual advantage, he threw it all away. How could a man who started so well end so poorly?

There are at least two answers to that question:

1. He never appreciated his spiritual heritage.

In the beginning he had godly parents and a godly family and a godly calling. He knew the will of God and he knew the Word of God. He knew exactly what God wanted him to do. An angel personally announced what he was supposed to do. Plus, he had good looks, a winning personality and enormous leadership ability. Samson inspired people. He was born for greatness. Samson had it all!!!

But because he never appreciated all that God had given him, he dillied and he dallied; he went this way and that way; he messed around with lesser things and in the process he basically frittered his life away. What happened to him can happen to any of us, especially those of us raised in the Christian faith. In fact, the “better” your background, the more likely you are to do the same thing Samson did. The more you’ve been given, the greater the punishment for neglecting it. In fact, you’re likely to find Samson a weekend Men’s Retreat. He was into that sort of thing. He just never let it change his life.

2. He couldn’t control his emotions.

This is a key point. When we read Samson’s story, we tend to think that his problem was all in the sexual area. Actually, his problem is not in the sexual area at all. His most basic problem was that he never learned how to control his emotions.

First he is filled with lust and then he is filled with anger. Then he’s full of lust again, then anger again, and then lust and anger again. He’s riding an emotional roller-coaster, from the peak to the valley and around a sharp corner, and then he does it all over again. One moment he’s worshiping God, the next he’s flirting with the Philistine women. On one occasion he leads the army of Israel to a stunning military victory by the power of the Holy Spirit. Later he sleeps with a Philistine prostitute. Not long after that he meets Delilah who tricks him into revealing the secret of his power, which leads to his imprisonment and death.

Samson never learned to control his emotions and so they controlled him completely. Proverbs 16:32 could have been written about Samson: “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” In his day Samson had taken more than one city. But he never learned to control his temper. He never learned how to rule his spirit. He never knew the first thing about self-control. In the end his runaway emotions ran away with him.

Three Timely Lessons

It has been well said that we learn much more from defeat than we do from victory. Failure is a wonderful teacher if we are willing to learn. As I consider Samson’s story, three timely lessons stand out. These apply to every man who desires to develop the spiritual quality of self-control.

1. Unless we deal with our problems they will come back to haunt us again and again and again.

Many men never deal with the real problems they face– anger, bitterness, an unforgiving spirit, an undisciplined life, greed, and uncontrolled lust.

You’ve never really dealt with it. You have lifted up the carpet and you have swept it under the rug and you have said, “That hasn’t bothered me for four or five years or six years, so I’m basically okay now.” I beg you not to say that. Some of us need to take a good look in the mirror and see the way we really are. The hardest thing you’ll ever say is, “I need help, I’ve a problem I can’t handle.” But isn’t that the first step in any recovery program? Step Number One: Admit you have a problem. You’ll never get better until you are willing to say, “I really need help in this area of my life.” Unless we learn to deal with our problems now, we are going to deal with them later. Samson is Exhibit A of that principle.

2. Unless we learn the difference between being empowered by the spirit and controlled by spirit we will fall just like Samson did.

Does that sound odd? It shouldn’t. It is very possible for a Christian to be empowered by the Spirit of God to do certain things and yet not to have his life yielded to the full control of the Holy Spirit. How else do you explain noted Christian leaders falling into open sin? I do not doubt that they were empowered by the Spirit of God, but at the point of their fall they were not controlled by the Holy Spirit. Samson at certain points was empowered by the Spirit of God. But there was never a point in his whole life when for a long period of time he was under the control of God’s Spirit. This is a vital point because we tend to confuse outward blessing with great inner godliness, but the two don’t always go together. In the words of Romans 8:13, Samson never “put to death” the deeds of the flesh, therefore he continually made bad choices. This also explains why he “did not know the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20).

It’s not enough just to be able to accomplish good things or win stunning battlefield victories. Unless your life is under the control of the Spirit, you’re going to fall just like Samson did. Interestingly, Hebrews 11:32 lists Samson as a man of faith. But we remember his as much for his emotional weakness as for his enormous physical strength. This paradox illustrates what happens when a man never learns the secret of self-control.

3. Unless we yield our sexual desires completely to God, we risk falling prey to the Delilahs of this world.

To say it that way makes Delilah look bad, but I don’t mean to smear her name. I suspect that she was just a woman who was hungry for a relationship. She was looking for love. She wanted somebody to spend some time with her. And who better than the handsome, powerful, famous Samson? I don’t really blame Delilah too much. She was ready, but he was willing and they were both able. Samson was the one who went down and found her. Men, unless we take that sexual area of our lives and lay it before God, we risk falling prey to the Delilahs of this world. It can happen to you, it can happen to me.

Laugh More and Worry Less

Before we wrap up this message, let’s end on a positive note by asking what self-control looks like on a daily basis. Samson shows us what happens when a man lacks this quality. But what will you look like when your life is controlled by the Holy Spirit?

You will …

Live for God on Monday just as much as you do on Sunday

Bend your powers toward righteousness.

Take your intellect and put it into the service of the King of Kings.

Transform the fire of worldly desire into passion for Jesus Christ.

Establish some “hedges” in your relationships

Invest your time and talent and energies to win others to Jesus Christ.

Make your wife and children your first priority.

Say no to temptation and yes to purity.

Decide to be as strong morally as you are physically.

Choose to be a giver rather than a taker.

Do right the first time.

Admit mistakes without making excuses.

Keep your New Year’s resolutions.

Allow others to rebuke you without getting angry.

Laugh more and worry less.

Someone has said that freedom is not the right to do what you want, but the power to do what you ought. God reserves his choicest blessings for the man who has discovered the power to do what he ought to do. Blessed is that man for he will become all that God wants him to be. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?