“Who will not be ruled by the rudder will by the rock be ruled.” -Anonymous
Years ago, I was driving home around 4:30am, having spent most of the night at the hospital with a sick daughter and a weary wife. The car was in cruise control mode as we sped along the freeway; as we took the connecting offramp to another freeway, we ran into a low dense fog that made my speed feel uncomfortably fast. I tapped the brake and nothing happened. Suddenly, my heart rate skyrocketed as my brain began to imagine terrifying scenarios of rushing into the darkness at breakneck speed, skidding into the turn, spinning out of control, and flipping down an embankment. Thankfully, my fuzzy, sleep-deprived brain recalled that the car I was driving was a stick-shift and the “broken” brake pedal I had tapped was actually the clutch. I quickly shifted my foot and began braking and slowing the car down. Whew!
Imagine trying to drive without brakes. It’s not a pleasant prospect! Good brakes help in keeping us from getting hurt and also help in keeping us from hurting others. But if I’m honest, I’d have to admit that I prefer my car’s accelerator to its brakes. I like the power I feel whenever I hit the gas to accelerate, to pass, to move at our own pace. Except when I’m plunging downhill and getting uncomfortable with my speed. Except when the traffic in front of me comes to an abrupt stop. Except when a kid chasing a ball darts out from behind a parked car. There are times when we simply MUST be able to, well, put on the brakes!
In Colossians 3, Paul describes the process of life transformation in Christ as the stripping off of “the old self” with its harmful practices and the putting on of “the new self.” This first step in this process of transformation draws on Spirit-empowered self-control to overcome habits of self-indulgence. In other words, followers of Jesus learn to “put the brakes” on practices such as sexual immorality, lust, greed, anger, malice, and lying (3:5,8). Paul’s insight is that the brake pedal is a great form of personal power and agency, namely, the ability to stop from saying or doing things that are self-harmful or harmful to others.
I’m pretty sure I don’t need to convince you that a car needs both brakes and an accelerator. Both are critical for safe and effective transportation. But do you see how this analogy connects with the interrelationship of human limits and human freedoms? Of course we humans need freedoms to grow and thrive; but pursuing human freedoms cannot be divorced from accepting human limitations. Unfettered freedom for one person often translates into tyranny or abuse for others. We need limits as well as freedoms to function fully as human beings. Those who resent limits or brakes will eventually pay the price of harming themselves and others. The apostle Paul was onto this as he instructed the Colossians which habits to “put the brakes on” and which virtues to pursue “full speed ahead.” May we profit from his Christ-centered wisdom!