“I’m sorry I blew up at you again, but I just can’t help myself.” “I hate that I’m hooked on pornography, and I know it’s wrong, but my lust just seems to always get the best of me.” “My son told me that he never wants to see me again, and I know it’s my fault for all the years I verbally abused him.” Or on the lighter side, “I’ll just have one more donut.”
A person lacking self-control is vulnerable to all kinds of temptations that lead to death. Perhaps not to physical death immediately, but certainly relational, emotional, spiritual, and even physical brokenness. Solomon, who wrote “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov 25:28), illustrates this. The Scripture records in 1 Kings 11:1-6, 29-33 what happened to him and the Israelite nation as a result of a lack of self-control. Solomon may have been a wise man overall, but he showed himself foolish when he turned from the Lord who granted him such surpassing wisdom. He didn’t suddenly and quickly forsake the God of Israel (the God of David his father), but his slide into apostasy was gradual. This seems to be the pattern that many Christians follow in their later years. Solomon could not control his desire for peace and foreign (pagan) women, so he disobeyed the Lord by marrying foreign women in order to forge political alliances to secure peace in Israel. His lust for many wives and concubines (second-class wives of the time) led to them tempting Solomon’s heart allegiance away from the Lord to worship and serve also the gods of his wives’ peoples. Note that Solomon did not cease worshipping the Lord. Instead, he added to his spiritual lineup others gods who he would serve alongside the Lord. This grieved the Lord, and God decided to rip the kingdom away from Solomon and give 10 tribes to Solomon’s enemy and rival Jeroboam. The Lord only left the tribe of Judah for the house of David, and that for David’s sake—not Solomon’s.
The Bible has much to say about self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 reveals that Self-control is not a fruit of will-power or maturity (although each of those are important aspects of promoting self-control). Rather, self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Self-control is coupled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness—all fruit that Solomon eventually lacked as he turned from wholly serving the Lord his God. That the fruits are all linked shows that the fruits (plural) are one fruit (singular). In fact this is precisely how Paul refers to these Spirit-provided qualities—as fruit (singular).
Paul explains in 2 Timothy 3:1-3 that if self-control is one manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, then logically the lack of self-control would be one manifestation of the sinful flesh. This is what Paul teaches in 2 Timothy 3:1-3. In the new covenant age, he writes that those who lack self-control will exhibit the following qualities.
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. (2 Tim 3:1-5a)
Titus 2:2, 5-6 shows that, upon closer examination, the fruit of self-control seems to be very important to Paul because he mentions it so often in his descriptions of how mature, Spirit-filled Christians should walk. According to Paul, maturity is not reserved only for the elderly; it is a quality that young and old should strive for. In Titus 2:2-6, he urges older men, older women, and younger men to all be self-controlled. In fact, for younger men, the fruit of self-control is the first fruit he mentions! Self-control is a “first-fruit” of godliness!
The Old Testament also speaks about self-control. In Ecclesiastes 2:10 Solomon (if he is the author of Ecclesiastes) eventually awoke from his self-indulgent stupor. By the grace of God, he was able to record his reflections on the pursuit of happiness and the futility of his life when he denied himself nothing. In Ecclesiastes 2:10, he wrote that the relentless pursuit of pleasure was ultimately meaningless (vanity of vanities), and proved to be a striving after the wind. The wisest man who ever lived (apart from the God-man Jesus Christ) had to learn the hard way that self-control is actually the path to godliness and therefore happiness. Would that we would learn this lesson from him, rather than the hard way!
Since biblical self-control is not a product of our natural will-power, what trains us to live self-controlled lives (see Tit 2:11-12)? We have looked at various Bible passages from our historical distance. Now it is time to apply them personally. It is the grace of God that motivates and trains us in self-control. Grace (the unmerited favor of God to sinners) has in the fullness of time finally appeared to bring salvation for all people (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, slaves and masters, leaders and subjects, parent and child). And this grace trains us to be godly, to forsake worldliness (thinking like and following after the ways of this passing age), and to as righteous and self-controlled men and women of faith. If I am to be a self-controlled person, then I must at first give up control of myself, accept and rely on the saving grace of God, and be led by the Spirit to find the power to control myself that I could never have had without surrendering my life to God. This is the paradox of the Christian life. If you want to be self-controlled, you must give up control of yourself to God. If you give up control of your life to God, the Spirit will lead you out of bondage to self and the freedom to live before the face of God. If you reject God, holding on to control of your life, you will remain in bondage to your sinful desires, being controlled by your out-of-control passions, and end up inheriting the wind instead of salvation.
In order for us to exercise self-control, we must battle our flesh unceasingly (1 Pet 2:11). The sinful desires of the flesh, the pull of the “old man” (old nature) on our hearts will continue until we are fully resurrected and released from this body of death and raised to bodily resurrection life. In this body and in this age, we are to see ourselves as sojourners and exiles in this world because that is who Christians really are! This world is not our home. Although “this is my Father’s world,” this world still groans until it is renewed and refined by fire when the salvation of the whole creation follows the full number of God’s elect who are presently being harvested and brought into the storehouse. In the meantime, we must abstain from that which wars against our souls, namely the passions of the flesh—those passions that our sinful nature, the world, and the devil tempt us to feed. Peter implies that when we abstain from our sinful desires we wage war against them. Peter is using a passive-aggressive image. When we abstain passively (yet actively decide to), we actually actively and aggressively fight against those desires. This is spiritual warfare—to abstain from that which is sinful. So the next time you are tempted to give into the momentary pleasures of sin, remember that you are at war! When you are mocked by your friends, peers, or family because you never “do anything”, remember that you are not refraining from action when you pass by sin. You are waging war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. While they passively go along with the crowd according to the way of the world, you are called to actively fight by abstaining and exercising spiritual self-control. When sin is calling your name, you are in reality more active when you abstain than when you participate (even when you jump in feet first with all your energy) because it takes little “action” to follow your sinful desires, but it takes much active restraint to turn from your sinful desire to the righteousness you all call to. So don’t be a pacifist and sin. Be an activist and wage spiritual war by abstaining from sin and pursuing righteous Spirit-empowered self-control.
