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The Gift of Self-Governance

I have written several posts about the problem of smart phones on the World Race. The one thing most of us could agree on was that it’s an issue of self-governance. Smart phones are great tools on the mission field if you don’t allow them to distract you. Many of us were never taught wh…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

I have written several posts about the problem of smart phones on the World Race. The one thing most of us could agree on was that it’s an issue of self-governance. Smart phones are great tools on the mission field if you don’t allow them to distract you. Many of us were never taught when to turn them off. So now we take our addiction with us everywhere.

The problem is young people often haven’t been given the gift of self-governance and the smart phones actually get in the way of them learning it. If you need evidence, then if you go out to eat tonight, just take a look at how many people are looking at their phones instead of talking to one another.

My parents gave me the gift of self-governance. As they raised me they gave me many gifts, but this one stands out.

It’s a rare gift these days. Phones are just the tip of the iceberg. 

What is self-governance?

Self-governance is the ability to make wise choices about your life. It’s saying no to pleasure when duty calls or saying yes to pain when it’s the right thing to do. It’s making space for others – it’s consideration.

The Bible lists the gifts of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). One of them is self-control, which is a lot like self-governance. The Spirit empowers you to make the right decision.

Self-governance allows you to establish principles and navigate according to them. It’s not a world view, but it is a spiritual gyroscope helping you to walk according to your world view.

Why do we need it?

Pain is a great teacher. If you give a person enough pain, their behavior will change. But too many parents, with the best of intentions, made it their goal to spare their children pain.

The well-intentioned mantra of many parents was, “I wanted you to have it better than I had.” Their children then grew up not understanding boundaries, cushioned from the effects of bad decisions.

So, what is the result? Given little experience denying themselves, they enter the world of adults expecting the same easy ride. They tend to make poor employees and friends.

They enter a world chalk-full of options. We have more options than ever. When you go on-line looking to buy something, you can spend all day just considering different options. 

Where do we get training in how to sort through those options and make decisions? We have people all around us and when we’re away from people, we’ve got Facebook. But where do we learn how to be a friend?

I have a friend who borrows my car. When he returns it, the radio is always on and turned way up. Noise blasts out. You can’t hear yourself think.

That’s how it is for those who can’t self-govern. The noise in their minds keeps them from seeing the world around them.

We’re hyper-aware of our rights. But we fail to distinguish between a right and an action that is good. Paul sought to instruct a new church on the issue when he said, “I have the right to do anything. However, not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything–but not everything is constructive.” 1 Cor. 10:23

Self-governance shows us how to pick those things that are constructive.

How do we learn self-governance?

It’s not rocket science. If you want to teach someone when to say yes and when to say no, give them more opportunities to make decisions and to feel the consequences of them.

Some people call this discipleship. Jesus practiced it. He didn’t just tell his disciples, “Follow me and watch me preach and heal.”

He didn’t say, “Hang out with me and we’ll unroll a few scrolls together in the synagogue.” He sent them out multiple times (see Luke 9 & 10) to practice and to experience failure.

He talked to them in great detail about the kind of failure they could expect and what to do when they experienced it. “You’ll be rejected, arrested, hauled into court and maybe killed,” he said.

That’s how they learned to trust the Holy Spirit to guide them to self-govern.

All we need is a few teachers who will try Jesus’ model of discipleship and young people will begin self-governing.

Our model is broken

What we in the Church often lack is teachers who will take a young person and regularly give them these opportunities and then debrief the consequences of their choices.

Sure, we’ll guide them through a Bible study. We’ll take them to an amusement park. But very few will trust young people with real responsibility. Not many will train them in failure.

Young people sense this and feel the inner restlessness. “Where can I go to be trusted with possibility?” They think. “Where can I go and experience a world that I sense is so much bigger than the one I know?”

They sense that greatness is locked within them, but no one has ever talked to them about the price tag or process for releasing it.

In a culture of buffet lines that says yes to everything, self-governance is best learned by walking away.

By paying attention to the restlessness inside and seeing it as a gift – as an invitation to experiencing the righteous pain that you’ve been deprived of, you can feel yourself alive for maybe the first time.

A better way

I recommend a little assessment to start: Do you have the ability to commit and to stick with it? Is your promise good? Do you know how to power through failure? Do you look to others to tell you what to do, or do you regularly take initiative? Do you find yourself feeling like a victim or do you own the consequences of your decisions?

Parents, have you given your children the gift of self-governance? Have they had the opportunity to make important decisions and to feel the consequence? 

If you are under the age of 30 and still struggling to release your inner poetry, or if you’re afraid of failure and commitment and sense that there’s more, I recommend that you hit the re-set button.

