Character Traits of the Spiritual Life: Self control and Self discipline

  Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:

Character Traits

Self-Control and Self-Discipline

Self-Control and Self-Discipline

Richard Hollerman

What do you think of when you think of self-control? Do you think of something negative, something to be avoided, or something that is fit only for the professional athlete, one able and willing to live a Spartan life of rigorous self-discipline? God requires that we live in self-control and He also provides His divine help to do this in the Holy Spirit!

Do you have a firm control over your passions and appetites?  Do you succumb to your desires even when you know that something is unwise or wrong?  Two Greek words for self-control would be enkrateia and engrates.  The Authorized Version renders the Greek word as “temperance” but this is entirely lacking since this term is only limited to one form of self-control.[i]  Richards says that the Greek words mean “to have power over oneself” and thus “able to hold oneself in”[ii]  What does Scripture say about this primary and important virtue?  Paul says that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, a virtue that the Holy Spirit works in our heart and life (Galatians 5:22-23).  Further, the Christian must “add” to his faith moral excellence, and to moral excellence knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and other virtues (2 Peter 1:5-6) for “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).  As we add such virtues to our life and increase in them, “the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied” to us (v. 11).

When he was a prisoner in Caesarea, Paul spoke to Felix the governor about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come,” and this frightened the governor (Acts 24:25).  Felix was an unrighteous man, he had no self-control, and he was under God’s judgment.  The apostle also stated that the overseer (or elder) must have “self-control”—for surely this is a quality needed in a man who leads others (Titus 1:8).

The Word of God warns against the lack of self-control.  Jesus charges the Pharisees with an inner heart corruption, for “inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).  Self-indulgence is the very opposite of a careful self-control.  Paul admits that Satan may tempt even a Christian because of a lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5).  He warns of the difficult times of the last days in which some would be lovers of self, lovers of money and “without self-control” (2 Timothy 3:1-3).  It is a characteristic of those without the Spirit active in their life.  The majority of people in our day are lacking in self-control, without self-disciple, and given to the satisfaction of their carnal appetites.

  • They eat what they want, even though it harms their body.
  • They drink what they want, even when it destroys their mind.
  • They take drugs when they want, even when it corrupts their thinking.
  • They cohabit with the person they want to satisfy their bodily appetites even when it destroys their body and soul.
  • They use their time in the way they want, even though their waste of time cannot be reclaimed.

Related to self-control would be self-discipline which may be defined as “discipline and training of oneself, usually for improvement.”[iii]  When we have self-control, we will be able to exercise self-discipline, and self-discipline is a manifestation of self-control.  A primary discussion on this virtue is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).  Note what he writes: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win” (v. 24).  We are in a race—the race of life—and this calls for earnest measures if we would win.

Paul continues, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things.  They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (v. 25).  One who would compete in the Grecian games (whether the Olympic Games or the Isthmian Games) was required to discipline his body to prepare for the great race.  They would watch their diet, get sufficient sleep, do regular exercises, regularly bathe themselves, and other physical disciplines.

Likewise, if we are disciplined Christians with self-control, we will carefully guard our life so that we will win an “imperishable” prize.  Paul continues, “Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air” (v. 26).  We have our eyes on the goal and we will not be deterred in our quest.  Finally, the apostle says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified (v. 27).

Our life in Christ is a sober experience in which we must “discipline” our body and even consider our body as a “slave” that must obey the master’s orders.  “Proper self-control involves mastery of one’s own body.  Legitimate bodily appetites, if not controlled, easily become sin.  Gluttony, lust, and laziness are all examples of legitimate appetites out of control.  All of them destroy character and lead to worse sins.”[iv]

This is a perspective in life that is seldom seen in this sexually gratifying, bodily gratifying, and mind gratifying age.  Somehow, Paul’s sober, earnest, and disciplined view has been overlooked or avoided by professing Christians.  Ask yourself these questions: Do you guard your speech so that you don’t say what you should not say (Matthew 12:34-37; James 3:1-12; Psalm 141:3; Proverbs 21:23)?  Do you guard your eyes so that you don’t look at what would be sexually compromising (Matthew 5:27-30; Job 31:1)?

Do you guard your hands so that they might not indulge in wrongful activity of any kind (Matthew 5:29-30)?  Do you guard your mind and heart so that you only think of things that are pure and true (Philippians 4:8)?  Do you guard your appetite so that you will not consume what you know is harmful to your body and health (1 Corinthians 10:31)?  It is said that “self-control is transforming desires to please self into desires to please God.”[v]

How can we develop this inner self-mastery that is so important for our life now and our life eternally?  We must be filled with the Holy Spirit so that He may produce self-control in our life (Galatians 5:22-23).  We must be willing to set our mind on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:6-8) and “put to death” the “deeds of the body” so that we might live (Romans 8:13).  We should take drastic, extreme measures to crucify our flesh (Matthew 5:29-30).

We should consider ourselves “dead to sin” but “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11) and present our “members as instruments of righteousness to God” (v. 13).  We must consider the “members” of our earthly body as “dead” to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, and every other deed of the flesh (Colossians 3:5; cf. Galatians 5:19-26).  Someone has said that “self-control is responding to sin in the same way a dead man does.”[vi]

The following questions may focus ourselves on whether we do have self-control: (1) Do you give more time to spiritual pursuits than to the pleasures of the world? (2) Do you bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ? (3) Do you control your eating or indulge in foods you know are unhealthy? (4) Do you acknowledge your weakness so you can experience the power of Christ? (5) Do you literally cry out to God for deliverance from addictions?

(6) Do you have a wise and Biblical program for fasting? (7) Have you asked your Heavenly Father to fill you with His Spirit? (8) Do you respond to each test of the Spirit by thanking God for His purposes and then look for benefits if you respond correctly? (9) Do you ever erupt in uncontrollable anger? (10) Do you remove provisions for indulgences so you will not fulfill them?  Paul wrote, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).

If people of the world can discipline themselves to run marathons, you can discipline yourself to fight against sin.  If people of the world can discipline themselves to lose weight, you can discipline yourself to eat nutritious food for your health.  If people of the world can discipline themselves to work long hours reading deep textbooks to excel in a university course to achieve the praise of men, you can discipline yourself to read, study, memorize and apply the truths of the Word of God. Let us have self-control for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord!

[i] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary, s.v. “Temperance.”

[ii] Richards, Expository Dictionary, p. 546.

[iii] Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.


[iv] MacArthur, The Quest for Character, pp. 59, 61.

[v] The Power of True Success, p. 160.

[vi] Ibid., p. 161.

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