In sports, character and self-control matter every bit as much as talent. You won’t see many demonstrations of that truth more glaring than Saturday night’s NFL playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals, who haven’t won a playoff game since the invention of the internet, scored a touchdown to go ahead of the Steelers with two minutes left in the ballgame. Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, had been injured earlier in the game, and backup Landry Jones had failed to move the ball on his first two drives. On the ensuing Steelers possession, the Bengals intercepted Jones with about 1:40 left in the game. Several Bengals players were so jubilant after the interception that they ran off the field, through the end zone, and into the tunnel leading into the locker rooms.
The problem was: The game wasn’t over.
Two plays later, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the football. The Steelers recovered with under 90 seconds left to drive down the field and try a game-winning field goal.
Roethlisberger re-entered the game, still injured, telling his coach that he couldn’t throw it far because of a hurting shoulder. All the Bengals had to do was keep Pittsburgh and their injured passer away far enough from the end zone to make a field goal impractical. Instead, the Bengals gave up a couple first downs, and suddenly the Steelers were close to the 50 yard line with about 30 seconds left. Still way too long for a field goal, though, and Cincinnatti needed only to button down their opponents for a couple more plays, and they would win a playoff game against their rivals.
And that’s when disaster struck.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a hot-headed player with a reputation for dirty tactics, hit Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown with a vicious blow to the head, triggering a 15 yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. Then, Bengals defensive back Adam “Pacman” Jones, himself with a sordid NFL reputation, shoved an official while in a shouting match with a Steelers coach.
15 more yards.
Without completing a pass, the Steelers gained 30 yards and were now in a position to kick the field goal and win. Which they did.
And now the Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing for their game against the Denver Broncos. The winner of that game will play in the conference championship game, the games that decide which two teams will be at the Super Bowl. But for the Cincinnati Bengals, the season is over. What felt so close at one point is now irrevocably gone. There are no do-overs, no take-backs, no second chances. The Super Bowl is now out of reach, and those 30 yards in penalties make up the gulf.
In an age of expressive individualism and “my story,” the virtue of self-control can seem to have little meaning. Its an idea that probably crops up more in New Year’s diet resolutions than anywhere else. Ideas like self-control cut across our tendency to trust and validate our instincts, a tendency that is endlessly reinforced in the self-actualizing, consumerist consciousness of American culture. To believe that self-control is a virtue is to simultaneously believe that the human individual is not the best judge of things, and that longings, even deeply held, passionate ones, can be deceitful and subversive. That is certainly not the worldview that gives “courage” awards to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, or that funds Planned Parenthood, or that props up no-fault divorce legislation.
In America, self-control is more about dessert than desire.
But the Scriptures have much to say about self-control. It is a fruit of the Spirit, a work of the third person of the Trinity that comes about when someone is united to God through Christ. (Gal. 5:22) The Christian life isn’t an emptying in the mind of all desire, nor is it an instantaneous transformation of all our desires from unrighteous to righteous. Instead, being united to Christ means being united to a continual source of renewal, so that we can progressively see our desires light of the character and commands of God.
This kind of self-control can be costly. It can mean appearing and feeling weak in the presence of others. It can mean walking away from things–and sometimes people–that we’ve grown to love. Self-control is an ideal that often sounds pleasant but almost never is when it is actually being applied. C.S. Lewis once described self-control as a “crutch” that a perfect man, who always desired the right thing, would never need. “But sometimes we need the crutch,” Lewis wrote. Self-control can feel unspiritual, because often by practicing it we are admitting the desires of our heart that wage war against the truth. But “inauthenticity” is not worse than disobedience.
For a self-control parable, consider the Cincinnati Bengals. Consider how a few seconds’ loss of self-control can create days and weeks and months of misery. Consider how satisfying and fulfilling it feels to do or say what you want in the heat of the moment, and how helpless you can find yourself in the ensuing wreckage.
“Take heed that you stand, lest you fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12) Don’t run out of the end-zone and into the tunnel just to lose at the last second.