Self control: Can we master ourselves?

Self-discipline is more than pumping the brakes

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“Put on your brakes!”  I remember saying those words to my young son years ago. A lot. He needed no encouragement to take risks, speak his mind or run at breakneck speed through the crowded church lobby. On the other hand, I felt compelled to regularly remind him to use self-control, to slow down, to limit his potential negative impact on others and himself. It didn’t seem to come naturally for him. My mother was too quick, I think, to inform me that my son’s condition was genetic.

That’s the strange thing about self-control. It assumes by definition that control is inherent in us; that we can take control of ourselves. If that’s true, then why is it listed among the fruits of the Spirit? If self-control is needed by followers of Christ, then it seems the only thing God can do is to tell us to “put on your brakes!” and hope for the best from us. Is there more to self-control than what our selves can control?

A gift

Part of the answer is revealed in 2 Timothy 1:7. ”For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”

The word translated “self-discipline” (“self-control” in ESV and other translations) in this letter to young Timothy is sophronismos, which refers to a sound mind. Paul seems to suggest here that, in giving Timothy his Spirit, God has placed within him a mechanism for regulating his behavior toward accomplishing God’s purposes. A sound mind is one of the tools God has given Timothy to “fan into flame” his gift in order to join Paul in enduring suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

Our natural regulator is timidity, which moderates our behavior out of fearfulness. In contrast, what God’s Spirit gives is something productive, like the diaphragm in our bodies. The diaphragm is present to regulate our breathing so we can make speech or enhance and sustain speech through singing. Here, God gives Timothy a sound mind for the purpose of sustaining Timothy’s calling through persecution. God equips Timothy as he equips us with what is needed to be fruitful for his purposes.

To the Galatian Christians, Paul uses a different word to describe a similar gift of God’s Spirit, the spiritual fruit of self-control (egkrateia). This word means “inner mastery,” to have dominion over those things that are within us. God gives Adam and Eve dominion over every living thing on the earth. But over those things within us like our tongue (see James 3), we seem to lack what is needed to moderate our own sinful tendencies. We can do so much good as God’s image-bearers, but only so much. We need the presence of God’s Spirit within us to master our inner world.

Putting the gift to use

Peter writes in his second letter that through his divine power God has given Jesus’ followers everything they need for a godly life (2 Peter 1:3). Peter must have celebrated such a gift, having made a reputation for himself as arguably the least self-controlled disciple among the 12. But Peter makes no assumption that just because God gives Jesus’ followers what they need for godliness that they will activate those gifts.

“Make every effort,” Peter urges his readers, “to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control… For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

For self-control Peter uses the same word Paul writes to the Galatians: “inner mastery.” The gift is present in Jesus’ followers by the power of God’s Spirit, but it needs to be activated in order to be effective. Peter may have known that better than most.

Making every effort

Growing up I had the opportunity to hear people put their diaphragms to use. My mother earned her masters degree in vocal performance and taught private voice lessons in our home. Young women, mostly, came in and out of our home on a weekly basis to develop their singing voices under Mom’s instruction and encouragement. I can still hear in my head the thin, shallow voices of first-time students. Some of them seemed to be imitating the breathy voices of popular musicians who relied on microphones and sound systems to be heard. Some were just timid.

I recall hearing my mother instruct, model and encourage them to strengthen their diaphragms in order to support and project their voices. There were breathing exercises and constant reminders about correct posture, relaxing the shoulders and arms and opening the throat. It was work. And it worked! Over time these same young women became accomplished singers, tackling long and complicated phrases and tunes with voices that could be heard all the way out to the swimming pool in the backyard.

Giving the Spirit control

As I reflect on my attempt to regulate my young son’s behavior all those years ago, I can see how I approached him from my fears about the potential negative impact he might have had on others or himself, while also fostering within him a fear of the punishment he might receive from me if he didn’t “put on his brakes.” Maybe that was acceptable parenting for a young rambunctious kid, but it didn’t fully recognize the gift of God’s Spirit within him or help him to connect with and develop that gift.

Functioning as a mechanism of God’s Spirit for accomplishing his purposes, self-control has to be more than “putting on your brakes.” It can also mean “stepping on the gas” in those times when God’s purposes require it. Timidity won’t do that. In order to praise the Lord as we’re called to, for instance, we must activate our self-control by raising our resistant hands to the Lord and shouting with a voice of triumph for his glory.

We must be prepared to run full speed away from temptations. And we must be able to sell everything to give to the poor when God prompts us to do so for his purposes. It helps to remember that self-control is really giving the Spirit control.

One way to develop a healthy Spirit-regulated self-control is to identify and turn away from fear-based moderation. Ask yourself if you’re “pumping the brakes” out of fear or out of a response to God’s leading. Are you focusing on the race God set before you or glancing to the side to gage the crowd’s approval?

Then ask God to remind you of his purposes for you. This will be a stronger motivator than fear to curb your appetite for what pleases you and help you to “step on the gas” toward behaviors that please God and accomplish his will. Godly accountability partners can help you discern these things.

There certainly is more to self-control than what our selves can control. Thank God he has given us his Holy Spirit to activate and guide our behaviors so we can accomplish his purposes for the praise of his glory.


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