Catechism 1/6 The Hope of Self-mastery

The gospel in four short statements 

This catechism sets out four brief statements that summarise the gospel. We will look at the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Blessings of the Sermon on the Mount. Two of these are recited when Christians gather together in worship.

We set out the gospel by saying both what it is, and what it is not. We say what it offers us and what it protects us from. We show how it different it is from its rivals and from all caricatures of it.

The gospel is a greeting, sent to us by Christ, who introduces himself in it.  The gospel tells us that someone who we did not know, but who knew us, is introducing himself to us. From this moment we may know him, and through him we may know one another too, and so at last come we may also come to know ourselves.  

The gospel introduces us to the particular person, Jesus Christ, the Son whom God has set before us. Everything Christians that have ever said, tells us about him, and tells us about ourselves in relation to him. He is the one person who is able to face us in complete truth. The gospel appears in a world full of rival messages, most of which are not honest about their claims about man or God. As we discover the gospel, we realise that none of these rivals is able to show us the very high dignity of man that Jesus Christ reveals to us, in which each person may become master of themselves. 

  1. Our Calling – Summoned to maturity
    1.  God is with us

We have a companion. God is that companion. We are not on our own and do not wish to be. We want to find any person can give us some recognition. We ourselves cannot be that other person. That person someone else, someone who is not us. God is that person, distinct from ourselves, who is able to give us that recognition and who can acknowledge our own distinct identity. Only another person can confirm that we are truly an independent person. Only someone other than ourselves can establish that we that we exist not only in our own imagination, but in truth. We exist, and we inhabit a world, which exists independently of us, and which is comprised of other beings, who are freely able to acknowledge us. It is not us who decides on the existence of other beings, and we cannot deny their existence or withhold life from them. They are not a figment of our imagination, so we have to come to terms with them.

God is with us. This is the truth about mankind. When we acknowledge this, we have made a good start. When we evade this truth, everything becomes problematic. God’s wish is to do good for us. He offers us company, a particular company of persons within which we can truly be ourselves. There are voices other than our own; they can respond to us and we to them. They can find us, make us welcome and we can be glad to be with them.  

God sets before us a world full of persons who are able to be good company for us, and to supply us with what we desire. They are the generosity of God to us. Whoever turns away from this generosity not only turns himself away from God, but turns away from his own true self, and from everyone who could acknowledge him and be glad of him. Anyone who attempts to live without God will push away all very people who God presents to him. If persists in turning away everyone he meets and refusing the entire company that God has been sending him, he will never grow up to maturity and never become a person able to recognise and be glad of other persons. 

We diminish ourselves when we regard other persons as unworthy of us or acknowledge only those who reflect our own claims. We diminish ourselves when we decide that other men are too unacceptably different from ourselves, and see them only as the poor, whom we can disregard or despise. We diminish ourselves when we try to make ourselves master and oblige other people to become our servants. 

Without God, man is a threat to all others around him. If he is not willing to accept his place in the society of men, he reaches for power over them. He attempts to make others into his creatures who must serve and fawn over him, and so makes himself a tyrant. To build his power, he makes ever stronger claims about himself until, for those around him, he is claiming an absolute power. Over time every unchallenged political ideology becomes a religious cult. By attempting to put himself above all others, so that he is no longer accountable to them, that man is attempting to make himself godlike. But he only succeeds in turning truth to fakery for those who have surrendered themselves to him. His claims are fraudulent, his power is only the power of the delusion.  

If we try to rub away the image of himself that his creator, the true God, has placed in us, we turn ourselves into a monster. This snatching and stealing of what has not yet been given to him is how we turn ourselves into that most miserable being, a god who is fake. Then we are the plaything of all desires, emotions and forces that roar around us and in the world of our creation. The self-exaltation over all others, our rejection of those whom we might have received as companions, the trampling of the powerless and making them hostages to our dictatorship, all this is the way we abase ourselves and bring ourselves to ruin. Without God, we are not ourselves, but only the creature of the many forces that manipulate us. Yet despite all our efforts to separate ourselves from one another and from him, God does not abandon us so we are not utterly on our own.

