It sounds so simple and straightforward, perhaps even commonplace.
It’s not a flashy concept or an especially attractive idea. It doesn’t turn heads or grab headlines. It can be as seemingly small as saying no to another Oreo, French fry, or milkshake — or another half hour on Netflix or Facebook — or it can feel as significant as living out a resounding yes to sobriety and sexual purity. It is at the height of Christian virtue in a fallen world, and its exercise is quite simply one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do.
Self-control — our hyphenated English is frank and functional. There’s no cloak of imagery or euphemistic pretense. No punches pulled, no poetic twist, no endearing irony. Self-control is simply that important, impressive, and nearly impossible practice of learning to maintain control of the beast of one’s own sinful passions. It means remaining master of your own domain not only in the hunky-dory, but also when faced with trial or temptation. Self-control may be the epitome of “easier said than done.”
It Can Be Taught
“Marshmallow man” Walter Mischel is an Ivy League professor known for his experiments in self-control. Nearly 50 years ago, he created a test to see how various five-year-olds would respond to being left alone with a marshmallow for 15 minutes with instructions not to eat it — and with the promises that if they didn’t, they would be given two. The New York Times reports,
Famously, preschoolers who waited longest for the marshmallow went on to have higher SAT scores than the ones who couldn’t wait. In later years they were thinner, earned more advanced degrees, used less cocaine, and coped better with stress. As these first marshmallow kids now enter their 50s, Mr. Mischel and colleagues are investigating whether the good delayers are richer, too.
Now Mischel is an octogenarian and freshly wants to make sure that the nervous parents of self-indulgent children don’t miss his key finding: “Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught.”
If It’s Christian
Alongside love and godliness, self-control serves as a major summary term for Christian conduct in full flower (2 Timothy 1:7; Titus 2:6, 12; 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 1:6). It is the climactic “fruit of the Spirit” in the apostle’s famous list (Galatians 5:22–23) and one of the first things that must be characteristic of leaders in the church (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). Acts summarizes the apostle’s reasoning about the Christian gospel and worldview as “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). And Proverbs 25:28 likens “a man without self-control” to “a city broken into and left without walls.”
“True self-control is not about bringing our selves under our own control, but under the power of Christ.”
For starters, the idea of controlling one’s own self presumes at least two things: 1) the presence of something within us that needs to be bridled and 2) the possibility in us, or through us, for drawing on some source of power to restrain it. For the born-again, our hearts are new, but the poison of indwelling sin still courses through our veins. Not only are there evil desires to renounce altogether, but good desires to keep in check and indulge only in appropriate ways.
Christian self-control is multifaceted. It involves both “control over one’s behavior and the impulses and emotions beneath it” (Philip Towner, Letters to Timothy and Titus, 252). It includes our minds and our emotions — not just our outward actions, but our internal state.
Heart, Mind, Body, Drink, and Sex
Biblically, self-control, or lack thereof, goes to the deepest part of us: the heart. It begins with control of our emotions, and then includes our minds as well. Self-control is often paired with “sober-mindedness” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 4:7), and in several places the language of “self-control” applies especially to the mind. Mark 5:15 and Luke 8:35 characterize the healed demoniac as “clothed and in his right mind.” Paul uses similar language to speak of being in his right mind (2 Corinthians 5:13), as well as not being out of his mind (Acts 26:25). And Romans 12:3 exhorts every Christian “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,” but to exercise a form of self-control: thinking “with sober judgment.”
Self-control is bodily and external as well. The apostle disciplines his body to “keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:25–27). It can mean not being “slaves to much wine” (Titus 2:3–5). And in particular, the language of self-control often has sexual overtones. Paul instructs Christians to “abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5). In a charge to women in 1 Timothy 2:9, self-control relates to modesty. And 1 Corinthians 7 presumes some lack of self-control in married adults that might give Satan some foothold were they to unnecessarily deprive their spouse sexually for an extended time (1 Corinthians 7:5). God has given some the calling of singleness and with it, “having his desire under control” (1 Corinthians 7:37); others “burn with passion” and find it better to marry (1 Corinthians 7:9).
The question for the Christian, then, is this: If self-control is so significant — and if indeed it can be taught — then how do I go about pursuing it as a Christian?
Find Your Source Outside Your Self
Professor Mischel preaches a gospel of distraction and distancing:
The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them. . . . If you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes.
This may be a good place to start, but the Bible has more to teach than raw renunciation. Turn your eyes and attention, yes, but not to a mere diversion, but to the source of true change and real power that is outside yourself, where you can lawfully indulge. The key to self-control is not inward, but upward.
Gift and Duty
True self-control is a gift from above, produced in and through us by the Holy Spirit. Until we own that it is received from outside ourselves, rather than whipped up from within, the effort we give to control our own selves will redound to our praise, rather than God’s.
“We are promised the gift of self-control, yet we also must take it by force.”
But we also need to note that self-control is not a gift we receive passively, but actively. We are not the source, but we are intimately involved. We open the gift and live it. Receiving the grace of self-control means taking it all the way in and then out into the actual exercise of the grace. “As the Hebrews were promised the land, but had to take it by force, one town at a time,” says Ed Welch, “so we are promised the gift of self-control, yet we also must take it by force” (“Self-Control: The Battle Against ‘One More’”).
You may be able to trick yourself into some semblance of true self-control. You may be able to drum up the willpower to just say no. But you alone get the glory for that — which will not prove satisfying enough for the Christian.
We want Jesus to get glory. We want to control ourselves in the power he supplies. We learn to say no, but we don’t just say no. We admit the inadequacy, and emptiness, of doing it on our own. We pray for Jesus’s help, secure accountability, and craft specific strategies (“Develop a clear, publicized plan,” counsels Welch). We trust God’s promises to supply the power for every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8; Philippians 4:19) and then act in faith that he will do it in and through us (Philippians 2:12–13). And then we thank him for every Spirit-supplied strain and success and step forward in self-control.
Ultimately, our controlling ourselves is about being controlled by Christ. When “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14), when we embrace the truth that he is our sovereign, and God has “left nothing outside his control” (Hebrews 2:8), we can bask in the freedom that we need not muster our own strength to exercise self-control, but we can find strength in the strength of another. In the person of Jesus, “the grace of God has appeared . . . training us” — not just “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions,” but “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12). Christian self-control is not finally about bringing our bodily passions under our own control, but under the control of Christ by the power of his Spirit.
Because self-control is a gift, produced in and through us by God’s Spirit, Christians can and should be the people on the planet most hopeful about growing in self-control. We are, after all, brothers of the most self-controlled man in the history of the world.
“Christians can be the people on the planet most hopeful about growing in self-control.”
All his life he was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). He stayed the course even when sweat came like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). He could have called twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53), but he had the wherewithal to not rebut the false charges (Matthew 27:14) or defend himself (Luke 23:9). When reviled, he did not revile in return (1 Peter 2:23). They spit in his face and struck him; some slapped him (Matthew 26:67). They scourged him (Matthew 27:26). In every trial and temptation, “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), and at the pinnacle of his self-control he was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And he is the one who strengthens us (1 Timothy 1:12; Philippians 4:13).
In Jesus, we have a source for true self-control far beyond that of our feeble selves.