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What is self-control?

As a new year dawns, self-examination and self-improvement are at the forefront of our collective minds. New Year’s resolutions of personal development stand again before the scrutiny of January’s first few weeks—an adversary well-versed at gobbling up even the best laid plans.

For many, the desires to grow spiritually or improve physically sit atop the post-Christmas wish list. Whatever the avenue of progress one chooses, most often, our promises and desires boil down to a single concept:

Self-control.

The apostle Paul lists self-control as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Gal. 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

The concept of self-control as a biblical virtue has always seemed strange to me. After all, wouldn’t the evidence of the Spirit’s work in our lives be Spirit-control—not self-control?

Self-Control sounds like one of many personal improvement ideologies whose books sit unread at Barnes and Noble alongside Self-Help and Self-Reliance. There is a reason concepts begin with “Self,” and it is usually because their goals are self-centered.

So what is Self-Control, and why is it a biblical virtue?

Self-control is not about controlling yourself

This statement seems counter-intuitive. By definition, isn’t self-control a descriptor of grabbing the reigns, lifting one’s bootstraps and putting one’s self in the driver’s seat? In order to control one’s self, doesn’t one’s self need to be in control?

Much of the wisdom of our age is centered on deciding what you want and going after it. Whether the focus is your dreams, your hopes or your ambitions, no one is going to simply give you your destiny, so you have to take control, follow your heart and make your destiny a reality. Right?  (Cue Disney song.)

The problem with following our hearts down our own paths is the Bible. Consider these verses about our hearts and their paths:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD” (Isa. 55:8).

These verses do not paint a picture of happy trees for our self and its efforts. In fact, in the book of Judges, the greatest indictment of depravity the author can give about how far God’s people have wandered from the path of righteousness is to simply say, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That is not a compliment.

Biblically, when we are in control of ourselves, things don’t go well. Self-control is not about controlling ourselves.

Self-control requires repentance

Control implies action. The very idea that something is to be controlled implies that thing is going to be moving. It is directional. It is assertive. It has a will.

Unfortunately for us, the Bible clearly states that our will is bent toward sin. No one drifts toward godliness. We do not sleepwalk on the path of righteousness. Rather, a big part of self-control is the identification and confession that our self is in the wrong.

Author Drew Dyck stated, “Biblical self-control is about keeping our loves in the right order. In a sense, we can only do what we love. When we succumb to sin, it’s because in that moment, we loved something else—pleasure, pride, comfort—more than God. We will always operate out of our loves.”

Because we have disordered hearts, we have disordered loves. Because we have disordered loves, we have misdirected selves. To be in the right, we must either steer ourselves away from what we think we love or change that love altogether. The issue is we don’t want to change our loves and left to ourselves; we don’t know where else to steer. This is why self-control requires repentance and necessitates the Spirit.

Self-control is less about taking the driver’s seat in our lives and more about turning it over to Someone else.

Self-control means getting out of the way

Biblical self-control is more like the modern idea of animal-control. It’s about recognizing when something does not belong somewhere or is out of healthy balance.

Like animal-control, biblical self-control is about removing things from areas where they are a harm to themselves or others and placing them in right order for the flourishing of all involved.

Ironically, for most of us, what has stepped out of its proper domain in ourselves is ourselves. We have allowed self to overrun its bounds, consume our resources and create an unhealthy spiritual, physical and emotional environment. If we are to glorify God and see good for ourselves, we must get ourselves out of the way.

Our self must be controlled.

Biblically, the more self-control we have, the more control the Spirit has over us. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit because it does not come naturally to us. It requires the works only God can do in us of confession, repentance and rebirth. We must get out of the way.

If your desire is to exercise more self-control in this new year, may I make one humble suggestion:

Spend less time considering how to take control, and spend more time praying about how to give it up.

Author: Ryan Smith

Ryan is associate pastor at Eagle Heights Baptist Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He is the author of Not That God.

View more articles by Ryan Smith.

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