1.2 The one true master

The gospel reveals that the one true master of himself is Jesus Christ. He has reached complete self-mastery, so he is able to withstand all powers and pressures. No one put him under any obligation or compel him to do anything. Whatever he does, he does freely for himself. Freely, Christ has turned to us and put himself into our service. He offers us this hope of self-mastery, and he proposes to accompany us through the course by which self-mastery is gained. Together with him, we can stop being the helpless victims of forces outside our control, pushed around first by our own passions and then by the passions of all those others who want to direct and control us. They intend to overcome our self-control, and take control of us. But with Christ, who has perfected self-mastery, we can hope to become free, and remain free, of them all. With Christ, we can be freely with other people. We can be their companions, and allow them to become our companions, not because we are under any compulsion, but because we are glad to do so. We can decide for ourselves to give them our recognition and to serve them. We can love them, and we can allow ourselves to be loved by them, without fear and without reserve. This hope, of companionship with love and freedom, comes to us from God. We may receive it through Jesus Christ and so through the gospel by which he presents himself to us, and the one person who can in complete freedom, give us the recognition and affirmation we are looking for. 

1.3 Self-mastery

We want to be independent persons, mature and socially competent. We want to be able to establish relationships, and sustain them, and not become trapped by them. We want to control our emotions, overcome our fears, be confident and open to new experience.

We want to love and to be loved. We do not want to be deceived, betrayed or pushed around. We want to know the truth. We want to explore and discover the world around us and understand every relationship in it.

We want to learn how to develop this competence and maturity, so we are looking for the culture which will teach us these skills. We want to know how to manage our emotions and develop self-control. We want to be able to endure the aggression directed against us without becoming provoked. We want to remain constant whatever the pressures on us, so we are not simply pushed along by the changes going on around us. We are looking for an apprenticeship that will enable us to become prudent, humane and civil. It will develop in us the strengths we need, which will become second nature to us. We want this apprenticeship because we want to become fully independent and competent, and so fully adult at last.  

1.4 The Gospel gives us self-mastery

The Gospel makes adulthood possible. It states that it is possible to live well by living in relationship with other people, without limit. We live well by acting for the good of all those we encounter. We can work for them, and we can decide to do so freely, not under compulsion. We can find our freedom by following this vocation to serve whoever is willing to accept our service. We can make ourselves their servants, and as far as is right within each relationship, we can say and do what seems to us to be best for them. They may regard us as their servants by right, as though we are obliged to do this, but we need not feel any resentment. We know we are well-served by Christ, and his service to us powerful and limitless, so our identity is never threatened by the obligations that others attempt to place on us. We have no reason to feel envy or resentment. They may treat us poorly, but Christ treats us richly. There is no ultimate threat to us. Freedom comes through finding our contentment in this service, and as Christ gives us the strength for such service, we also go through all those challenging experiences which build in us the self-control, the patience, and all that is part of the adulthood we need. Our independence and self-mastery grow through difficult encounters and trials, not through trying to avoid them.

The gospel tells us that the various strengths and social competence of which life consists, are offered to us. The people who have these gifts are ready to share them with us, and we can receive them as they are given to us, freely. We can learn them from the witnesses that Christ sends us, the people whom he has called and trained through the suffering that they have been through with him, through which they have acquired his holiness. Christ has prepared them to be witnesses to us. They are his holy ones, and their fellowship is the communion of saints.  

Christ has perfected self-mastery. He has not been mastered by hatred. He has endured the fury of the world and yet not given way to that fury, and not given up on the world. His love for us has not been overcome by our hatred of him. He has mastered all the passions, so that his passion for us is his sole passion. He has become the true measure of man; he is the criterion of maturity and independence, and so of humanity. Christ offers to share his self-mastery with us by accompanying us through the training by which we may overcome our own passions, and so become masters of ourselves.

All strengths and competence are aspects of one life, and this life comes to us through the person who wants to share them with us. When we take what he gives, we gain life from him, and so we participate in the life that is his. We gather from him the virtues that we learn through living, so his life can become our life.

