Self-control is one of those things we all wish we had more of. For a lot of us it’s food (pepperoni pizza, mmmmm); for others, video games, or texting, or constantly refreshing Twitter. For some of us, it gets to the point where there’s an actual addiction involved, and then our problems get even harder to deal with.
But self-control goes beyond just dealing with temptations to pleasure. Ever try to live with someone who has a hair-trigger temper? Or people who can’t seem to control the negative words that come out of their mouths (leading you to look around for the duct tape)? Self-control is what makes living with other people bearable; it’s what makes living with ourselves something better than a long string of embarrassments.
So what does Christianity have to say about self-control? Is there anything useful in the Bible for all of us who struggle with this challenge?
Self-control is one of the virtues that the Bible says are the result of God’s work in us (Galatians 5:22-23). In fact the exact words are “the fruit of the Spirit” (meaning God’s Holy Spirit, who lives in everyone who believes in Jesus). Self-control for Christians is both the same and different than how it is for everybody else, because of God’s work in our lives.
Let’s start with “the same.” Like everybody, Christians have desires and needs, impulses and goals, and we need self-control to make all of these things work together in harmony in our lives. Also like everybody else, we all know that we don’t have enough self-control. We mess up daily. And so we’re all looking for ways to grow in this area.
There are a lot of self-help books and instructions that give good advice on how to develop better self-control, and anybody, Christian or not, can benefit from that. But God offers people help that goes beyond “try harder” or “try smarter (and here’s how).” Because that advice, however great it is, still leaves us trying to do it on our own. And that’s incredibly hard.
But to anybody who is willing, God says, “Let me help you. Let me do more than give you advice from the outside—let me come and live inside you, within your very being, and remake you into the person you were always meant to be.” That’s the beginning of an awesome but sometimes painful process that takes the rest of our lives. God’s Holy Spirit starts working on different areas of our lives that need help—and they’re not always the same areas we want God to focus on right away!—and sometimes quickly, sometimes with agonizing slowness, he makes changes. And one of these areas is self-control.
“But,” you might be asking, “I know plenty of Christians and some of them sure don’t look like they have any self-control!” Yes, you’re right, and we’re sad about that. God offers and creates change, but it’s always possible for us to reject what he’s doing—to say “No” to the change—to go on in the way we’ve always done. And some people choose to do that. Others are at the very start of their Christian journey and haven’t gotten very far down the road yet. Still others are starting from a point that is so much worse than where you are at the moment, that when you look at their lives, you think they haven’t made any progress at all (unless you know happen to what they used to be).
Or you might wonder, “But isn’t it true that my Christian friends just find it easier to control themselves, because they don’t have very strong urges? Maybe they’re just naturally that way. Maybe X is just a nice person.” Um, no (cue laughter here). Christians struggle with exactly the same issues you do, and our urges and temptations are just as strong. It doesn’t come naturally to us. But we do “cheat” in a way, because we have God’s help. And you can have it too.
This is why Christians can’t take credit for the times when they do succeed in self-control. It’s not really about us. We’re cheating. I stand in awe of some people I know who aren’t Christian who have great self-control. That isn’t me, and it never will be me. I need more help. I need God’s Holy Spirit. And fortunately, God offers to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks him (Luke 11:13).