Self-control does not come naturally to me. I’m not convinced it does to anyone. My incriminating youth can testify to days driven by the search for instant gratification, but things changed when I started following Christ and left that shame in the hands of my savior. It became clear to me through teachers like Sorrow and Pain that my unsanctified self, or in Biblical terms—my flesh—doesn’t have my long-term joy in view, but merely my short-term happiness. More importantly, it does not seek to glorify the God whose grace rescued me. Galatians 5:17 reminds us, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” It is for this battle between the flesh and the spirit for which we need self-control, and the Bible gives us many reasons for a Christian to hold it in a place of high importance.
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The Biblical "Why" Behind Self-Control
Self-Control leads to life.
Jesus knows that the myriad of false comforts humanity runs to for salvation are often the very things that can take them captive. He offers a simple solution to save our lives. We must be willing to lose them. In Luke 9:23-24 he teaches, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
The unconstrained self is one of the most foolish counselors to which we can listen. If you haven’t noticed, we can convince ourselves that what can destroy us will be a delight and what tempts can tantalize. The frustration here is that while indulging in our every desire may thrill for a moment it can also leave with it memories that haunt for a lifetime. Life has enough troubles without the ones we add on by indulging in passions that lead us away from the heart of God.
This is illustrated well in Proverbs 3:5-6 as the voice of wisdom calls out, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
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Self-control empowers us to say no.
I Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” So often the way out of situations which are baited with sin is to simply say, “No.” We convince ourselves that uttering this two-letter word is harder than it actually is, but God promises a way out of temptation, and we can trust him that it will be there. Self-control helps us to act on it: to look up from the situation at hand to find the exit, and even with gritted teeth, walk away.
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Self-control is needed by every believer for the sake of the Gospel.
How disheartening it is every time we hear about the fall of another leader in the church or hear yet another tale of believers who were found to be saturated with blatant hypocrisy. In a world desperate to see hope at work, the people of God must be those who carry the good news faithfully. This is not fear of man or worrying about what others may think, this is living so that our lights may shine.
Paul is clear about this in his letter to Titus, “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity,...” (Titus 2:2-7) The older men, the older women, the younger women, the younger men; no one is beyond the need for self-control.
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Self-control is a part of healthy relationships.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-14). Constraint of the tongue, the body, and the heart is needed to love your neighbor as yourself. It does not come naturally to choose another first, but it is one of the most beautiful acts a human can offer to another.
When we don’t use self-control in relationships we are likely to create destructive relational patterns that degrade that splendor, because love that is Christ-like will require self-sacrifice, patience, and discipline. James gives wise advice on how to utilize self-control in relationships, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
To love others means learning forgiveness, patience, and the ability to not lash out every time we don’t get our way. Parents spend years teaching young children to share, make room for others, and stop throwing fits; all of these things are really just avenues toward teaching self-control. The world rages as people fight for their own ways, and while we should stand for love, justice, and the things of God, we can simply let it go if someone swipes our parking space or the last cookie.
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Self-control helps us to run our race.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
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Self-control helps us worship God with our bodies.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). What we offer our bodies to matters, and when we offer them to God it becomes an act of worship. Romans 12:1-2 unveils this mysterious truth: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Not only are bodies a temple but they are also a way we worship the Lord. We can be enticed to over-feed, over-medicate, and over-stimulate our bodies on a daily basis, and self-control becomes worship when we use it to protect the temple of the Holy Spirit. We all need to live our lives with respect for the fact that they are gifts to us from a holy God who ransomed our souls.
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Self-control begins in the mind.
Many times we don’t lose control in an instant. More often than not we have meditated on, desired from afar, and brought ourselves too close to whatever it is that incites us to lose our restraint. The battle to maintain our dignity often begins with our thoughts and where we allow them to travel. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). If we do not follow this biblical advice of taking thoughts in opposition to the Lord captive, we are the ones who soon find ourselves enslaved to lies.
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So many of the stories of the Bible show the destruction of what happens to people when self-control is abandoned. These two do that particularly well.
The story of Amnon and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 is heart-wrenching. In it we see a man caught up in his desire. He plans and schemes to get his way and will not listen to others’ pleas for self-restraint. He not only rapes his half-sister, but then casts her away from him, ruined and without hope for finding honorable love with another. Verse 15 reveals Amnon was a man driven by carnality, “Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her.” He was sick with desire and then filled with contempt; markers of a man without self-control. Eventually, this vicious indulgence cost him his life when Tamar’s brother Absolom avenged his sister.
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The Adulterous Woman from Proverbs
The Adulterous woman from Proverbs 7 is a compelling example of the need for self-control for those who cannot resist the voice of temptation. Whatever tempts a man, if it is not from God, he may find the same result illustrated in verses 21-27: “With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life. Now then, my sons, listen to me; pay attention to what I say. Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths. Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death.”
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The Biblical Example
Only one human has ever lived with perfect self-control. While we see acts of self-control from Daniel, John the Baptist, Paul, and others in the Bible, only Jesus did it perfectly. He did not sway from the will of his father, even with the looming anticipation of all humanity’s sin falling on his innocent shoulders at the cross. Jesus displayed self-control in a statement that should guide all our hearts. Matthew 26:38-39 describes the scene: “Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
“Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Surrender and fierce trust in the will of God is the ultimate act of self-control, because in doing so we refuse to be mastered by anything other than the Master. The beautiful truth is that only in him will we find the strength to love and trust him. Self-control is vital to the health of the Christian, but he does not leave us by ourselves to figure it out. As
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Chara Donahue is a co-author of the Bible study 1, 2 & 3 John: Experiencing Transformation and is working on her next book. She enjoys serving as a biblical counselor, speaking to women, and savoring coffee when her four kids are out playing with dad. She holds an MSEd from Corban University, is passionate about seeing people set free through God's truths, and is the founder and editor of Anchored Voices. Get in touch with her on Facebook or Twitter.
Originally published Monday, 21 January 2019.