How to pursue self-control (without being a legalist)
To have self-control is to fight temptation and put sin to death. Not just one day, every day. Not just one hour, every hour.
I grew up in the shadow of Nike (the shoe company, not the Greek goddess). The first church I attended sat next to the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. I played high school tennis with the son of Nike’s founder, Phil Knight. To top it all off, my college dorm stood across the street from Hayward Field, where Knight and his track coach, Bill Bowerman, famously tried out the first pair of Nike running shoes with soles formed in a waffle iron. In 1988, when Nike unleashed the “Just Do It” campaign, I was all in. If you work hard enough and put in the time, you can do anything—or so I thought.
Experience soon taught me life is more than blood, sweat, and tears. All the training in the world isn’t going to make my 5’9” body a starter on the college basketball team. It doesn’t matter how many all-nighters I pulled, God didn’t design my brain to master quantitative macroeconomics. Just ask Professor Ellis who memorably wrote on my first assignment, “If this work is evidence of your ability, I highly doubt you will be able to pass this class.” Ouch.
As Christians, we wrestle with this same tension. On one hand, there is work to do. We must exercise self-control. On the other hand, it’s a work we cannot do. Try as we may, it doesn’t matter how tall or strong or fast or smart we are, in our flesh we simply lack the self-control required to walk in a manner worthy our calling (Eph. 4:1).
But there is hope. Thankfully, even when the flesh is weak, self-control remains a potent piece of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
What is self-control?
Self-control, simply put, is the ability to look at a piece of chocolate cake, and not eat it; to accidentally click on an explicit link, and immediately close the window; to hear a tidbit of salacious gossip, and end the conversation. When the seductress woos the self-controlled young man, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh” (Prov. 7:17), he flies away like Joseph (Gen. 39:12). Self-control is the rejection of temptation and the refusal to give indwelling sin the upper hand.
We can’t dismiss self-control, even if some wrongly boil down Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. When Paul, while on trial, shared the gospel with Felix, “he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). Resisting temptation is not the gospel, but it is a mark of all who have come to truly embrace it. Paul later insisted Christians will sometimes give up what they are free to enjoy if it means winning others to Christ. Such benevolence requires self-control (see 1 Cor. 9:25). Peter agreed. True believers have more than head knowledge. They are marked by self-control, which flows from the faith God gave them (2 Pet. 1:5–6).
It should be no surprise Paul ends his list of the fruit of the Spirit with self-control. After noting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness, Paul wants us to get to work. Whatever is keeping us from loving others or being gentle must be put to death. But the desires of the flesh won’t go down without a fight. Walking in love and joy won’t be easy. We need self-control. Paul put it this way, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The presence of self-control proves it.
The Fight for Self-Control
The fruit of the Spirit in your life will not come without a fight. There’s a reason Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The Christian life is hard. There is no easy path, no broad entrance. We will find ourselves at war with sin, bloodied and bruised, before the last battle is won and the tears are gone (Rev. 21:4).
When they came up with the slogan, “Just Do It,” Nike’s ad executives tapped into a truth viscerally known by even pagan minds: nothing worth having comes without a cost. This is true for Olympic runners, Nobel laureates, outstanding fathers, and ordinary Christians. Kevin DeYoung noted how “growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian.” ((Kevin DeYoung, The Hole In Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 88.)) The old Puritan, Thomas Watson, used violent language to make the same point when he charged believers to “spill the heart blood of every sin.” ((Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 1992), 153.))
I’m not the first to say we’re prone to give into temptation before the fight really begins. We slide into sin, without ever taking out our sword and going for sin’s throat. We rationalize, “I’m just looking.” We make excuses, “I didn’t start the conversation.” We presume upon God’s grace, “I know he’ll forgive me, he’s God after all.”
A few years ago, a young man sat in my office and shared his testimony. He was unaccustomed to talking about his faith. I probed into his life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). I wanted to know not only what he believed, but how these beliefs shaped the way he lived. He talked about his dating relationship and quickly admitted to going too far. He showed no remorse, and when I asked him how he made sense of his actions and the biblical call to purity, he smiled and said, “Jesus understands—he knew how hard it is to be single.”
It’s easy for me to roll my eyes, even as I type out that memory. This man was immature; he may not even have been a Christian! And yet, sadly, I know what it’s like to presume upon God’s grace. To let my eyes and thoughts wander into places that defile the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4). To let my mouth run off, unconcerned about the fire I’m lighting (James 3:6). To let my ears gulp down gossip, with no love for the brother or sister being dissected by critical words. In each instance, I’ve taken the path of least resistance and presumed upon God’s grace. Instead of attempting to “spill the heart blood of every sin,” I’ve drunk it down.
To have self-control is to fight temptation and put sin to death. Not just one day, every day. Not just one hour, every hour.
The Fruit of Self-Control
It’s good to remember the fight for self-control. I must fight more. But the fight isn’t the whole story. Self-control is both a call to action and a gift to be received. Self-control is a piece of the fruit of the Spirit. Until this fact is understood, and understood deeply, we’ll never go to God for help. We’ll never live with the confidence he’ll provide.
At the dawn of the Reformation, Martin Luther preached a sermon about the righteousness of Christ. He called it an alien righteousness because it doesn’t naturally belong to the Christian. It is Christ’s righteousness. It belongs to him. Grace means this righteousness can be ours, through faith in Christ alone. “All that he has becomes ours,” Luther said, and not only that, “he himself becomes ours.” ((Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 87. From a sermon preached c. 1519.)) Through faith, Christ gives us himself. And with himself, he gives us the power to defeat sin in our lives.
