By Peter Amsterdam
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“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”—2 Timothy 1:71
In Galatians chapter five, the apostle Paul listed nine aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, beginning with love and ending with self-control. Part of building Christian character is having the ability to control ourselves—our emotions, desires, and feelings—through the power of the Holy Spirit. The scriptural concept of self-control implies that as human beings we have desires that we should control instead of satisfy, that there are some impulses which should either be engaged in moderately or not at all.
In the book of Proverbs we read, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.”2 In Bible times, a wall around a city was its main defense. Without such a defense, there was no safety; and if a wall existed but was breached, an enemy could enter the city and destroy homes, plunder possessions, and make captives of the residents. Self-control is the wall which defends us spiritually against sinful temptations. It helps us to govern our desires, stay within appropriate bounds, and avoid excesses.
Self-control has to do with controlling our physical actions, appetites, and desires as well as our thoughts, emotions, and speech. In the book of Titus, the apostle Paul wrote that the grace of God trains us to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”3 Each of us has negative elements in our hearts and minds that we struggle with, which we can limit or restrain through God’s grace and the help of the Holy Spirit, along with our willingness to exercise self-control over them.
Self-control, as described in Scripture, can be understood as having the inner strength of character which empowers us to control our passions and desires, as well as to be able to exercise sound judgment when it comes to our thoughts, emotions, actions, and decisions. Sound judgment enables us to determine the right course of action, the proper way to respond to a situation.
Inner strength is needed to help us do what our sound judgment shows us is best. It’s one thing to know what to do; it’s quite another to have the inner strength to do it, especially when we don’t really want to. Self-control is the exercise of inner strength combined with sound judgment that enables us to think, do, and say things that are pleasing to God.4
When we look at the world God created, we see many beautiful and wonderful things we enjoy, and we are meant to enjoy them. “God … richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”5 The difficulty is that, due to sin, we tend to allow the pleasurable things God created to become overly important, to the point that they can begin to dominate us.
There are any number of activities which are perfectly acceptable in moderation, but problematic in excess. Drinking alcohol, eating, playing computer games, or watching television are examples. If we overindulge in such activities to where they lead to unhealthy or ungodly outcomes, or they become an overly important part of our lives, then we allow legitimate, relaxing, pleasurable activities to get out of control to our detriment.
Self-control is also needed when we are faced with doing things that are necessary but difficult for us. Exercising is an example. We know that exercise has many health benefits, strengthens our bodies, and even makes us feel good, and yet for many of us, it can be difficult to exercise consistently. Another example is setting aside a specific time each day to spend with the Lord and His Word. We know we need to do this and that it will benefit our relationship with God, but it can still be difficult to stick with it. Doing the things we know we should do is part of exercising self-control.
Resisting things that are detrimental to us or others is also part of self-control. For example, anger and untoward speech. James called the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” He said, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8–10). We are told to watch over our words, to keep from shooting off our mouth in reckless speech.
Scripture also speaks against gossip.6 The King James Bible uses the word talebearer, while other translations use whisperer or gossip to convey the concept of one who spreads gossip, betrays confidences, and slanders people. We’re also warned against slandering people, making false and malicious statements, smearing or defaming others.7 Practicing self-control over what we say is crucial to Christlikeness, so it would be wise for us to pray “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.”8
As part of exercising self-control, we are also called to harness our thoughts. Our actions reflect what goes on first in our minds—our thoughts, decisions, self-talk, memories, etc. Some Christian authors refer to this as our “thought life.” What happens within our thoughts is the basis for our actions and words.
Jesus spoke of what is within us: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”9 The Greek word translated here as heart means the soul or mind as the seat of the emotions, desires, appetites, and passions, as well as the will and character. As the saying goes, “The thought is the father of the deed.” Exercising self-control over our thoughts is central to living in a Christlike manner.
We often allow in our mind what we don’t allow in our actions; but in allowing such things in our thoughts, we risk them becoming actions. Having self-control in our thought life is a two-part process: one part is doing our best to avoid taking in what is ungodly, and the other is renewing our mind by thinking about the right things.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”10
Another aspect of self-control is keeping certain emotions in check. Anger, rage, resentment, self-pity, and bitterness are all examples of emotions which cause damage to ourselves and others. Anger manifested in outbursts of temper is harmful in two ways—it releases an ungoverned and ungodly passion and it wounds those who are the recipients of our anger.
People who are unable to control their anger often have a tendency to lash out at others. They are usually sorry for doing so after the fact, but anger can leave hurt and broken relationships in its wake that can’t be easily restored. Self-control may not keep you from getting angry, but it can keep you from lashing out at others and hurting them. “People with understanding control their anger.”11
Other emotions such as resentment, bitterness, and self-pity don’t necessarily harm others in the same way that anger does, but they are destructive to us and to our relationship with the Lord. They eat away at our spiritual lives and are destructive to our spiritual health. Controlling our emotions isn’t an easy thing to do, but when we look at these emotions within the template of living in Christlikeness, we can see that working to control them is vital.
Growing in Christlikeness means letting God’s Spirit have full sway in our lives, including our thought life. It calls for us to be surrendered to the Lord both in mind and body, to think right thoughts and to take right action.
The road to developing self-control starts with recognizing areas in our life where we lack it, and where if we had more self-control, we would live more closely in alignment with God’s Word. The next step is to bring the problem to the Lord in prayer, asking Him to change us. Then, we put feet to our prayers by practicing self-control—either by saying no to the things that we know we shouldn’t be doing or by saying yes to the things we know we should be doing.
The apostle Paul likened mastering self-control to training hard like an athlete:
“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”12
Developing self-discipline is a lifelong endeavor, a process in which we sometimes take two steps forward and one step back. It requires prayer, as we work to change areas that don’t align with God’s Word. But the more we take a stand against sin, the more our will is strengthened. The more we take action to do the things that are good, even if difficult at times, the more we will have the strength to keep doing them. Growth in self-control helps liberate us from the bondage of self-indulgence and empowers us to be more like Jesus.
Originally published June 2017. Adapted and republished October 2022.
Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.