“Self-control is dependent,” Bridges writes, “on the influence and enablement of the Holy Spirit. It requires continual exposure of our mind to the words of God and continual prayer for the Holy Spirit to give us both the desire and power to exercise self-control.” In our individualistic, goal-oriented culture, this is an important truth to remember because we will be tempted to fight the fight against sin by going it alone and expecting results within a certain (short) period of time. But that is not the way God has ordained us to exercise self-control. To be continually exposed to the word of God, and to continually pray for the Spirit’s power and will and exercise self-control must be lived in the context of holy community. God has created this holy community (the Church) and has blessed it to be the one place where we can be guided, taught, encouraged, corrected, and discipled to become self-controlled people. Americans are task-oriented, goal-oriented, self-help oriented, and me-oriented. All of these must be submitted to the life of the Church. That does not mean we lose our individuality, nor does it mean that we must live at the Church building or continually be involved in church-ministry activities. It means that we will grow best by God’s grace as we live and serve in the community of the local church.
But how can we do this in light of our busy lives? What specific steps can we take to ensure that we expose our minds continually to God’s Word? How can we work toward praying more regularly and draw closer to God? We all live busy lives. We all tend to fill up our schedules to the max. We all tend to think we have no time. But in the final analysis we all have the same amount of time in each day. No one gets more than 24 hours each day. So we all need to ask ourselves hard questions about what is a priority, what is a necessity, and what is excess fat in your life that can be cut out without any detriment. Where can we find time to expose our minds to God’s Word? Perhaps you can cut your TV time in half and use some of the time gained for reading the Bible, listening to recorded sermons or Christian teaching, or reading Christian books. Maybe you could find another Christian to do the same and you could meet together to do these things. I’ve found that my commuting time to and from work can be useful for listening to Christian programming or an audio Bible. Your commute is also a good time to pray, especially when you are stuck in traffic. Just don’t close your eyes. If you are married or have children, you can us mealtime and bedtime to read, discuss, and pray together on spiritual things. You can use Sunday afternoon as a relaxing time to reboot for the week by praying, reading, and discussing the things of God with other believers—either in your family or in your church. Sunday afternoons naturally lend themselves to this kind of activity, so doing this will probably hardly be an adjustment to your schedule. There are surely many others steps you can take to free up time in your busy schedule to attend to the things of God. Please do not conclude that you don’t have time though. It is a universal truth that we make time for what is important to us. Is God important enough to you to make such time sacrifices?
Bridges’s defines self-control as “a governance or prudent control of one’s desires, cravings, impulses, emotions, and passions. It is saying no when we should say no. It is moderation in legitimate desires and activities, and absolute restraint in areas that are clearly sinful.” Where do you exhibit the lack of self-control in your life? I am struck that a have a distinct lack of self-control in relation to my children, especially when they do what kids do—get in the way of my “best laid plans.” My impatience leads to irritation, which comes out in either angry outbursts or a descent into a crummy mood. As I reflect on my attitude and actions when I lose it with my kids, it saddens me that I’ve only seen a little progress in this area. I pray that God would give me grace to change, to become more patient, more tolerable, and more gentle when my personal space is invaded by my kids. It’s even sad to say it that way, for I am their father! I’m supposed to love them at all times and be delighted that they are in my life. My kids are not “space invaders”! They are precious little children whom God has placed under my roof and entrusted to my fatherly and spiritual nurture. I fear that my struggles and sins will pass down to the next generation. I pray that they will learn from my mistakes and not imitate them.
The Bible is clear that God’s Holy Spirit is our comforter and empowerer to fight sin—even respectable sins like the lack of self-control. So while I must work out my salvation with fear and trembling, I must also rely on the Spirit of God to grant me grace to overcome my sin. Nailed to the cross of Christ is my sin (all of them—past, present, future, respectable, heinous, hidden, seen), yet God calls me to crucify the flesh daily and to walk in the Spirit so that I might put to death the deeds of the flesh. Would that God would work faster! Yet, Lord, grant me patience as you work out your plan for my life in your own perfect timing.
Lord, I am a sinful man. But I am at the same time sinner and saint, and this is due to your saving me and ingrafting me into Christ as one of your very own children. I pray that while I still have breath in this life that you would grant me greater and longer lasting self-control. Give me grace to deny myself, my urges, and the worldly desires of my flesh so I may live for your glory. Help me not to lose sight of the good things in this earthly life so as to despise the good, common gifts you give to people–work, rest, food, clothing, laughter, friendship, marriage, children. Teach me to rightly enjoy all gifts that come from your generous hand. But cause me to remember that good things are so easily corrupted into ugly idols that drag me away from fellowship with the living God into a life that leads to death. Deliver me from such foolishness, and may my life and the choices I make reflect the glory and goodness of my savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray, Amen.