It is through this theological lens that Luther understood the fruit of the Spirit. It is only because of Christ’s righteousness, credited to our account, that we can “spend a life profitably in good works . . . slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self.” ((Ibid., 88.))
In short, do you want self-control? Look to Christ. Trust in his death and resurrection. The self-control we practice—sometimes all-too painfully and poorly—is actually “the fruit and consequence” of Christ’s work on our behalf.
This is good news. Self-control is a gift and a promise to each of God’s children. God does more than command us to obey; he equips us. He does more than point us in the direction we have to walk; he carries us. God does more than give us his Word to guide us; he fills us with his Spirit and leads us.
I know my own soul, and one of the reasons I sometimes give into temptation before the fight really begins is because I fail to remember the power of the Spirit in my life. Self-control seems like a mountain too tall for me to ever scale, until I remember Christ already climbed it, for me. Holiness seems like a room too sterile to enter, until I remember Christ already died, for me, to cleanse me from my sin.
Self Control is Possible
I learned long ago that “Just Do It” may be a great slogan for the world’s largest manufacturer of sportswear, but it’s a horrible motto for the Christian life. Still, it’s a lesson I need to remind myself of daily. I didn’t begin the Christian life on my own effort, and I certainly can’t walk in the Spirit by the power of my own steam. Self-control isn’t the product of true grit; it’s a piece of the fruit of the Spirit.
I can no more exercise self-control on my own, than I can repent on my own. Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers put it well:
Have you ever tried to repent? If so, if you tried without the Spirit of God, you know that to urge a man to repent without the promise of the Spirit to help him, is to urge him to do an impossibility. A rock might as soon weep, and a desert might as soon blossom, as a sinner repent of his own accord. If God should offer heaven to man, simply upon the terms of repentance of sin, heaven would be as impossible as it is by good works; for a man can no more repent of himself, than he can perfectly keep God’s law; for repentance involves the very principle of perfect obedience to the law of God. It seems to me that in repentance there is the whole law solidified and condensed; and if a man can repent of himself then there is no need of a Savior. He may as well go up to heaven up the steep sides of Sinai at once. ((C. H. Spurgeon, “The Necessity of the Spirit’s Work” in The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. V (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1859), 215.))
Now, re-read Spurgeon’s words but replace “repent” with “be self-controlled.” The point is the same. Without the Spirit of God we can’t do it. Self-control is required; it’s a must. But only those with the Spirit can be self-controlled.
Do you want to see the fruit of the Spirit manifest in your life? Do you want to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness? I know I do! How can we grow in this way? How can we have more self-control?
Remember the cross. When the sins of hatred and anxiety, harshness and impatience rear their ugly heads, we have to be willing to pull out the sword and “spill the heart blood of every sin.” We can only do this if we recall that Christ purposefully spilt his own blood so we could die to sin and live to righteousness. Without a mind fixed on the cross, your self-control will be little more than self-help, and it won’t last.
Embrace the fight. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a life marked by self-control—or any of the other pieces of the fruit of the Spirit—will be easy. It won’t be. There are just too many passages reminding us the Christian life is a painful battle (see Rom. 8:13, Col. 3:5, and 1 Cor. 9:24–25, to name just a few).
Bring the fiercest battle into the light. Though it’s true all our temptations are common (1 Cor. 10:13), it’s also true that each of us has unique struggles. Some battle gluttony, others gossip. Some battle with pornography, others with video games. Where is the battle for self-control waged most vigorously in your life? This is what you need to share with a godly friend you trust. Bring it into the light and you’ll find brothers and sisters going to battle with you and for you.
Plead with the Spirit. You need God’s help to hate your sin, to mourn its presence in your life, to repent of its grip in your life, and to equip you to live without it. This is a prayer God is sure to answer. Pray forcefully (Luke 18:1–8). Pray confidently (Rom. 8:32). Pray daily (Luke 5:16). If self-control is lacking in your life, could it be because prayer is lacking? “Watch and pray,” Jesus said, “that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).
Of all the pieces of the fruit of the Spirit, this is the one I want to focus on most. Not because it is most important—each is equally important. In fact, they all go together, like a beautiful patchwork quilt. And yet, self-control is the thread tying them all together. Show me a Christian overflowing with self-control, and I’ll see someone full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.
Pastors Need Self-Control
Preaching about self-control is so much easier than exercising it. Brother pastors, let’s not forget each of us is in desperate need of holiness, and not just because we need to be good examples for the flock (Luke 6:40), but because without holiness we won’t see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). The moment we care more about our reputation than our soul, we’ve lost the battle and are on our way to losing the war.
God is invincible, but I’m not (1 Cor. 10:12). I can still fall and make a shipwreck of my faith (1 Tim. 1:19). I know the Holy Spirit is within me, and I rest in the fact that with God’s help I’m strong. But resting in this truth doesn’t lead me to fight less; it prods me to fight more.
For this reason, I’m committed to being an open book with all of the elders with whom I serve. But a willingness to be open when asked is not enough—at least not for me. Therefore, I take the initiative to confess my sins to one elder in particular. He’s neither my priest nor my mediator; he grants no pardons for sin. Still, I know how pastors are uniquely tempted to hide. I often want people to think I never lack self-control. That’s a dangerous desire, and it’s one I kill by making myself share with a brother I respect, a man who will help me stay attune to any signs of “an evil, unbelieving heart” (Heb. 3:12).
Pastors, don’t let a meditation on the fruit of the Spirit excuse you frm the hard work of rooting out the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:18). Do it for the sake of your family and your congregation. But, ultimately, pursue holiness for the sake of your own soul.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.