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Insights & Opinions | December 4, 2012

The benefits of restraint

Culture

Faithfulness in the small things prepares us with wisdom and knowledge to do big things

Shutterstock/Elena Elisseeva

Before Thanksgiving, I wrote about my friend Greg Fleming, who runs two conservative non-profits in his native New Zealand. My primary focus was Greg's advice on living in a post-Christian culture, as New Zealand is a few decades farther down that road than we are in the U.S.

But in the midst of our two-hour conversation, Greg brought something else to mind that I think very wise and completely counter-cultural. In describing Maxim and Compass - the two organizations he runs - he mentioned interns who have come through his office door during his 11 years of work there. Some of those first interns are now around 30 years old, and when I asked him about the positions of influence they have, his response took me aback.

"Right from the outset, this has been, for me, long-term work," he said. "I don't want them to be in positions of great influence yet."

Greg went on to explain that he does think his interns will go on to hold positions of great influence - even political office - but that time is not yet. They have many years ahead of them to gain experience and learn to exercise virtue: "This has got to be about the fostering, nurturing, growing character," he said.

His thought struck me because it is such a reversal of what millennials are told to do so often, even in the Church. As I've said before, so many voices around us call us to immediate, big action. World-changing, grand action. And for some of us, that may be the route to which God has called us. But as Greg pointed out, often times those big actions come only after years of toiling in what can seem like the mundane and simple. Sometimes the scope of our influence is restrained, at least for a time.

Restraint is a dirty word these days. An increasingly and blindly progressive culture - made manifest most clearly in the realm of politics - knows no restraint. The sexual revolution was all about freedom without the bonds of restraint, and what have we got to show for it? Declining marriage rates among all adults, which leads to more children born out of wedlock, which leads to more poverty, economic strife and decrease in overall quality of life.

Abortion without restraint has led its advocates from language like "safe, legal, and rare" to a posture of abortion entitlement, where the prevention or termination of an unborn child is the same as prevention of cancer or HIV.

The noble desire to cure debilitating or deadly diseases has helped medical science leapfrog in recent decades. But now, we create human life only to utilize parts of people, then discard the rest, like Thanksgiving leftovers. Stem cell research was born out a well-ordered desire, but the unwillingness to set boundaries leads to the destruction of human life.

Even in the Church, a good desire to care for the poor or "needy," when implemented without restraint by way of careful economic thought, can cause more harm than good when we're not careful.

Restraint seems to be a foreign concept to many of us. But restraint is precisely what Greg was talking about when he said he hopes some of his former interns don't try to ascend the ranks of popular influence right away. Why? Because with the drudgery of everyday life - paying the bills, feeding a family, maintaining a home, building a resume, gaining experience, becoming a better friend - come wisdom and prudence.

In life's stickiness, we gain knowledge and the understanding of how to use power and knowledge. Just because we can exercise our power and knowledge - over biotechnology, poverty or whatever else - doesn't always mean we ought to just yet. This, I would argue, is wisdom. And as Proverbs reminds us, wisdom "dwells with prudence" (8:12), which I would argue is wisdom embodied in our decisions.

It's exciting to see many folks our age rising to stages of influence that leaving positive ripples in our culture. God has strategically placed them in their spheres of influence. I think of young folks like Lila Rose, Matthew Lee Anderson, and Eric Teetsel immediately. But I'm also excited by the fact that many of our peers have a lot of years of living to do before they bring forth their wisdom for society's benefit. In the meantime, the trick will be living life under the influence of the Gospel, in seemingly (but not really) smaller spheres: as employees, spouses, parents, friends, children, siblings and citizens.

My friend Greg said it well: "Our job is to be faithful to what is right in front of us. It's to be faithful to this day and to this neighbor."

Michael Reneau is communications manager for Summit Ministries, a worldview education ministry based in Manitou Springs, Colo. Follow him on Twitter:@MichaelReneau.