A Lost-Virtue: Self-Control
There is a common saying in the English-speaking countries you may heard — or said: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Maybe one [or both] of your parents told you this at some point in your teenage years; maybe you have said it to your children, too. The point is, we may have a legal right or even the physical, emotional, intellectual, or mental ability to do something, but it would not necessarily be wise to do so. For example, that brand-spanking-new car you just bought was advertised as capable of hitting 60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds and reaching a top speed of 200 miles per hour, but would that be a wise thing to attempt on a city street?
When I was a bit younger and a whole lot more foolish [I’ll just say ‘not as wise’], I am sure there are things I thought about or even did that fell into that category, and only learned the lesson after the fact. Fortunately, I did take that advice more times than not because I have this aversion to pain and broken bones. Back then, I just called it common sense — something Will Rogers noted about a hundred years ago, “is not so common these days.” The truth is, self-control is what seems to be lacking nowadays, and that’s not a good thing.
Self-control seems to not only be less common, but it also seems to now even be disdained and often ridiculed. “Why should I?” seems to be the response of many today when asked to restrain themselves. It appears that our emphasis in this country on ‘individual rights’ has caused many to completely disregard their example to others, social propriety, common sense, and decency — or even the laws of the land. Many today seem adamant about their ‘right’ to do whatever they want, with no regard to propriety or consequences, and it is reflected in various aspects of society, but most obvious in society’s moral decline.
But more than just a wise thing to do, self-control is something God demands of us as disciples of Jesus Christ and, in reality, of all people — whether they like it or not and whether they accept that or not. Let us see what God’s word has said on the matter, shall we?
A Fruit of the Spirit. The apostle Paul listed the “fruit of the Spirit” as “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” concluding, “Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22, 23). The “fruit of the Spirit” simply means those attributes that will be produced in the ones who are “led by the Spirit” as opposed to those who are led and driven by their fleshly lusts (Gal. 5:18-21). As you may note, “self-control” is last on the list, but that by no means implies lesser importance. In fact, self-control is fairly important!
To be led by the Spirit requires that we know what the Spirit teaches, else we are merely going by our own opinion and “think so.” The apostle Paul noted that the things he had spoken to the Corinthians were not “words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13). Those things the Spirit revealed to him and they were spoken to the early disciples and now written down for all men today (cf. Eph. 3:1-6), and he reminded the brethren of the first century they should “acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). They are still the commandments of the Lord and still must be kept. When we are following those words, only then can we say we are “led by the Spirit” and will know when we must exercise self-control to avoid sin.
The Means to Avoiding Sin. Self-control is quite often the last step in avoiding or refraining from sin. It is the one who is led by the instruction and guidance of the Spirit who knows a potential action is sin and, knowing this, will exercise self-control because he or she knows it is an offense against God. I believe this was the very thing demonstrated by Joseph when tempted by Potiphar’s wife, as he replied to her attempt by stating, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Though it might have been tempting to just give in to the lusts of the flesh, Joseph exercised a great measure of self-control and avoided sin by denying the temptation.
As James noted, “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas. 1:14); that being true, then it only follows that when we do not practice self-control that we will give in to those desires and, as James goes on to write, “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas. 1:15). Self-control is important in avoiding sin!
The Stronger Man. Even if we ignore, for a moment, the fact self-control will help us to avoid sin, we also see it that it will just keep us out of a lot of trouble. As a warning against the lack of self-control, the wise writer tells us, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” (Prov. 25:28). On the flip side, he gives us an illustration to show the reality of one who does exercise self-control: “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32). Let us consider both the danger of a lack of self-control and the benefits of the one who practices it as a regular way of life.
First: The danger of a lack of self-control. As the wise writer noted, the one without self-control “is like a city broken down, without walls.” In our modern world, we may not fully comprehend this picture, but in the time of this proverb’s writing, cities depended on solid, sound walls as their last line of defense against invading armies or marauding troublemakers. Matthew Henry comments on this proverb: “All that is good goes out, and forsakes him; all that is evil breaks in upon him. He lies exposed to all the temptations of Satan and becomes an easy prey to that enemy; he is also liable to many troubles and vexations.” Well said! When we do not exercise self-control, our spiritual adversary will exploit that opening and launch attack after attack, knowing that man is vulnerable and defenseless — an ‘easy target,’ so to speak.
The power. On the other hand, the wise writer tells us the one who does exercise self-control “is better…than he who takes a city.” While the critics of religion and Christianity, in particular, denigrate believers and call them ‘weak-minded’ and religion itself as ‘a crutch,’ who really is the weaker one here, and who is the stronger one? While the world would want us to think the believers, and particularly those who are “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts” [exercising self-control] so they might “live soberly, righteously, and godly” (Titus 2:12) are weak, the reality is that these are the strong ones because they are constantly striving to deny one’s personal desires so they might live a godly life, pleasing to God. The one who never [or seldom] exercises self-control shows no strength at all because he simply gives in to his desires and is, in fact, a slave to those desires. Jesus Himself noted, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). It should go without saying, then, that the one who never resists those desires that lead to sin is not the stronger one, for he is enslaved to those desires while the one who exercises self-control is freed from it.
This lost virtue need not be lost forever. Now is the time to start. — Steven Harper