Recently I read two articles in succession that struck me with how much they had in common. The first was from the Associated Press, it spoke of how a president of a Midwestern theological seminary was fired after the trustees determined that his temper had “imperiled his leadership.” The president confessed to “misappropriation of anger,” and “after hours of agonizing discussion and interviews with the president and the vice presidents, a majority of the board members concluded that the expressions of anger had irreparably damaged his ability to lead the school.” The second article had to do with a rags-to-riches type story of two Cuban immigrants who were able to retire early as millionaires. The two, named Humberto and Georgiana, came to America in 1960. Humberto learned English in high school in Long Island, New York; Georgiana spent her early years in Los Angeles. They met when Georgiana was a student at the University of Miami and married in 1972. Both eventually landed jobs as reporters for a Fort Lauderdale, Florida newspaper, a profession not known for producing millionaires. Humberto had learned about the importance of investing and how compounded interest works, and so he and his wife set out to save every dollar and invest as much as possible each month. Within a decade, the investments (and financial sacrifices) Humberto and Georgiana made set them up to retire early.
What’s the secret to their success? How could they come from such humble beginnings and achieve so much while the seminary president who had so much quickly lost it? The answer is self-control. We are all familiar with the concept of self-control in our lives. At this time of year, when goals are being set, and plans are being made, self-control is in high demand. We hope to express it when we order our meals, manage situations, set routines in our lives, and when we spend time with frustrating people. Therefore, when we think of self-control, it’s seen almost in a negative light. We see it as a force that limits our actions/thoughts/speech and is something we practically begrudgingly have to exercise at times. Self-control, though, when viewed from a biblical perspective, is so much more than that. It is possibly the single most important trait a Christian can possess and work on to improve.
In the New Testament, two Greek words are often translated over to English as self-control. The first of these, Σωφρονέω, carries with it the idea of sound judgment, sober-mindedness, and temperate. This term can be found in Mark 5:15 when the town people come and find the once demon-possessed man sitting at the feet of Jesus “in his right mind.” Paul uses it in Romans 12:3 to describe how we should think of ourselves, “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” This is the first component of what makes up self-control, being able to know and decide when something is right/wrong, good/bad, and when things are in excess or not enough. Sound judgment is the ability to assess situations or circumstances shrewdly and to draw sound conclusions. You cannot exercise self-control if you do not know the correct boundaries. We don’t expect a toddler to exercise self-control because they do not yet understand what is too much or unhealthy for them at times. They do not possess sound judgment and therefore are unable to see the line in which they should not cross.
The second word translated in our New Testaments as self-control is ἐγκράτεια and literally means when broken up, “inner strength.” This is the word in which Paul uses in Galatians 5 as he lists the nine fruits of the Spirit. Self-control also requires one to not only know what is right and wrong and where certain boundaries are but also the strength in which to carry out those decisions. When explaining this to the youth group, I used my love for Krispy Kreme to illustrate this. If, when I drive by that white and green haven of delicious donuts, I see that the “HOT NOW” sign is lit up, I instantly start an inward battle of self-control. I know that I should not stop and buy a dozen (sound judgment), but sometimes I am unable to resist (inner strength) my overwhelming desire for those sugary circles of fried bliss. To fully exercise self-control in our lives, we must not only possess a sober-mind, one that is clear and can make sound judgment, but also to have the strength from within to carry out those decisions.
The best way to examine what true self-control is to simply look at the life of Christ from beginning to end. Our Savior exhibited a Spiritual self-control at all times and in various aspects of His life. When He humbled Himself in Luke 2 under His earthly parents, as He interacted with the Pharisees and the various religious elite who constantly opposed Him, and ultimately in the garden of Gethsemane where He allowed God’s plan of redemption to direct His actions; Christ was driven by selfless control.
Just as our Savior exercised self-control in every aspect of His life, we are called to do the same. At the very foundation of what it takes to follow Christ we have the concept of self-control. Luke 9:23-25, “And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?”
It’s imperative that we who seek to “abstain from the fleshly lust that wage war against the Soul,” 2 Peter 2:11, strive to live a life that is defined by selfless control. It is the power that enables us to succeed in our Spiritual routines, daily Bible readings & prayer plans, and it is the restricting force that saves us from the entanglements of sin. If we live a life without it, we are welcoming our adversary to stroll into our spiritual life and wreak havoc. Solomon writes in Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls, is a man who has no control over his spirit.”