Self-Control: The Fine Art of Keeping Your Cool

Proverbs 16:32

January 29, 1995 | Ray Pritchard

Prosecutor Christopher Darden set the tone in his opening statement in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Everyone knows about O.J. the athlete and O.J. the celebrity. And by now most of us know far more about his personal life than we care to know. But Mr. Darden was not speaking to us, but to the twelve men and women who must render a verdict in the “trial of the century.” He must convince them that O.J. Simpson is guilty of a ghastly crime.

It is not an easy thing to do for many reasons, not the least of which is O.J.’s incredible popularity. Before Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered, he was one of the most popular athletes in America. He belonged in that upper echelon reserved only for the superstars—for people like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Arnold Palmer, and Mickey Mantle. These are men who have become symbols for entire generations of fans who grew up knowing them, watching them, loving them.

Such men are not perfect, but despite their feet of clay, it is hard for us to imagine our heroes ever committing murder. We love them so much that we don’t—or can’t—or won’t—see their faults. Rather than believe our superstars are fallen men like us, it is easier to turn our faces away than to face the hard truth.

What about O.J. Simpson? Is he guilty or not? I don’t know and I don’t care to speculate this morning because I believe the truth will come out. God knows the truth and the Bible tells us that in the end, he will bring all men into judgment and the hidden things into the blinding light of total reality. In the end we will know the truth and we won’t have to watch Hard Copy in order to discover the verdict.

But for the moment, the prosecution must find a way to convince those twelve citizen-jurors that one of the great American icons is actually capable of committing a horrific deed—a bloody double murder.

His Other Face

To that end, Mr. Darden said these words last Tuesday morning, “It is not the actor who is on trial here today, ladies and gentlemen. It is not that public face. It is his other face.” What a chilling phrase—”His other face.” The face we never see running through airports and driving rental cars. The face that never appears in the movies or on the talk shows.

It is, Mr. Darden said, the face he wore behind the walls at Rockingham, his Brentwood home. It is, he said, the face of a batterer, a wife beater, an abuser, a controller.

There is within the human heart an enormous capacity for evil.

We do not know for the moment whether those words are true. But we do know this much—there is such a thing as the “other face” of O.J. Simpson. We know it’s true because we all have the same “other face.” There is within the human heart an enormous capacity for evil. The Bible says in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Is it possible that a man who seems to be friendly, positive, up-beat, genuinely good-hearted could commit a cold-blooded murder? That answer of course is no. He could not commit cold-blooded murder. But he could commit hot-blooded murder. That’s the whole case against O.J. Simpson—that in a moment of violent rage he attacked his ex-wife and her friend, brutally murdering both of them.

Could a man do that? The answer is yes, because in a moment of anger, all of us are capable of horrible deeds that we would never commit otherwise. We might think of murder, but would we ever do it? In a fit of anger, we might do anything.

The Superstars of Israel

The sermon this morning is not about O.J. He’s just the example, a contemporary illustration of an eternal truth. This sermon is really about you and me and about what uncontrolled anger can do to us. Our text is one verse from Proverbs 16:32 “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” In the ancient world, warriors were the greatest heroes. They were the superstars of Israel. When men came back from battle, the women wrote songs in their honor. You’ll remember the little ditty that made Saul so angry when he realized that David had become more popular than he. “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” I Samuel 18:7.  When Saul heard that, his anger burned within him. Jealousy drove him to attempt to murder David. Envy ate away at his insides until it finally destroyed him and his whole family.

Anger Can Be Useful

We all know that anger is a powerful emotion which can be used for good or for evil. Anger isn’t always wrong. We know, for instance, that anger is one of the attributes of God. Did you know that the Bible speaks over a hundred times of the anger of the Lord? We know that God never sins, yet the Bible speaks repeatedly of his anger toward sin and disobedience. We know also that there are times when anger is justified and even righteous. Ephesians 4:26 even says, “In your anger do not sin.”

When we see people hurting other people, when we watch the wholesale slaughter of the unborn, when we see children being lured into drugs and prostitution, when we see families torn apart by sin, that ought to make us angry. If we sit idly by while the world goes to hell, if we don’t get angry, if we don’t weep, if we don’t care, then something is wrong deep inside us.

Anger Can Get Out Of Hand

So then, anger can be a very useful and even Christian emotion. However, righteous anger can quickly lead us in the wrong direction. The same verse that says, “In your anger do not sin,” adds this phrase, “Do not the let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Ephesians 4:26 That is, don’t go to bed angry. Even if your anger is justified, don’t go to sleep that way. Deal with it, talk it out, pray it out, walk it out, but don’t try to sleep it out. That won’t work.

By the way, this is an important word for newly-married couples. Don’t go to bed angry at each other. It will only get worse in the morning. Young husbands sometimes think that their wives will “get over it” with a good night’s sleep. Take it from one who knows, It doesn’t work. If you don’t solve your problems, neither one of you will sleep well and you’ll still have a bad morning when you do wake up.