The best thing you can do is to find a discipler and have them guide you through a journey of discovery. I’ve made it my life’s work to give 20-somethings a proper rite of initiation that not only teaches them self-governance, but shows them the kingdom and how to join God in bringing it.

It’s a righteous path to walk. Maybe the best place to learn how to say yes and no is by saying no to the dull life you’re leading. Walk away and invest in learning to self-govern. There’s no better time to start than now.

Comments (14)

  • Seth this is a good reminder not just for Millennials but all people everywhere. I need the nudge daily and have volumes filled with the stories of failed efforts in this area. One of the great things about Twelve Step programs is they reinforce “principles for living” and their derivatives. In the creed we’ll recite the maxim “Half measures avail nothing.” Martin Luther was quoted as saying “Sin boldly!” which wasn’t an invitation for cheap grace but I surmise the sense of “Don’t be tentative.” As a young college professor my first lecture was always the same and titled…”Don’t Be Afraid of Freedom!” Life is filled with swirling eddies where we “manage tensions more than we solve problems.” Having a *governor* on life… like that on a dirt bike I rode impossibly… is good protection from burning an engine or life out. Your blog content is always prompting with what I call “the pleasant ache.” Love you friend.

    • Thanks, Butch. This is good! I’ve often thought that the best church model is the AA model. For those who aren’t familiar w/ the 12 steps, here they are:

      1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable.
      2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
      3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
      4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
      5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
      6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
      7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
      8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
      9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
      10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
      11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
      12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

  • Our young people today have grown up with so many electronic devices and access to a wide range of things at any given moment. So many don’t even realize how ensnared they are by these things. They have no idea how much time is wasted and literally just given away. We are supposed to treat others the way we would want to be treated and yet far too often they are not even challenged in this area or see how much it is lacking in their lives. Paul said he became all things to all men. Why? To win the more! His goal was always about winning people to Christ. He didn’t compromise, but his heart was always wanting that for others more than what he wanted for himself. Parents must teach this important lesson at home and demonstrate it to them as well by living it in front of them. If parents can’t put devices down then how do our young people have a chance with the examples that they have before them way too often. Parents play an important part in these lessons for our kids. We must lead by example. That’s why discipleship is so important. Living as good examples is far more reaching and effective than just telling them what a good example is. Let’s live it out and be good examples. Good examples make good examples. Thanks for sharing Seth!

  • Great post Seth — as we look around at restaurants though, it is not hard to notice that it is not just Milennials who are stuck to their phones – our generation has caught the bug too. As we seek to impart that self-governance to the generations behind us, we must also practice it ourselves. If we can learn to silence all of the other voices we find in our connectedness via the internet, perhaps we will be better positioned to hear that “still, small voice” that is always speaking to us. Where Elijah was looking for it in the wind, the fire,and the earthquake, we tend to look for it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I am thankful for a forgiving God, who still calls us to intimacy with Himself, in spite of our distraction. Thanks for your passion brother. It is a privilege to serve alongside you in some small way.

  • Thanks, Matt. You and Cindy have served in not a small way, but a MAJOR way this year. You’ve born great fruit and we’ve pioneered together in some wonderful parts of the kingdom. You guys bless me every day.

  • This is great stuff, Seth! Having read Dangerous Jesus, doing the World Race and thinking about what ministry looks like returning home, I often wonder how I can practically do this for the guys I’m discipling. What does it look like to do this in suburban America the way we encounter it on the World Race or the way the disciples encountered it with Jesus? It’s gotta be more than coffee shop talks!

    • Kyle, good to hear from you. Glad you’re thinking this way.

      We can’t grow apart from pain. So, leaving our comfort zone’s is essential.

      We also need to grow in dependence. So practicing listening prayer and then moving out in obedience is essential.

      We can’t grow without deep mentoring, so finding committed relationships with older and wiser disciplers is also essential.

  • We had the same problem in the late ’90s when new missionaries showed up on the field with laptops. Taking them away didn’t work. Taking phones away won’t work. Let the Holy Spirit teach self-governance. That’s one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit – self control. Our biggest problem is Biblical illiteracy. Deeper study of God’s word and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit will bring about change.

  • Jenn Menn (Shogren)

    I felt bummed for my foster son who ate a bunch of his Valentine candy after I said no more for the afternoon. He did it and hid wrappers while I was doing a chore, then came and told me, “I didn’t eat no more candy.” I had previously explained if he disobeyed, I would throw away the rest of the candy from class. So, sigh, it’s gone, despite his mourning cries and threat note “mom I will not stop cry to geme all the cande.”

    So thanks for the words–as a parent it’s tempting to question, “Did I just set him up for failure?” This blog on self-governance was the first thing I read after all are the kiddos are sleeping soundly, and confirmed by the Spirit.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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