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.”
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]). AndRomans 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?
Written by David Mathis
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