Most of us wish we had more self-control. For some us, food is our weakness; for others, it’s video games, texting, or constantly refreshing Twitter. Sometimes lack of self-control leads to addiction, and resolving the issue is a bigger deal than simply making subtle changes.
But self-control goes beyond just dealing with temptation. Ever try to live with someone who has a hair-trigger temper? Have you known people who can’t seem to control the negative words that come out of their mouths? 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.
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?
What does the Bible say about it?
Self-control is one of the virtues that the Bible says is 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 know that we don’t have enough self-control. We mess up daily. 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; anybody, Christian or not, can benefit from that. But God offers help that goes beyond “try harder.” Because “trying harder” still leaves us trying to do it on our own. And that’s nigh impossible.
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 and 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. Sometimes quickly, and sometimes with agonizing slowness, he makes changes. Although it sounds counterintuitive, self-control cannot be optimally achieved by ourselves; we need the Holy Spirit within us giving us the strength to do so.
Self-control in the real world
“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. 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 gone. 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 far down the line that when you look at their lives, you think they haven’t made any progress at all (unless you know where 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. Christians struggle with exactly the same issues you do, and the urges and temptations are just as strong. It doesn’t come “naturally” to Christians. But we do “cheat” in a way, because we have God’s help. And you can have it, too.
The big cheat, the great helper
Christians can’t take credit for when we do succeed at self-control. It’s not really about us. We’re cheating, in a sense. It’s true, some non-Christians manage to do a pretty good job at restraining themselves from making terrible decisions or becoming addicted to unhealthy habits. Non-Christians can avoid harm and do a lot of good in the world. This is a glimpse of God’s goodness, which exists in all people because he created all people. But through the Holy Spirit, Christians have access to the greatest helper of all time. God can not only protect us from our sinful ways, but he can also lead us toward paths that bring life to us and to others.
Instead of merely battling addiction or avoiding worldly temptations, we can stand as Christ’s ambassadors and do God’s work here on earth. He can give us a new identity, not simply as good people who rarely screw up, but as his holy children who work as his feet on earth to love and serve others and bring them home to his kingdom. It doesn’t mean that now we are perfect, it just means that now we have given the Lord the reins in our lives. That is the true benefit of enjoying the fruit of self-control: when we move beyond our sinful nature, we can do the work of Christ on this earth. And that’s more fun and more fulfilling than any temporal pleasure. (Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.)
Jesus calls us to, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20). What that looks like in each individual’s life will vary according to one’s gifts, talents, location, etc., but to those who seek God with an open heart, “…He gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34).
Basically, seek God first, and the rest will follow. Life may not be perfect or without temptation, but as Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If the God of the universe is on our side, we are conquerors over our addictions.