by Jessica Brest
Self-control is the last (and seeming culmination) of the Fruits of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5. It is a virtue consistently proscribed by Paul and exemplified by Jesus Christ Himself.
Self-control is what the name suggests, the ability of a person to control the inclinations of the self—whether that be holding oneself completely back from certain desires, or simply limiting the fulfilling of those desires. This is a key virtue for understanding that human beings have a flesh or sinful-self due to the fall that can be denied upon their rebirth as a Christian.
What is Life Like Without Self-Control?
“A man without self-control
is like a city broken into and left without walls.” – Proverbs 25:28 (ESV)
This verse from the wisdom book is no joke. It is describing how vulnerable a man (or woman) becomes when they choose not to pursue self-control. When one chooses to let down all defenses and indulge any temptation that comes their way, they become fully exposed to the patterns of the world that ultimately lead to death.
Self-control always follows the same pattern—when you lose control in one area of life, it won’t remain there alone. It will spread, and you will begin to lose control in other areas of life as the little self-control you do have begins to wear down. For example, when you let yourself stop going to the gym regularly and give in to laziness, you will eventually start eating less and less healthy and then you might stop doing your homework on time as often, etc. Before you dismiss this as extreme, think about the ways self-control has been lost in your own life. Did it really only stay in one area? Or was your whole life beginning to unravel until you got back on track?
How We Gain It – Through Jesus
Jesus was the first man to exhibit perfect self-control. He was without sin and knew when to go and when to stop—even when faced with his own crucifixion. Because of this, we can truly rely on Jesus to support and understand our struggle when we are in a moment of temptation.
One of the primary ways we are told to battle sin is to pray against it. By praying, we are refocusing our mind on God and His desires which helps us see our tiny temptations proportionally rather than irresistibly. Prayer is also a form of spiritual warfare—a way to battle against the demons that are constantly trying to get us to sin.
“He [Paul] ‘agonizes’ by the power of Christ, not his own. Similarly he tells us, ‘If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live’ (Romans 8:13). ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6).” – John Piper from “The Fierce Fruit of Self-Control”
How We Gain It – Practically
1. Identify what you struggle with most often.
a) We’re all different, some people struggle with this or that. Set aside one week to really watch your impulses and understand the areas that you are most frequently tempted in.
- Do you frequently eat unhealthy foods? Do you spend your money obsessively on material goods? Does pride control your life? How about laziness?
- In case you are having trouble narrowing down what specifically you struggle with, the list of the seven deadly sins is a good place to start: lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.
- A more extensive list of sins can be found in Proverbs 6:16-19 and in Galatians 5:19-21.
b) Pray for the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to what is behind your vices.
- Sometimes our struggles in everyday life have deep seeds that we can’t find on our own. Only the God who knows and understands us inside and out can reveal those secret roots to our strange thoughts, actions, and feelings.
2. It is important to understand that the purpose of self-control is what we gain from it, not what we lose.
a) It can feel like we are losing out when we consistently deny ourselves the desires of our flesh. Pleasures that are seemingly harmless.
b) We must remember that self-control in all areas cultivates a beautiful life. There are practical reasons for self-control if the spiritual seems to abstract or distant.
- For example: If you struggle with gluttony or overeating, choosing to indulge your temptations will lead to a decline in health. Your body will put on fat, your arteries will clog faster, and you will lose energy and emotional health along the way because you body is not being fed what it needs most. Choosing to let go of self-control will ultimately shorten your life.
- Another example: Struggling with lust is an increasingly common experience in our increasingly sexualized world. It can be easy to say, “God would understand that my partner and I really love each other, that’s good enough!” or think, “He will forgive me afterwards.” But you must take a moment to pause and think about the ramifications of indulging in premarital sexual relations whenever you feel like it. Some of many include opening oneself up to sexually transmitted diseases very readily, causing an unplanned pregnancy, the emotional toil it would take on your relationship and on your future relationships if this one doesn’t last. Sexual indulgence outside of its intended setting will always lead to spiritual, emotional, and potentially physical suffering. Sex is one of the most intimate and bonding experience a husband and wife can have with each other, so to indulge in it causally is to wreck and abuse the most sensitive, intimate aspect of your human body and soul.
3. In addition to practical reasons, we need to remember God’s reasons.
a) To do this we must go back to God’s Word and re-learn what He says and why He says it. Read the Bible verses that tell the story of historical characters that also struggled with what you struggled with and see what God says about that. The New Testament letters is a great place to start because Paul always has sin to condemn in the churches of Rome or Ephesus.
b) When you’re needing a voice to comfort and empathize with you through the struggle, go to the Psalms and read the voice of David and many others as they learn to depend on God.
4. Tell Others about Your Struggles.
a) Accountability works wonders when you struggle with the same sin over and over. It can feel embarrassing, daunting, or plain mortifying to tell someone else about your sins, but we must remember that sin takes root and grows in the darkness. By exposing your sin to the light, it is naked and vulnerable and much more easily extinguished.
b) To do this, do pick someone who you trust completely and who shares the same faith as you so that they can encourage and admonish you through the scriptures. Pick someone who you respect and want to listen to as well—sometimes it’s more compelling to follow the guidance of an elder rather than a peer.
a) Every sin typically has a catalyst that will make you naturally inclined to commit it. Some examples: being alone can be a catalyst for someone to lust, being dehydrated can amplify one’s proclivity to wrath, or being overly stressed can foster laziness.
b) Once you have an idea of what makes you more likely to commit your habit-sins, remove those situations from your life if possible or minimize them if you can’t remove them. More examples: try to avoid being along if you struggle with lust, but if you must be, remove access to certain content that further tempts you while alone, etc.
6. Lastly, Remember that failure once, twice, or thirty times isn’t the end!
a) It is normal to feel like you will never be able to overcome temptation when you give into it repeatedly, but that is exactly what Satan wants you to think. We are fallen creatures, mistakes are inevitable. What is most important is that, no matter how often we fail, we turn back and repent. God does not call for perfection, He calls for faith and repentance.
And as we close, let me remind you what repentance really means:
“In the Bible, the word repent means ‘to change one’s mind,’” – from “What is Repentance and Is it Necessary for Salvation?”
It means to acknowledge to God that what was done was wrong, and to make the conscious choice to do what is right from then on. God sees your heart and knows when you have truly repented, whether you mess up again or not.