One of the most basic abilities a person must possess to have a chance of working with others and being productive is “self-control.” “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). According to Luke, the need for self-control was a basic feature of the Apostle Paul's preaching (see Acts 24:25).
While my book is about what SOLOMON SAYS (Amazon, Kindle), sometimes it might be helpful consider what his father, King David, sang. And what he might have taught Solomon to sing. For example, God speaks through King David:
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” Psalm 32:8–9 ESV
This image mixed with others in our minds might make us think of an animal struggling against his reins and a human struggling to hold him. Many people have compared a person under temptation as a struggle with a wild animal that craves something forbidden.
But wild animals restrained by being tied up or penned are not like animals domesticated to serve, or be companions, for humans.
Does a domesticated animal typically pull against his rider? When Achsah rode her donkey to visit her father Caleb in Judges 1 are we supposed to envision her struggling in that way?
Of course not. Sometimes a domesticated animal may get frightened or hurt. In that emergency, a struggle may be necessary. But the metaphor in Psalm 32 isn’t necessarily addressing that situation. It is simply stating that an animal has to be guided by restraints because it is “without understanding.” You have to possess “understanding” FOR the animal and communicate that understanding via reins because it has none for itself.
But since you DO have understanding for yourself, you should be able to listen and learn. You don’t need bit or bridle. Remember, the ideal in Solomon’s teaching is to become self-directed. He even appeals to the animal world to explain this:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?” Proverbs 6:6–9 ESV
Get that? Ants don’t need to be told what to do. The ant is productive “without having any chief, officer, or ruler.”
To get the “restrained animal” metaphor closer to reality, yes animals have to be trained or domesticated. And some make that easier or harder than others. But once they are trained, life ceases to be a constant clash. If it were not so, no one would ever use a horse for transport or keep a dog as a pet.
The upshot of this is that, if you start to be diligent and intelligent in resisting temptations and doing what you know is right, it will not always be a struggle for you. Of course, you won’t be perfect. You will still have to deal with sin. But you can’t even see how much progress you need to make until you make some initial progress. I’m talking about areas of sloth and lust and other stuff that you are dealing with NOW. To compare that stuff to an animal scratching at the gate, digging at the fence, or chewing on the rope that keeps him captive, and that you will always have to violently restrain, is a demoralizing idea.
And it is virtually never accurate. Battlefields can become peaceful pastures that provide resources for other battlefields. What does the Apostle Paul say?
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3–5 ESV
“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” Romans 6:20–22 ESV
We see this optimism in his letter to Timothy:
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” 1 Timothy 4:7–9 ESV
And we see it in Peter too:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” 2 Peter 1:3–7 ESV
So maybe it will help you to remember that the calling on humanity to “subdue the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28) and on the Church to “disciple the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20)–both of which include our selves–is usually a battle only metaphorically. What it is really like is taming an animal rather than overpowering it. It is like diligent athletic training rather than an unpracticed effort at running a marathon.