Growing in Self-Control Through the Power of Christ

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 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).

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?

Find Your Source Outside Your Self

Professor Mischel preaches a gospel of distraction and distancing:

The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them. … If you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes.

This may be a good place to start, but the Bible has more to teach than raw renunciation. Turn your eyes and attention, yes, not to a mere diversion, but to the source of true change and real power that is outside yourself, where you can lawfully indulge. The key to self-control is not inward, but upward.

Gift and Duty

True self-control is a gift from above, produced in and through us by the Holy Spirit. Until we own that it is received from outside ourselves, rather than whipped up from within, the effort we give to control our own selves will redound to our praise, rather than God’s.

But we also need to note that self-control is not a gift we receive passively, but actively. We are not the source, but we are intimately involved. We open the gift and live it. Receiving the grace of self-control means taking it all the way in and then out into the actual exercise of the grace. “As the Hebrews were promised the land, but had to take it by force, one town at a time,” says Ed Welch, “so we are promised the gift of self-control, yet we also must take it by force” (Self-Control: The Battle Against ‘One More’).

“We are promised the gift of self-control, yet we also must take it by force.” Tweet

You may be able to trick yourself into some semblance of true self-control. You may be able to drum up the willpower to just say no. But you alone get the glory for that—which will not prove satisfying enough for the Christian.

We want Jesus to get glory. We want to control ourselves in the power he supplies. We learn to say no, but we don’t just say no. We admit the inadequacy, and emptiness, of doing it on our own. We pray for Jesus’ help, secure accountability and craft specific strategies (“Develop a clear, publicized plan,” counsels Welch). We trust God’s promises to supply the power for every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8). And then we thank him for every Spirit-supplied strain and success and step forward in self-control.

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David Mathis
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.

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