What happens when you don’t deal with your anger? It settles deep in your heart, it hardens like concrete, it distorts your personality, it squeezes out your joy, it oozes the smelly black gunk of unhappiness over every part of your life. That’s why the very next verse in Ephesians offers this warning: “Do not give the devil a foothold” Ephesians 4:27.

All rock climbers understand that verse. In order to get up the side of the mountain, you’ve got to get a firm foothold. That’s what Satan wants to do in your life—he wants to use your anger, even your legitimate anger to get a foothold in your heart.

Destroyed By Anger

I mentioned Saul just a moment ago. He offers a particularly good case study because in many ways this is what happened to him. If you read I Samuel 10-26, you discover some amazing things about this man.

*He was in many respects a gifted man.

*He was tall and handsome.

*He was a natural leader of men.

*He was skillful in battle.

*He was chosen by God to be the first king of Israel.

Saul had many flaws, but it was his anger that finally destroyed him.

In many ways he had all the natural attributes for success—plus he had the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. Yet we remember him as a failure because of the way his life ended. There were many contributing factors, but in the end his anger destroyed his life. After it became clear that David would replace him as king, Saul’s heart was so blinded by rage that he could think of only one thing—killing David. So he hunted David like he was a wild animal, chased him into the Judean desert, tracking him to a cave by the Dead Sea, a place called En Gadi. There David cut off a corner of his robe when he actually could have killed him. He meant it as a sign of mercy, but Saul continued to hunt him down. Even thought Saul knew that David would be the next king, his hatred so consumed him that he tried to kill him anyway. In the end, Saul and his sons were killed by the Philistines on the slopes of Mount Gilboa. The Philistines cut off his head, put his armor in a pagan temple, and fastened his headless corpse to the wall of Beth Shan. It was an ignominious end for a man with the seeds of greatness in him. Saul had many flaws, but it was his anger that finally destroyed him.

A Nuisance … and Then a Threat

There is another man in the Bible who had every right to be angry at the way he was treated. He was a good man, a teacher of God’s law, a man who helped those in need, and got angry only when he saw injustice in the world. He never had a great education. He never held public office. He never wrote a book. He never traveled more than 200 miles from the place where he was born. His own family thought he was a bit strange. They never really understood why he did what he did or why he said what he said.

When he started his ministry, the powers that be at first found him a nuisance and later a threat. They sent their best people to try and trip him up on technicalities, but it never worked. He was too smart to be fooled by slick questions. But every time he made them look foolish, it just made them madder. Eventually, they decided that he must be killed. But because he was popular with the common people, they couldn’t arrest him haphazardly. They had to find a reason, a plausible excuse, something that would give them a cover for their dirty deeds.

The day came when he traveled to the capital city for a public celebration. Thousands of people were there that week. Multitudes lined the narrow streets as he rode on a donkey into the city. “God save us!” they cried, “God save us!” For almost a week he taught publicly, answering questions, debating his opponents, preparing his followers for what was to come.

Finally, the leaders decided to make their move. They had found a man among his followers—his treasurer, no less—who was willing to sell him out in exchange for a handful of money. The deal was struck, the time set, the plan made. It all went like clockwork and the good man was arrested.

Dirty Justice

Fives times he was tried before four different judges. The charges weren’t really clear, but it was something about blasphemy and then something about treason. At one hearing, the witnesses openly contradicted one another. But it didn’t matter. So great was their hatred, so deep their anger, so fierce their rage that truth didn’t count. “This man must die!” they said. Let justice be damned!

He was cruelly beaten. Ridiculed. Spat upon. Mocked. Humiliated. Tortured until his flesh hung in ribbons. Beaten until he was barely conscious. Stripped naked. Condemned to die. Forced to carry the instrument of his own death.

Outside the city walls, near a limestone quarry with the strange face of a skull outlined on the side of a cliff, the good man was put to death. The Bible says that the passersby stopped when they saw him, then they joined the jeering crowd gone mad with blood-lust. It was an awful scene, proof that the human mind is capable of the very worst atrocities.

You were there. So was I. So was everyone who ever walked on this sin-cursed planet. All of us were there that day. Not to help, but to hurt. To join the rabble crying, “Crucify him? Crucify him!” We were all there watching the good man die, doing nothing to save him, nothing to ease his pain.

We were there. And he saw us. He saw you. And he saw me. He knew you by name. And he knew me, too. All of us joined in that terrible moment. All of us cheered when the nails drove through the flesh. All of us laughed when he screamed in agony.

The whole human race was there, laughing as the Son of God died.

Father, Forgive Them!

He didn’t say much that day, only about seven or eight sentences. But, oh, what words they were. What power. What truth he spoke.

