What poses the biggest challenge to self-control in your life? Is it coming home tired after a long day at work to the sound of your teenagers bickering with each other? Or maybe needing to hold your tongue when a family member or coworker says things to push your buttons? Maybe it’s choosing to walk past the candy without buying anything, mustering the energy to stop at the gym on a consistent basis, or making godly choices when it comes to what you watch on TV or the computer. No matter what types of scenarios pose the biggest barrier, we all wrestle with Paul’s command to “live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12).
Why is it so hard for us to exercise self-control? The difficulty lies in the fact that we still have a sinful nature that wants to do what it wants to do, regardless of what God says is good and healthy for us. We all have an inner “I don’t want to!” (or “I do want to!”) that we have to constantly battle against. We also have default reactions to situations based on our personalities, family upbringing, or past experiences. Many of those defaults are not the healthy, godly choices that self-control requires. We desperately need God’s grace to overcome and follow his ways.
Controlling Our Words
What aspects of our “self” are we told to control? Our tongue and the words we say are among the first to come to mind for me. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body” (James 3:6). I wholeheartedly agree with King David who asked God, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). In my relationship with my husband, especially, many of my ungodly default reactions rear their ugly heads and cause friction. I usually find that if I can just identify them quickly enough, I can pray and change my reaction before the words come out of my mouth. I’m sure that’s why James says we should be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). More often than not, I speak first and regret it later.
Controlling Our Bodies
Another challenging area of self-control is in what we eat and how we treat our bodies. Whether being overweight is something you struggle with or not, it’s easy for food or other substances to have a mastery over us that God never intended. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The ancient heresy of Gnosticism taught that matter and material things (like our bodies) are evil and only spiritual things are good. As Christians, we would denounce this as incorrect, but sometimes I wonder if subtle pieces of this philosophy have crept into our thinking. Do we believe that keeping a healthy body weight doesn’t matter because God only looks at our hearts? Or that it doesn’t matter how healthy we are as long as we are behaving in a godly manner toward others? I find this idea nowhere in Scripture.
Our bodies are the vessels God has given us with which to serve him and others. He has established parameters in which those bodies function best. A healthy weight, regular exercise, healthy blood sugar, and no addictions to harmful substances are all things our bodies need to function well. When our bodies aren’t working right it affects our energy with which we serve him. It also affects our emotional state and ultimately the longevity of our lives. Of course, there are situations where we don’t have control over our health for a variety of reasons. But in whatever ways we are able, we must exhibit self-control in what we eat and how we take care of ourselves. I’ve heard Christians say that going to the gym is prideful and self-absorbed. If you are working out to stay healthy and to live longer for your loved ones and for God’s service, it’s a very God-honoring activity that shows self-control and discipline.
Controlling Our Thoughts
Showing self-control in our thought life is an area that many may not consider. What we think about has a profound impact on how we feel and even what we believe. The enemy frequently uses our thoughts against us to convince us that we’re failures, unworthy, or unforgiven. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.”
I find that I go through periods when my thoughts are very far from being lovely, admirable, or true. I get caught up in thought patterns that denigrate my worth to God and to others, thoughts that attack my marriage, or thoughts of resentment or fear. The hard part for me is to first recognize that I’m thinking things that aren’t in line with God’s Word. Thoughts have a way of sneaking in and presenting themselves. They take my hand and subtly guide me on a journey in their particular direction. Before I even realize what’s happening, I find myself traveling down that road feeling depressed, fearful, or angry and don’t even know why. When I get to that point, I need to confess my wayward mind and renew myself in God’s Word and what is true.
If you find yourself stuck in negative, unbiblical thought patterns, check in with yourself throughout the day and consider what you’ve been thinking about. Are your thoughts in line with Philippians 4:8 or do you need to exercise self-control in this area and choose to think about God’s Word? Memorizing verses that counteract your negative thoughts and then meditating on those verses throughout the day is a great way to have a more disciplined thought life.
Self-control is largely a spiritual matter, but like most things, there is also a physiological component. I love both chocolate and coffee, especially together, but too much of either makes self-control much more challenging for me. When I’ve overdone it with sugar and caffeine (a lack of self-control to begin with!) then I’m more anxious and have much less patience. I’m more likely to snap at my children and husband, not being careful about what comes out of my mouth. When I’m tired, my thoughts tend to drift down paths I shouldn’t let them. We shouldn’t ignore the physical triggers that make us more susceptible to lacking self-control. What are your barriers? Not enough sleep? Poor dietary choices? Spending time with the wrong people? Watching the wrong TV shows? Be aware of how your choices affect your ability to exercise self-control down the road.
God didn’t design us to allow our passions to run unchecked. Even having accepted Christ’s forgiveness, we still have a sinful nature with desires that are in opposition to God’s plan for us. Self-control dictates that we say no to those desires, whether they are thoughts, words, or actions. The result is a life that is pleasing to God as well as satisfying to the one living it.
Amy L. Simon is a wife and a homeschooling mom of three kids who writes in her free time. Her latest middle grade historical novel, Trouble the Water, is available on Amazon.