Self-control is an increasingly scarce commodity in human relationships. Evidence to support that statement is in abundant supply. Think of the driver consumed with rage after being cut up on the motorway, the work colleague who cannot resist passing on a juicy morsel of gossip, the toddler who screams uncontrollably if denied a treat, the sex addict up into the early hours in search of the perfect pornographic video, the binge-eater unable to keep their appetite in check, the jealous spouse who suspects infidelity and lashes out verbally or physically.
That self-control is frequently lacking in our world should not surprise us. Our Creator God has been usurped as King and self is on the throne of the human heart. Rather than every person living for God in humble, joyful submission, we all by nature live for ourselves, like little demigods. But we don’t tend to run things well. We want our own way and we like to be in control – of our lives, our circumstances, our surroundings and of other people too. And when we lose control, we tend to do anything possible to regain it, which sooner or later invariably leads to a loss of self-control.
More worrying is the all too frequent deficit of self-control in the lives of Christians. To my shame, I can recall a number of instances when I’ve lashed out verbally at a fellow believer; each thankfully forgiven by the injured party and wonderfully remembered no more by God. I’m sure we can each think of ways – perhaps even during this past week – in which we’ve failed to exercise self-control. Over our tongues perhaps, or our emotions, our sexual desires, our ambitions, our passions, our temper, our greed, our anxieties, or a whole host of other things.
Living in a world that’s out of control, it’s easy to believe the lie that self-control – even for the Christian – is somehow an impossible goal. But it really isn’t. This side of heaven we won’t, of course, control ourselves perfectly all of the time. We should, however, be working towards that aim. “You therefore must be perfect”, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So here are five biblical principles to help us live a composed life:
Accept the divine directive
We first need to acknowledge that self-control is not the preserve of a special breed of super-spiritual Christian. No, it’s God’s command for and expectation of every one of his redeemed children. “Be sober-minded”, writes the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:8) and “make every effort to supplement your faith with…self-control” (2 Peter 1:5-6).
Paul also makes it clear to Titus that self-control is a normal mark of Christian living. So older men are to be self-controlled, older women are to teach and train younger women to be self-controlled and younger men should be urged to be self-controlled (Titus 2:2-6). The divine directive is all-inclusive. Controlling ourselves is not an optional extra, but normal Christian behaviour.
Obeying this command is of great importance for our own personal well-being and for the health of our churches. Wise Solomon observes that “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). If we fail to control ourselves, individually or collectively, we leave ourselves and our church fellowships vulnerable to all kinds of spiritual attacks and temptations.
Look to the perfect example
It should go without saying that Jesus is much, much more than just an example for us of how we ought to live as Christians. But he is certainly nothing less than an example. Peter, referring to how Christ dealt with unjust suffering, writes that Christ has left “you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). So what kind of example did he leave us? Well, Peter goes on to say that “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (v 23).
In the face of harsh and unfair treatment, Jesus retained his composure. He exercised self-restraint. And what was his secret? Why did he not feel the need to retaliate or to threaten those who were mistreating him? Well, because he was entrusting himself to his heavenly Father, the just judge. Leaving it to God. He accepted that God was in complete control of his circumstances, so he didn’t need to take matters into his own hands by lashing out and getting revenge.
This is one of the keys to you and I exercising self-control, even in the midst of trying circumstances. So when the boss has mistreated me at work perhaps, or someone has spoken ill of me at church, or hurt my feelings, or damaged my pride. I don’t lose control of my emotions and passions and try to get my own back. No, I trust my heavenly father. The perfect judge of all things and of everyone. The all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful one. “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). In other words, I let God be God and exercise restraint.
Take the private tuition
Self-control is not something that comes naturally to most of us. Nor is it something that we simply pray for and expect God to zap us with. Instead, it’s something that we need to learn. The good news is that we have the very best teacher available. We receive private tuition in self-control from none other than the grace of God. And the grace of God, “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12).
Is there some particular area or areas of your life where you’re really struggling to show self-restraint? Perhaps it’s a tendency to snap at people and fly off the handle. Or maybe it’s lustful desires and passions that you can’t seem to master, or feelings of envy, bitterness, or jealousy toward another person. Maybe it’s an addiction to shopping, or gambling, or gaming, or checking your social media feeds. Whatever your particular battle, you can ask grace to teach you how to live a self-controlled life. To train you how to master yourself; your body, your feelings, your passions.
Be warned, however, that asking grace to teach you self-control is highly likely to bring some very challenging circumstances into your life. You may find that your temptations seem to increase and become fiercer and more powerful than ever. But how else can grace teach you, except by equipping you and strengthening you in the heat of battle? A runner only really learns to persevere by running an arduous race. A soldier only truly learns to fight when he’s at war and under attack.
Learn from the failures
Paul also teaches Christians at Thessalonica “that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable” (1 Thessalonians 4:4). The very fact that we have to learn self-control implies the likelihood of us getting it wrong at times and making mistakes. On such occasions, we can be sure that our enemy the devil will do everything possible to use our failures to discourage and debilitate us, to keep us caught in that cycle of uncontrolled behaviour.
Don’t be surprised, then, if you sense an inner voice saying something like, ‘You call yourself a Christian? But you’ve lost control again; you’ve fallen into that same sin again; you’ve failed yet again. Do you really think God will still love you? Surely you’ve pushed him too far this time, he’s not going to keep on forgiving you.’ Our response to these taunts of our enemy, of course, is that my relationship with God is not based on my performance, on how well I obey God’s laws. Rather it’s based on the perfect performance of Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the law. Fulfilled it by keeping it blamelessly. And fulfilled it by paying the penalty for me failing to keep it blamelessly. So I have the assurance from John that “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1).
Let’s take our failures in the area of self-control as opportunities to learn to be more controlled in the future. We can ask ourselves what went wrong, why we gave in, what we might do differently next time, how we might defend ourselves better, what verses we need to store up in our hearts to enable us to resist this same temptation in the future. Perhaps we need to remember to throw up an arrow prayer next time, or maybe it’s simply a case of believing the promise that if we resist the devil he will flee from us (James 4:7). Did I actually even try to resist losing control of myself? God’s promises are good and true, but we do need to apply them to the realities of our daily lives.
Look to the power within you
You do have the power to be self-controlled. If you’re a Christian, the power is within you. However, it’s not your own power. It’s the power of the person of God the Holy Spirit. He dwells within every believer. And listen to this: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). Everything we need. God has not left us without the resources to live a Christian life marked out by composure and self-restraint.
In fact, the fruit of the Spirit who dwells within us is “self-control” according to Galatians 5:23. But fruit needs to be cultivated and it needs time to grow. The Holy Spirit wants to produce his fruit of self-control in your character, your attitudes, your behaviour, your speech, your thoughts. You can’t learn to control yourself by positive thinking, or by the mere exercise of your will. You can, though, pray and ask God “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16).
As I make every effort to add self-control to my faith and as I rely on God by praying to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in my inner being, well so living a consistently composed life will start to seem less like an impossible goal and more like a reachable target.