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The Virtue of Self-Control


1 Corinthians 9:25

Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.

I want to speak on the virtue of self-control this week. The Bible refers to self-control as the ability to control our thoughts, words, and actions in obedience to God’s will. It is the ability to restrain our impulses, emotions, and desires. It is a fruit of the Spirit, which means that it is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. It is also a discipline that we can practice and train ourselves in, with the help of God’s Presence and prayer. Self-control helps us to resist temptation, avoid evil, and enable us to love God and others more fully. Biblical self-control is not based on our own strength or willpower, but on God’s grace and power working in us.

The Bible translates at least three Greek words as ‘self-control.’ It means to have power over ourselves, demonstrate moderation or soundness of mind, and to be temperate. The word means the same today: having restraint, being self-disciplined, being composed of mind and emotion, and cool-headed.

Self-control is a general name for the virtue of having power over ourselves, and there are other words that describe specific areas of self-control, such as temperance, forbearance, balance, poise, stoicism, and self-restraint. They are all elements of self-control.

Self-control is a virtue we value as a society and as an individual. I think we have all witnessed people who are out of control emotionally, physically, or mentally. They behave and react in an unexpected and inappropriate manner. Proverbs 29:11 says, “A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.” We’ve seen people rage on about something out of control.

Acting out inappropriately is the usual vision we have of someone lacking self-control. But it can also display as other unhealthy coping mechanisms. When we lack self-control, we can avoid anything difficult, including painful situations and taking responsibility for our actions and words. A lack of self-control can prevent us from connecting with others and can deny us lasting relationships.

As individuals, we do not want to spend time with people if we can’t trust them not to lash out or do something unexpected or harmful. I am unsettled being around someone who lacks self-control and will actively avoid them. I can still love them, but I don’t want to be in the path of their uncontrolled behavior.

People who lack control also open themselves up to harm. The Bible says in Proverbs 25:28: A person who lacks self-control is like a city whose walls are broken down, vulnerable to attack and destruction. An out-of-control person can lose allies, can lose focus, because they have no boundaries, no guard rails to keep their ego and behavior in check. If we lack self-control, we are vulnerable to other’s suggestions, and the temptations of the ego and the world. When we are out of control, we have no walls, so that everything inside can spill out, and everything out there can come rushing in. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it this way, “He who cannot obey himself will be commanded. That is the nature of living creatures.”

Our God-given nature is to be self-controlled. When we are at peace inside, we are calm on the outside. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

Self-control is a skill or gift we can develop, and like a muscle, we can strengthen it. Although a Fruit of Spirit, we must practice it because it is important to our daily living. It can help in all areas of our life, from academics to personal relationships. Self-control is linked to good mental and physical health, reduction in crime, and longer life spans.

There are four windows through which we can peer into our self-control. As we keep these windows clean and shiny, our ‘self’ becomes more under our control. One window is through deferred gratification. By self-regulating our desires, and distracting ourselves from what we want, we can build our self-control.

We can also help control our gratification by making just ‘one decision.’ So many of us run into the same temptation and each time we have to decide if we are going to partake of the forbidden desire or not. Instead, we can make one decision right now – I am not going to do that, eat that – whatever it is. Period. I am not going to do it. That way, when we are faced with it again… and we will be faced with it again… we already know our response. No. There is no debate, no questions, no decisions to be made.

Another window we need to keep clean is the ability to be cautious. Prudence is that segment of self-control that enables us to discern what our true good is in any situation and the path to take to achieve it. Prudence is the virtue of governing and disciplining ourselves using reason. It involves taking careful counsel with our self and others and judging correctly from the evidence we have found. Prudence distinguishes between right and wrong and can strengthen our self-control.

Another key to strengthening self-control is to use our minds to consider options before impulsively jumping into a decision. That is the power behind ‘counting to 10’ before reacting; it allows a moment for the mind to engage. Curiosity and the love of learning strengthen our self-control.

Another window into self-control is through our social intelligence. Many types of intelligence have been identified: mental, emotional, kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, mathematical, spatial, intrapersonal, and social.

Social intelligence provides the awareness of the multifarious behaviors, thoughts, and cultures that differ from our own. A higher social awareness allows us to respond to these differences with more empathy, compassion, and understanding, which strengthens our self-control. We can decrease our violent outbursts when we can slow our response to a perceived threat and react with controlled intent.

As with every virtue I have discussed, or will discuss in the future, self-control is something we can develop and strengthen through practice, prayer, and awareness. If we are not aware how we are behaving, how our habitual reactions and impulsive responses are hurting others, then it is difficult to change or improve in that area.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Self-control is the only kind of control that we have. We can only control our reactions, our thoughts, our responses, our decisions, and behaviors. We cannot control anyone or anything else.

Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” If someone insults us or harms us, we have no control over that. We only have control over how we respond. If we are afraid or angry, we still have control over what we say and how we act. We have emotions, but they do not control us, unless we permit them.

We may not be able to eliminate fear or anger, nor do we want to. They are valuable. They indicate that something is out of balance. But we do want to control our behaviors, thoughts, and words, while we are afraid and angry. God has given us the Holy Spirit and as we walk in Spirit we demonstrate the Fruit of Spirit, including self-control.

We cannot rage our way to a solution. We cannot anger a person into changing their behavior. We cannot force our control over someone. Self-control is what we work with, and self-control is gentle; gentle on ourselves and on others. If we find ourselves lacking self-control, it is a sign that we need to spend more time focusing on Christ than on the world. While the world offers us fear and chaos, God has given us a spirit of power, love, and self-control.

I leave you with 2 Peter 1:5-7 - Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. Self-control is one of the vital steps to arriving at the prime commandment of Christ: love each other.


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