Self-control is the master virtue. With self-control, all the other virtues fall into place. Without it, your best efforts quickly tumble down like a Jenga tower. The ancient philosophers all understood the power of self-control:
“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” Seneca, Moral Epistles
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“…control your mind, for unless it obeys, it commands you.” Horace , Odes
The tricky thing is that the practice of self-control takes willpower, which is a finite resource. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being on a diet and exercising self-control all through the day, only to break down at night, bingeing on whatever is in the refrigerator. That’s because you used up all your willpower earlier in the day and by nighttime, your defenses are down.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney tease this truth out in their book Willpower. They suggest that all decision making draws from the same resource in the brain. When you are over-taxed with many decisions, you become “ego depleted” and weakened to temptation.
Baumeister and Tierney say that you can grow your willpower by exercising it. Reviewing several studies, they show that people who consistently practice willpower in the small things develop greater willpower resources to exercise in other areas of their lives. Exercising simple habits – like making your bed everyday or flossing every night – are like a weightlifting regimen for your willpower.
If you want to focus on building willpower through these kind of small practices, I commend to you Caroline Arnold’s book Small Move, Big Change. She lays out a strategy for identifying small practices (that she calls micro-habits) which will produce exponential results. For instance, if you want to start working out first thing in the morning, but your just can’t get the willpower going, Arnold might suggest developing the micro habit of laying out your workout clothes beside your bed each night before you go to sleep. Whether or not you get up the next day and work out, the practice of developing that much easier micro habit will build within you the fortitude so that one day you will get up, get dressed, and head to the gym.
The Bible gives us additional resources for developing our willpower. Self-control, after all, is a fruit of the spirit. We should expect that God will give us strength and power to grow in this area. While the Bible is chock full of encouraging verses on this, let’s just take a look at one small passage: Romans 12:1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Nestled in these 2 little verses are mighty truths that will multiply your efforts at self-control:
1) The Power of Self Control
We’re urged to self control, yes. But we are offered this exhortation “in view of God’s mercy.”
Mercy. God has taken pity on us, poor struggling creatures that we are. In God’s mercy, He gives grace that saves us. And He gives grace that strengthens us and makes us able to pursue His will. He even gives us grace to change our hearts so that we desire to pursue Him.
Isn’t that amazing to consider. In the moment of trial and weakness, we are not alone. When we fail, we are not abandoned. When we stumble, we are not rejected. God’s mercy in Christ means that we can pick right up and keep trying. Just like when you were learning the bicycle and kept falling. Your father (or mother or other teacher) encouraged you to get right on and try again.
The power of self-control is not our power. It is the power of Christ in us, unleashed by the Holy Spirit. When our willpower is depleted, God offers vast reservoirs of spiritual power for us to draw upon.
If we could acknowledge that God loves to empower, then we would accomplish more than we dared dream.
2) The Purpose of Self-Control
Self-help gurus will tell you that you have to craft meaning for yourself. You have to identify your purpose, your goal, your dream, and chase after it.
Blessedly, we understand our higher purpose, our compelling “why.” We are to “offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice …. This is [our] true and proper worship.” The 17th century theologians of the Westminster Assembly put it this way “[Humanity’s] chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Now, for some, this is not a compelling purpose. Some feel quite cold at that prospect. That’s a terrible shame. God’s not going to lend His power to those who reject His purposes. What will God do if that’s you? Will he press the “smite” button and send down hail and lightning?
No. He’ll simply leave you to your own devices.
Let me ask. How’s it working for you on your own?
Yet when we yearn to know God, we begin to perceive His glory humming throughout all creation. As we grow in our perception of that glory, we begin to bend our desires and our actions to advancing His glory. Soon, we begin to see that our jobs, our hobbies, our relationships, and pretty much everything we do are venues in which we glorify God. And as that inner growth happens, what once seemed to us as drudgery transforms into delight.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23-24)
When we embrace God’s purposes, self-control becomes possible and self-sacrifice becomes joy.
3) The Pressure-point of Self-Control
When we have confidence in God’s power and joy from God’s purposes, we then turn our will to the actual doing – the practice of self control. Where do we get leverage in our lives?
Scripture shows us that it is our thoughts, our minds: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”
How do we transform our minds?
First, become aware of our thoughts. Sit still for fifteen minutes and just pay attention to the inner monologue. I call it the “inner Twitter stream.” You’ll quickly find that, unless you’ve taken the time to discipline your mind, it will be bouncing all over the place. You may even find a number of unpleasant emotions or thoughts. This may even be very upsetting to you. I refer you back to point 1. Remember the mercy of God expressed in Jesus Christ.
Second, displace unhelpful thoughts with good thoughts. Fill your mind with scripture and meditate on it. Seek out truth, beauty and goodness wherever you can and fill your mind with it.
“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Third, spend time in prayer. Remember that God is personal. Christ lives and listens and responds. If you are stuck trying to transform your minds, speak with Christ about it. You will find that help comes, often in unexpected ways.
When you control your thoughts, you can chase God’s purpose without distraction.
I hope this has been helpful. If so, then please sign up for the Horizons of the Possible newsletter – you’ll get a regular dose of inspiration and encouragement in your inbox.
Finally, carry on the conversation in the comments below: what do you do to grow and develop self-control in your life?
Soli Deo Gloria