All the people we come across are presented to us by Christ. They are given to us as a gift, and as a puzzle and a challenge. Coming to terms with them involves us in a passion in which we have to control our own envy and resentment, leave behind our whatever is immature and unholy and, through pain and embarrassment, discover what is mature.  Each of them is the means by which Christ intends us to discover what is holy, develop new self-control, and so grow towards the true freedom and maturity. Through each encounter, Christ holds out to us the qualities that are his, and which would make us adequate to serve and remain free and content in this service. Each new relationship he opens present us with painful decisions. Doing what is right within each relationship is sometimes so fiercely resisted that it becomes an agony. We have to endure this passion so that our own desires may turn towards what is holy. We are being sanctified.  

Through following him we may come to realise that all these persons are all sent to us by him, and so are his gift to us. Our interaction with them is the way his strengths transfer themselves to us and may become internalised within us.

Christ is able to make us fully adult, fully ourselves, fully independent, and yet fully social, confident and competent among all other people. His life communicates itself to us, so that it becomes ours, and then, through us, transfers itself again onwards to others. He makes all relationships possible for us. Christ is what it is to be fully a person, independent and mature. He extends his own personhood to us in order that we may become as self-controlled and therefore free as he is. The adulthood we seek is available to us from him, and through the challenge of every demanding relationship, we may learn to take to take it from him.

1.5   The Christian apprenticeship

Christian discipleship is the route to maturity. The route is a steep climb, it is winding and it never appears to end. Christianity is the glory of that mature human being who, in perfect self-mastery, is limitlessly able to love and serve whomever he encounters. The gospel is the voice of the Lord who accompanies you on that route, and on each step waits for you, until you finally stand with him at the top. The Christian community is the reinforcements of the saints that he puts around you to keep you company and keep you strong and single-minded on the way. They will pop the bubbles of delusion that might otherwise mislead and divert you off your path. 

Christianity is the route to follow; it is the sequence of exercises that will make you strong; it is the strengths and the skills that develop through those exercises, and it is the good company of those who accompany you through those tests along that route. They are there to encourage you so you see that every difficulty, all resistance, and every opponent who seems to block you, are part of those exercises that, when you stick with them, will develop that self-mastery in you. The people who follow this route, and endure the opposition of those who want to block them, will become a robust people. Their presence will encourage that society away from the viciousness of pagan life, trapped in cycles of retribution and violence, and make it a society that understands how to seek reconciliation, limit damage, and create peace.

Maturity comes as you learn the skills of self-control. By mastering your passions, you become master of yourself. As you become master of yourself, you no longer submit to the power claims of those you are afraid of, and you stop trying to make yourself master of others. You are not so easily pushed around by the forces around you or unsettled by your own responses to them.

With Christ, we learn how to separate ourselves from the regimes and ideologies that intend to belittle us and control us. Their agenda is to prevent us from growing up into greater self-mastery.  Our sin is to attempt to prevent other people from growing up and becoming masters of themselves; we sin when we frustrate their desire to make their own discoveries, to take initiatives, work for themselves and become publicly vocal and articulate. We sin when we conceal from them the apprenticeship in human dignity that is taught by the great Christian tradition, by which all previous generations have learned their various degrees of self-mastery, through which they have raised their aspirations, and demanded to know the truth.

When this Christian experience is not publicly voiced, the regime of the day imposes its own agenda. It wants to keep people down. It belittles people and prevents them from growing to personal and political maturity. It makes a living out of them. It is always extracting an income from them by confiscating what they have worked for and they do this while claiming that their own services to the nation are indispensable. 

