Self-control is not a topic that is often discussed. When self-control is mentioned, it is often incomplete or short-lived.
For at least three reasons, self-control is difficult to address and apply.
1. Self-control exposes a rebellious heart.
We are regularly confronted with good things to be enjoyed. There is food to eat, the arts to appreciate (movies, music, tv, etc.), and sex to be enjoyed. Each of these areas tests our self-control. However, we often find ourselves indulging with dessert, binge watching Netflix, or engaging in sex when we knew the timing wasn’t right. We say “yes” to our desires because the immediacy of our pleasure and enjoyment is what seems most important.
Self-control, on the other hand, seeks to produce maximum enjoyment with God’s gifts within His boundaries. Have you ever considered that the areas we most struggle to see self-control are in areas that God has given to us to enjoy in life? Food and sex are two examples of this. Each are good gifts, yet because of our rebellion against Him, we use these gifts in inappropriate ways. Indulging our desires reveals an ongoing rebellion, however subtle or overt, against the Creator.
No one is immune from this rebellion. Pastors may struggle to preach on the holistic nature of self-control because they also struggle with indulging their desires. Food does not always manifest itself in weight gain. Time with social media, sports, or entertainment is easy to hide throughout the week. Self-control seems rare because so few have climbed its mountain. Preaching on self-control reveals a person’s ongoing rebellious heart and this may be an uncomfortable confrontation. The pastor may feel inadequate or unworthy to declare the truth of God’s Word because of his own shortcomings with self-control.
Self-control forces us to be aware of our inability before we can enjoy its arrival by means of God’s Spirit.
2. Self-control demands a worthy goal.
Losing weight or getting healthy are worthy goals but they may not provide a strong enough goal to practice self-control with food. With premarital sex, the fear of STD’s, unplanned pregnancy, or disobeying God rarely seem to be compelling enough to result in self-control. Our goals, however good, may be not be large enough to result in self-control. We may desire to be healthy but that piece of chocolate cake seems like a better decision. Upon reflection or even between bites, we start to feel guilty because we know we should have exercised self-control in that moment.
The immediacy of pleasure is often a more powerful motivator than the long-term results of delayed gratification. Our goals may be true but they may not provide a vision of our future self that is compelling and controlling.
For believers, we may desire to obey God with our lives and in our sexuality. However, we may indulge because obedience to God does not seem all that appealing and rewarding. It feels like we are missing out if we don’t give into our desires. Not only are our rebellious hearts exposed through our indulgence but also a growing realization that our motivations are short-sighted.
Becoming healthy is a good goal as we think about our food decisions. Abstinence is a good and right goal in the area of sex before marriage. But we must move beyond these goals to the people who are the objects of these goals. We ought to think of food as gifts to be enjoyed and objects to enrich our bodies with nutrients in order that we might more passionately Love God and selflessly Love Others.
We move away from abstract goals of self-control as self-improvement and we move to the goal of self-control for the goal of self-sacrificing . Simply put, self-control must replace ourselves as the object of love and replace it with a love for God resulting in a love for those around us.
3. Self-control is unnatural.
Evidence of self-control with food, sex, media, or any number of good gifts reveals that God is at work in our lives. The progress will be slow and often undetected. We struggle because we want our needs met now.
Self-control, however, moves us to wait patiently for our needs as we seek to meet the needs of others.
This is not manipulative love with the goal of getting a return on our investment of service. Rather, when we focus on loving others we see that there are needs greater than our own. We might find that in meeting the needs of others the desire for our own needs decreases with time.
I want to suggest that we see self-control in action NOT when we refrain from indulging our desires . Rather, we see self-control in action with humble, sacrificial service to others because of our love for them.
Self-control is active, not passive.
Self-control is active love for the good of others enabled by God’s Spirit. Self-control is the Spirit enabled outworking of a love for God and His ways demonstrated in love for others and exemplified by Christ’s Incarnation (Philippians 2:5-11).
What are other reasons you see that makes the topic of self-control difficult to address or apply?