By Tammy Darling
A quick look at our society leads me to wonder, where is self-control? And why, among Christians, is this fruit of the Spirit so neglected? Where is the zealous pursuit, the burning desire to restrain our flesh and govern our impulses?
The Bible draws a stark contrast between not having self-control and the priceless value of possessing it. “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). In other words, that person is defenseless and doomed to defeat. Now who would willingly choose such a fate? We do, every time we don’t exercise self-control.
Our feelings are at times quite fickle. We can be crying one minute and five minutes later be laughing. We can go to bed feeling one way and wake up feeling another way—and not even know why. Feelings are unstable, erratic, unreliable, and changeable. And because they are, we cannot trust them. What we need is to learn to live beyond our feelings and to grow in self-control.
When our emotions are stirred up, our minds can become deceived. We may make poor judgments and bad decisions. We may lash out at others and say things we’ll come to regret. But the good news is that we can grow in self-control as we choose to do what’s right, even if the feelings aren’t there. I can feel like slapping someone upside the head, but that doesn’t mean I have to surrender to that feeling. Self-control enables me to choose to do the right thing. Self-control is choosing now what you’ll be happy with later.
Jesus didn’t act on pure emotion. Jesus did what he did according to what he knew to be right—according to his Father’s will. Jesus knew it wasn’t about him but about bringing glory to the Father.
Following our feelings will cause us to make commitments we don’t want to keep, to say things we don’t want to say, and to buy things we will regret later. Following feelings leads to hopelessness. People give up every day because they simply don’t feel like going on.
Amazingly only two people from the original group of Israelites made it to the promised land. The rest had followed their feelings and spent 40 years whining and complaining based on those feelings. Instead of controlling their emotions, they let their emotions control them.
Always remember that feelings are indicators, not dictators. Our feelings indicate that there is a problem to address, but they should never dictate how we react to a situation.
If I have a tendency (and I do) to get fearful and angry every time my husband drives too fast for my liking, I can react to those feelings revealing my lack of self-control or I can see those feelings as a deeper call to action.
Because I once rolled a van over on a wet road, I know that I will sometimes experience strong feelings when someone is driving. Instead of allowing those feelings to reign, I am practicing ways to keep them in check. Keeping my mind focused on God and not my immediate circumstances helps, as does quoting Scripture and praying. As I work to put systems in place to better handle my emotions, I am developing self-control.
Without the Holy Spirit’s help, self-control is an elusive dream. Feelings are powerful and God-given. Therefore we will never be able to manage them on our own. We must rely on the Helper whom Christ has provided for us.
Sometimes all it takes to exercise a little self-control is a simple pause. This is especially true when it comes to the power of the tongue. That little pause, a moment to breathe deeply and count to 10, may make the difference between a yell and a kind word, between a blessing and a curse.
Pausing helps us remember that God gave us emotions to experience life—not destroy it. Pausing brings perspective and time to seek the Spirit. Is the fact that your child just spilled milk on the floor for the second time today really that catastrophic? Really?
Pause . . . and grow in self-control.
Act, Then Feel
It is much easier to act your way into a feeling than to feel your way into an action. If you wait until you feel like it, meaningful change may be delayed indefinitely. But if you change your attitude—not because you feel like it but because you know it’s the right thing to do—your feelings will follow.
I don’t often feel like eating healthy. I’m super busy, and sometimes processed convenience foods are easier. But I also know that eating healthy is the right thing to do to care for my “temple” (see 1 Corinthians 6:19).
Self-control means that I purposefully choose the right path no matter what my feelings say. When I choose celery with peanut butter over potato chips, my feelings catch up with that action. My taste buds thank me for choosing flavor and texture, and I am reminded how good healthy foods really are. My resolve to eat well is strengthened because I chose to act first so my feelings would follow.
Too Much of a Good Thing
We need self-control to avoid outright evil, but also to refrain from indulging in too many of the good things in life. Proverbs 25:16 cautions: “If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit.”
My husband loves food. He’s one of those people who can eat the equivalent a horse eats and not gain a pound. But does that mean that he should? I believe not. Gluttony is not looked well upon in the Bible (see Proverbs 23:2, 20, 21; 28:7).
Even with the good things in life, we often lack the self-restraint to stop when we should. For me it’s shopping (OK, and potato chips). For my husband, it’s food of any kind. For you, it may be social media or television viewing. The point is that we must also be aware of the “good” areas in our lives where we may need to exercise self-control.
Growing in self-control requires that we learn to manage our emotions instead of allowing them to manage us. Thankfully we are not left alone to deal with our feelings. So that we are not emotionally driven, we must utilize the power of God and walk in the Spirit, not the flesh. We can faithfully apply biblical principles when dealing with everyday situations and circumstances that test our self-control.
The time to think about self-control isn’t in the heat of the moment. Think about the direction you want your life to take before circumstances trigger feelings that threaten to overwhelm, causing you to act like an ogre.
We have the power within to resist and say no, but the fact remains that we still have a choice to make. And sometimes that choice is really, really hard. But it’s not impossible. Choose wisely and you’ll grow in self-control.
Tammy Darling is a freelance writer in Three Springs, Pennsylvania.
Help Kids Learn About Self-Control
The Case of the Lost Temper: A Lesson in Self-Control
Veggie Tales (Big Idea) Series
by Doug Peterson; illustrated by John Trent and Greg Hardin
Think Before You Act: Learning about Self-Discipline and Self-Control
Character Builders Reader Series
by Regina Burch
(Creative Teaching Press, 2002)