Twenty-five years of counseling has led me to realize that many people spend ninety-five percent of their energy focusing on things they cannot control and five percent of their energy focused on the things they can control. A major key to living with joy, contentment, productivity, is found in reversing those percentages. My coaches growing up always told me to focus my energy on the things I can control, and it is a lesson that has helped me well beyond my playing days. Self-control is the ability to pursue the important over the impulsive and is an indispensable ingredient of Christian discipleship. What an important lesson as we face many things beyond our control in this COVID-19 health crisis.
The writer of Proverbs asserts, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov 25:28). Paul points us to the example of athletes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” He explains, “They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor 9:25). Biblical self-control is exercised in the pursuit of a higher goal and purpose. Paul exhorts Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people training us to … live self-controlled, … in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). Believers are trained in self-control by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Biblical self-control does not fixate on self, but rather fixates on God and his glory. Self-control is described as a fruit of the Spirit of God (Gal 5:23) and its opposite is gratifying of “the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).
Counterfeit self-control is rooted in pride, it glories in and is governed by the self-justifying, fleshly feeling of being in control and it is an idolatrous mirage (Ex 32:25). Freedom in Christ is not the autonomous liberty to cast off all restraint because that is bondage. A while ago, one of my sons asked my wife to do something and she answered, “No.” He responded with a look of self-pity. My wife told him, “You have more freedom than anyone you know.” He looked puzzled, and she said, “You have friends who do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. Would you describe them as generally happy and free or unhappy and living in bondage?” He responded, “Unhappy, and in bondage.” She explained that true freedom is marked by self-control because it has a liberating ultimate goal.
In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul urged Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” He considered “self-control” to be the opposite of cowardice (a spirit of fear). Cowardliness means being enslaved by one’s self-referential fears (Rom 6:6). By contrast, a courageous person faces his or her fears, believing there is someone more important than fear—God.
A person with self-control is not governed by their emotions but are governed by God and his gospel. The person who lives like this possesses the deepest emotions. These deeply rooted emotions liberate them, rather than superficial emotions, which hijack a person’s contentment and ability to lead. Committing oneself to live focusing energy on what you can control should be a natural consequence for those who believe God is the only one who is ultimately in control.