In recent weeks, sexual ethics has been a hot topic in our media, initially in the movie world but now also in UK politics, with how men behave towards women very much the focus. Perhaps underlying all of this is a subject that our society could be classified as being in the super super lightweight division if we were using boxing parlance. The subject is the area of patience and self-control.
Much in our society doesn’t seem to value these anymore. People want things now. Easy access to credit encourages us to get the latest gadgets even if unaffordable right away. Digital technology means that we expect to hear of what is happening almost as soon as it happens. Football managers no longer have time to be managers but are expected instead to be generators of instant results. Perhaps these same attitudes come out in men’s attitudes towards women. Why should our desires wait anyway?
Patience and self-control don’t feel like popular virtues in society today. Patience is learning to wait, with an aspiration that it will come someday. Self-control is reconciling to living without expecting to receive, and learning to rejoice in that. Our society’s patience and self-control muscles seem somewhat underdeveloped at just this time. If that is so, how can we build them up?
Speaking as a man, patience and self-control can be really hard at times, but one practice that has helped for me is that of fasting from food. It’s an ancient spiritual discipline but not one that is very fashionable. I learnt most about it through my contact with the Orthodox Church, but it is not necessarily a Christian thing, practised in other faiths such as by Indian gurus, and by those of no faith such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Fasting teaches me to learn to live without and hopefully builds up a muscle to apply in other areas of life.
But there are objections. One objection is ‘How will I get my work done if I am fasting?’ I find the opposite, certainly for non-physical work. With a full lunch, I start to sag in my thinking right after, whereas a (light) fasting lunch keeps my mind sharper for longer. Another objection is ‘Will it not damage my health?’ On the contrary, Michael Mosley’s 5:2 Diet suggests long term health benefits of fasting, admittedly not from long term studies. Underlying health issues need to be considered too before embarking on such. Spiritually, it provides more time for prayer. From a Christian perspective, some may say that Jesus objected, but I read this as objecting to using fasting as a badge of spirituality rather than the practice itself.
What does this mean for our society? As a Christian, I am struck by the Lord’s Prayer imploring us to ask God to ‘lead us not into temptation’. Part of this is developing patience and self-control as above, described elsewhere as the fruit of the Spirit. It is also about seeing men and women as equally made in the image of God and therefore sacred and not to be defiled.
But I am also struck that we should say ‘lead us’ rather than ‘lead me’. I try not to read Scripture with my Western individualist mindset. We are also asked to ask to pray ‘give us … our daily bread’, not ‘give me’. It is a prayer for a good harvest for society but also for us to have right values in how that harvest is distributed, something that desperately needs discussing today. But everyone has a partial role in bringing about that harvest. Similarly, individuals are responsible for not succumbing to temptation and I have given ideas above for doing so, but there is also a role for ‘us’. What is the role for men in society who hopefully have better developed self-control muscles? What is the role for women? This also seems a discussion well worth having.