Do you remember the first words he said from the cross? How could you ever forget them? He looked down, his chest heaving, the sun beating down on his fevered, bleeding brow, his face a mass of blood and tears, his hands and feet dripping blood from the nail holes. He saw the laughter, heard the jeers, and he knew that they were laughing at him.

He had done nothing wrong. Nothing to deserve this.

He closed his eyes, as if in prayer. Then he looked again at the howling, wild mob. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” Luke 23:34.

Forgive them? But they were guilty of the greatest crime in all history.

Forgive them? But he was innocent … and they knew it.

Forgive them! But they had twisted the truth, made up lies, slandered his name, bribed his treasurer, rigged the trial, and guaranteed his death. It was murder pure and simple. They meant to kill him… and they did.

Forgive them? How could it be?

But that’s what he said. “Father, forgive them.” He was a good man, the best man the world has ever seen. He came to show us how to live and he came to show us how to die. He came to save us while we were yet sinners. He even came to save those who put him to death.

“Father, forgive them.” I’m so glad Jesus said that, because it shows us that forgiveness is always possible. If he could forgive, then anything is possible. If the Son of God could rise above anger and hatred, if he could find a way to forgive his enemies, then so can we.

Four Steps to Freedom

I wonder how many of us have gotten in trouble because we gave in to our anger. I wonder how many of us have said things in a moment of tension that we later lived to regret. I wonder how many marriages have been broken, how many friendships have ended, how many jobs have been lost because we have lost our temper and said and done things we later regretted.

Is there a better way? How do you handle your anger so that it doesn’t destroy you?

Let me end my message with four suggestions.

1. Have the courage to face your anger.

It all begins here. Until you can admit to the “other face” that no one ever sees, you will never get better. So many of us have a public face that looks good and a private face that we keep behind locked gates and stone walls, a face of anger and hatred.

Let me say that I have learned from hard personal experience the truth of what I am talking about. I know what it is to lose your temper in a critical moment and say things you regret later. I also know that years later things can never be as they once were. For me, the healing didn’t begin until I could say, “I got angry and lost my temper. The rest doesn’t matter. I have to own up to my own problems.”

2. Share your struggles with a friend.

As the evidence has started to come out, it seems like many of his friends knew that O.J. Simpson had a strong temper and that he was prone to violent behavior. The police knew it. But no one confronted him with the ugly truth. No one cared enough. What if he had said, “I need some help. I’ve got some anger in me that I’m not handling very well.” Would things be different today?

Men especially seem to struggle in this area. We harbor these deep feelings and don’t know what to do with them. What’s worse, we’re afraid to tell anyone because we think that sharing our struggles is a sign of weakness. How wrong we are. The weak cover up; only the strong have the courage to admit they need help.

3. Do a relationship inventory based on Ephesians 4:30-32.

That passage reads like this:

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

These words are incredibly specific. Check your life for any signs of bitterness, anger, rage, slander, brawling, and malice. If you find even a trace of those things, get rid of them. They are like a virus in your spiritual bloodstream.

Anger kills!

Bitterness kills!

Slander kills!

Rage kills!

Resentment kills!

It doesn’t just kill other people. It kills you too!

4. Yield control of your life to the Holy Spirit.

The title of this sermon is “Self-Control,” but it’s really about Holy Spirit control. Ephesians 4:30 warns us not to grieve the Holy Spirit by harboring bitterness in our hearts.

You can have the Holy Spirit in control, or your anger can take control. There is no third option and no middle ground.

Jesus has shown us the way. You don’t have to live in anger and bitterness over the way people treat you. Through the power of the Holy Spirit your life can be different. God’s Spirit can set you free from the chains that bind you to the past.

The price is simple, but it’s not cheap. You’ve got to give up your anger, let go of your bitterness, say farewell to your hurtful memories. Then and only then will the Holy Spirit be free to take control of your life.


I’d like to lead us in a prayer for the Holy Spirit to take over your life. I’m going to say it slowly, sentence by sentence. If this is the prayer of your heart, say it out loud after me:

Father, for too long I have tried to solve my own problems. I thought I could handle things on my own and it didn’t work. I’ve made a mess of my own life. I’ve tried and tried and now I’m tired of trying.

Lord Jesus, thank you for showing us how to live. Thank you for showing us how to die. Thank you for taking all my sin away when you died on the cross. Thank you for showing us how to forgive the people who have hurt us the most.

Holy Spirit, I’m ready for you to come into my life. Here and now I yield control to you. From this day forward I want you to run my life. Please fill me with your power so that I might become a truly different person. With all my heart, and all my soul, with everything that is in me, I want you to take control.

Lord Jesus, you’re in charge now. Lead on, and I will follow you from this day forward. Amen.

May God grant you new life through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And may you experience the freedom of forgiveness and the joy that comes from letting him take control.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?