Those who reject the apprenticeship do not want to learn self-mastery. They do not intend to control themselves. They want mastery and dominion. We may want to escape our present childishness, but they want to preserve our childishness, our naivety and helplessness. They want to hold us back whilst they climb over us, and extract whatever they can from us. They don’t feel any affection for us but only want keep us at a safe distance. They want to use some of us to control the rest. They want to divide us, so that some of us act as their police force. They want us to become bullies just as they are bullies, so we respond to the bullying we receive by bullying those beneath us. They want us to identify with them, copy them, and wish to please the persecutor who despises us. This is our sin, the ruinous tangle of falsified relationship and power-claims that have enveloped the world in delusion. We have done this to ourselves and to one another. Only God can save us. The gospel that is Christ’s first word of greeting comes to us just as we are bound and made powerless by these conflicting claims on one another. With him, and by his power, we can participate in his mastery of himself. The true master of himself can redeem us from our proliferating false claims to mastery of one another. He can make us social beings, able to face one another without submission or domination. This master has come to us, and has taken us on. The gospel that announces and accomplishes this salvation comes to us as good news. He saves us and so we are saved.

1.6  The Gospel creates the open society

A mature society emerges as its members exercise enough self-mastery, who are willing to work, to wait, to endure delays and set-backs, snubs, who can live with unsatisfactory compromises and a shared understanding level of shared humane and civil behaviour emerges

The gospel offers a society the skills and practices that bring about reconciliation. Reconciliation allows damage to our social fabric to be repaired and losses to our social capital to be made up. If a society knows how to restore what has been damaged, it will continue, and can prosper. It responds to each offence and injury by taking steps to achieve reconciliation. The gospel gives a society the means of reconciliation, and those societies that have been shaped by the gospel are constantly restored and renewed by these practices. In these societies trust remains high so economic activity continues, and with no need for resort to revenge and violence, there is peace, and consequently prosperity.

Those who are self-controlled and courteous are examples to the rest of us. We want to learn to rise above our passions as they do. Since they know how to govern themselves, they help other people do the same. Those who can govern themselves can be trusted with positions of leadership. If they understand the dignity that comes from service, we can expect them to serve the nation as a whole, and not fear that they will simply serve themselves. From individual self-government emerges the idea of public service, the rule of law, and national identity. All government originates in the individual self-government that develops into individual public service. 

The Christian gospel gives rise to the secular public sphere and the practices of public speech. These include good counsel, individual conscience, record-keeping and the public administration of justice. These create trust and confidence, and respect for the individual, his privacy, his work and property. Individuals are not the property of the state. This confidence makes it possible to take risks, to explore and discover, and develop the culture which pursues knowledge and science, and from which industry and prosperity come.

Love aspires to permanence, and so seeks the correction and discipleship that will make it permanent. When we exercise self-restraint that we can act generously and for other people. The Church teaches self-control and the ability to wait. Christian discipleship sustains our self-giving permanently.

It is the Gospel that keeps a society open. It makes available the skills and practices of reconciliation which prevents the build-up of resentment that would otherwise lead to rage and vendettas. Over generations the presence of Christians creates a slow and gentle social mobility in that society. People can lose status without regarding it as a disaster, and can gain status without attracting envy. People can be moved out of public office without loss of face. Those who lose their position are not publicly shamed. Loss of status does not demand retaliation. The pressures that might push people to take revenge for humiliations is continually released by the gospel teaching on the dignity of service and servanthood.

The gospel creates a social consensus that truth is supreme, and that free speech and public challenge and discussion that leads to agreement about the terms of a change of personnel and policy, and so creates an understanding that the functions and institutions of government are not the freehold of particular holders of power. Powerful men have only a leasehold on public positions, and their leasehold may not be renewed. The miracle of the modern West is made by the very confidence and level of trust achieved by those societies. These are the result of the Christian teaching on the high dignity of man, the sovereignty of each individual, and of Christian practices of reconciliation, that involve making public challenge, understanding that truth is fundamental, that truth is discovered through judgement and debate, and that peace is maintained through judgment and forgiveness, through consensus about what steps are sufficient to bring about an interim reconciliation, so that revenge is avoided and trust and confidence are restored in order that public life can continue. 

What is the basis of this reconciliation? Jesus Christ has gathered around him a people, who are present and recognisable in every place as his Church. From the life of this people come the gifts and discipleship that form a Christian culture which sustain any society that receives that culture, and brings peace in nations and between them, and so, precariously, a civilisation emerges. The Christian people encourage us not to give in to fear and despair but to respond to the call of God, to discover the dignity intended for us, and to join them in prayer to God our Father. We will look next at the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments.