What is Self-Control?
- English word origin: Old English self (one's own person); + "control" < Late Latin contrarotulare < Latin contra- (against) + rotulus (registry, list, manifest, roll) < Latin rota (wheel). The idea was to keep control over the theft or loss of goods on a manifest, or of listing errors, by comparing it with a second listing.
- Definition: Controlling yourself means the ability to direct one's own behavior and harness one's energies, to assert power over or management of one's own actions, or over one's desires, lusts, thoughts, emotions, and feelings by way of one's determination or will. It's the ability to tell yourself "no" and make it stick.
- Greek word in Galatians 5:23 : egkrateia, which means having command or mastery over (Greek krat- as in "autocrat"), or possession of, one's own behavior (Greek eg-, akin to English "I", German "ich", and the psychological term "ego"). In older English Bible translations, it was often translated as 'temperance', which is more about moderation than control. 'Temperance' is no longer used for egkrateia because today 'temperance' usually means "sobriety, abstaining from alcoholic beverage". That form of "temperance" more accurately translates forms of the Greek nephalios.
Forms of egkrateia are used in :
- 1 Corinthians 7:9
- Titus 1:8
- a negative form means 'lack of control' in 2 Timothy and in 1 Corinthians. (The King James Version translates the negative here as "incontinence", which has come to mean, er... a very specific kind of self-control in the English of today.) It's also used with a negative in Matthew 23:25, often translated as "self-indulgent".
In Proverbs 16:32 and 25:28, ruling over one's own passions is harder than conquering a walled fortress city. Successful siege of a walled city is a difficult task; think of the long sieges by those who sought to conquer Jerusalem. If you can't control yourself, you'd be like the city after its walls are destroyed. You'd be defenseless, unable to restrain your anger or bridle your rash emotions.
In James' letter, he describes what happens when there is no ability to concentrate or make a clear decision (which are acts of self-control) : it's like a wave on a stormy sea.
Self-control or Self-Mastery
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul notes the discipline it takes to compete in sports. Discipline is a way of developing self-control. Other aspects of what passes for 'normal life' get left behind in the focused, determined pursuit of a worthy goal. The same idea is found in the shedding of weight in Hebrews 12:1. So it is also with spiritual discipline. By doing certain practices like daily prayer in a regular, disciplined manner, you exercise the inner "muscles" of self-control. It become easier to tell yourself "no", easier to maintain focus and keep your eyes on the prize.
Nowadays, "self-control" is belittled as "inhibition", which is treated as something we all must "free" ourselves from. Or, at least, that's what TV and music and advertisements keep telling us. And there's a truth in it, in that it isn't good to choke yourself off from the experiences of life. There's a place for what's new and fun and different and daring, for that too is how you grow. But the biblical idea here is about mastery. Who is in command? What is the aim? If you are set on the course of following Christ, then there are some things in life (even good things) which will take you off course. The unimportant can seem important; what you enjoy can become addicting or enslaving. You do something "because it's there". It's as if your heart is drawn to another lover, which can turn into betrayal of the One who loves you. It's like being in a noisy barroom: the Spirit keeps calling to you, but unless you're focused on listening, the voice gets lost among the other noises. Self-control allows you to home in on the voice.
Self-Control Over Zeal
Another part of the picture is mastery over your religious passions. In this era, we've become much more aware of what happens when our beliefs stop drawing us to God and start becoming our god. Everyone knows all too well the violence and terror and hatred caused by this form of idolatry. It's in the news every day. But for Christians, a Christian belief system is a means to ends, the ends being a relationship with our Maker and the completion of our Maker's purposes. It's an outworking of God's love and God's truth, not an engine for our hatred and our lies. If we love the path, it's because of Who it leads to, more than it is the path itself. So it is especially important that our religious passions have to be brought under command.
Do and Not Do
Self-control is not just about not doing, it is also about doing. When a situation develops, take a good look at it. Figure out what needs to be done, when, and how. Then, take action accordingly. Both "jumping the gun" and procrastination are signs of a lack of self-control. Where there is no self-control, there is no timing.
One tool for self-control that I find helpful is, strangely enough, talking to myself just loud enough for me to hear it. This is especially good as I go through the steps of a task. Some spiritual practices act in that way: they remind you of what you need to do to get to the goal, so you can keep focused.
Self-Control and Discipline
Self-control is grown by practice. But this practice isn't just about the parts of life that have gotten out of whack. It's about everything else in life. For instance, it's not just about weight and eating, it's about cleanliness, temper, carelessness, and study habits as well. To use a postmodern buzzword, self-control must be seen holistically. If you work on overall discipline, it will start to build up your weakest areas, just as your weaknesses will eventually affect your strongest. However, this discipline-building takes time, it can't be done quickly or lazily. Our self-control is usually weakest right after we've had to give it heavy use; it's pooped out. On this matter, brain research and personal testimonies about temptation both agree.
Self-Control Through Others
There are many paradoxes about self-control, but a key one is that even though it is about you, it's best practiced with others. That is, self-control works best when you have people in your life who will hold you accountable for your actions. It can be different people for different actions, and one person or a small group for the overall picture. Each of us behaves differently when we know someone else is paying attention. We're more aware of the consequences of our actions. Also, someone else can alert us to when our self-control is at its worst, since that's when we're least likely to think of it.
Command your way to the Top
"No one is free who cannot command himself."
"No conflict is so severe as his who labors to subdue himself."
Thomas a Kempis