On Self-control

R.J. Lago | February 24, 2020

He did it! Our foster baby took his first steps. The wobbliness is expected, but he took steps! You, of course, don’t remember your first steps, but I am sure your parents do. 

The development of a child is fascinating. Their growth is steady, predictable, and thrilling. Every step of development is a rise in their capacity to control their bodies. From lifting their head to walking, everything is about controlling themselves. 

There are parallels between the Christian life and a child’s development. From the newborn Christian to the elders of the faith, controlling oneself is a must. Self-control in the Christian life is not flashy, but it is necessary. Like train tracks for a locomotive, the way a Christian clings to the faith is by self-control.

Self-Control defined

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul describes the battle over our souls. I have written more on this in another article.

Paul is describing self-control as a part of the single fruit of the Spirit. Like an apple tree only yielding an apple. That same apple is explainable in greater detail by the look and taste. The Spirit produces one fruit with nine ways to describe it. When you see an apple, you know it came from an apple tree. When you know someone bearing the fruit of the Spirit, you see Jesus portrayed.

The Greek word used for self-control in this passage is ἐγκράτεια (enkrateia). Self-control, in this passage, is the power a Christian should have over their life. Think of a surfing champion. He can manage the swell and the board as he glides through the barrel of the wave. The mastery of self during the waves of life is necessary for the Christian. “Those who have self-control are able to restrain themselves unlike those who are dominated by the desires of the flesh.” (Thomas Schreiner’s Gal commentary)

Self-Control is essential to the Christian life. 

There are many reasons to study self-control. Let’s evaluate two:

Christian, be self-controlled in your devotion

When thinking about devotion, consider athletics. For you to be an Olympic sprinter, there can be no distractions. My foster child will try to walk further distances, but when he gets distracted, he falls. An Olympian cannot have anything else on their way to the gold. If the athlete overeats on their favorite dessert, the ability to run the race will be limited. If the athlete is not focused on training, there will be no development. If the athlete is not self-controlled in their devotion to running, how can they run to their best ability? 

The Christian life is no different (1 Corinthians 9:23–27). When our devotion is on anything else, we will be limited in following Christ. The salvation we have in Christ cannot be taken away (John 6:39–40). Still, how we follow Christ will be hindered if our devotion is to anything else (Hebrews 12:1–2). If the Christian is looking to anything other than Jesus, there is a mistake. Like a distracted athlete, Christians need to be self-controlled in their devotion (2 Peter 1:3–11). 

One indicator of someone’s devotion is their schedule. Does your calendar reflect a life of self-control? Meaning, are you prioritizing following Christ above life’s tasks? Glorifying Christ in your agenda requires self-control to focus on Him. Agreeing to every opportunity will hurt your service of the church. Signing your child up for every program will take time away from family devotions. Set your alarm to wake you up earlier, so you can have time in the Word. Self-control is required to be in a community, disciple others, attend the Sunday gathering, and set regular devotional time. 

Self-control in the Lord is like building a solid defense from the enemy. Make every effort to devote every area of your life to Him (Proverbs 25:28).

Christian, be self-controlled in your speech

One of the most challenging ways to be self-controlled is in your speech (James 3:5-8). Think of how often you say something that you immediately regret. Then reflect on the times you speak out of anger, with a tone, or behind someone’s back. These thoughts shouldn’t cause guilt but perspective. 

As Christians, we must be self-controlled in our speech. Any talk that slanders others, perverts the truth, or speaks out of anger is evil in the sight of the Lord (Proverbs 8:13). Petty talk reflects the heart of the individual. Self-control in speech would mean that you are not gossiping about co-workers. You are not telling ‘white lies.’ You are not lashing out in anger towards a family member that hurt you. The Christian must be above reproach in our talk (James 1:26–27). The only way to see this refined is by self-control.

Mastering your speech is difficult. The challenge is even worse when you have no help from other believers. Community and accountability are necessary to be self-controlled. The Christian community is one that flourishes when all its members are single-minded. Hence, fighting sinful speech will take a strong community. When we slim that community down to one or two individuals, we find deeper accountability. Seek out someone to hold you accountable in speech. Not just in talk, but in all areas of the Christian life, we must be self-controlled to live for our savior.

Radical Self-Control

Our culture is allergic to the idea of self-control. There is no standard of self-control that our world can offer. Yes, some people are disciplined to avoid certain items or actions. Yet, the criteria of self-control are the inventions of the individual. The Christian model is radically distinct. Our standard was given to us and is lived out by the giver.

Think of the self-control to not destroy Adam and Eve when they fell. They were given a standard to obey and live, or disobey and die. They broke the covenant, and we now experience their fall. Still, in God’s grace, He is self-controlled to not lash out in anger. Instead, He makes promises of grace (Genesis 2-3).

Fast-forward to Jesus in the wilderness. While He is there and starving, the devil comes and tempts Him (Luke 4:1–13). Jesus is plagued with temptations that none of us could ever have conquered (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus is tempted throughout His life, but on the night that He was betrayed, He was controlled. Instead of running from the wrath we deserve, He goes towards it (Mark 14:32–42). He is self-controlled enough to complete what His Father gave Him to do.

Self-control in Christ is embodied when He is unjustly on trial. Instead of using His power to overthrow the authorities, He is in control (John 19:1–16). Jesus allows Himself to be given over to die on a sinners cross, one that He didn’t deserve. While He is dying on the cross, his self-control is never weakened. We see even clearer that He is the master of all things. No one takes His life. He lays it down (John 19:30). 

Christ’s radical self-control is what you and I are to be striving towards. Jesus accomplished this in His life. By His Spirit, He empowers us to follow Him in the same way.