5 Myths About Self-Control

I’d always assumed my trim senior friend Gwen was just that way. That she was one of those blessed few, those naturally thin ones, who needed no self-control.

Until the other day as we walked, and Gwen confided,

Oh, those Sweet Lane cakes are so good! I could have eaten all eight slices. It was all I could do two stop at two.

Then Gwen told me how the cake was a gift and how she almost didn’t accept it. She shared how sometimes she struggles with food: too late at night and too often to soothe. Then she told me how she makes herself step on the scale each week.

I hoisted my jaw off the sidewalk, Seriously? You, Gwen? I always thought thin came easy. You’d never know.

And so Gwen’s cake confession busted my myth #5. Here are the other four that crumbled too.

#1: Self-control means restraining behavior.

A month ago, I would have said it was all true. But I’ve been studying the Paul’s letter to Titus lately. And self-control comes up a lot.

And restraining actions and behavior isn’t the whole truth.

One of the Greek words translated self-control is sophron. The first part of the word, so, means “safe or sound.” The second part, phren, means” mind.”

So sophron means “having a safe, sound mind.” It’s also translated “sensible,” “sober,” “temperate” or “discreet.” Sophron allows us to have self-controlled behavior, but it starts with a sound and self-controlled, sensible mind.

Put on the Brakes of Your Mind

I’ve read that modern Greek uses the word phrena for car brakes and that in Spanish the term for handbrake is phrena demano. That word for brake– phrena- comes from the same root as that second syllable of sophron 

So, self-control means we “put on the brakes” in our mind and we don’t we don’t let our mind sit in park while our emotions drive us around. This sophron kind of self-control is what we all- men and women, young and old are called to be (see Titus 2). 

And the prerequisite for sound, self-controlled living is sound thinking that is based on sound doctrine (Titus  1:1, 9, 13, 2:1).  

Find The Why

But when we think of self-control as behavior only, we rush in to fix what we’ve done– or failed to do without delving into why we did it. We ignore the gap in sound thinking that led to the lapse in behavior. To grow in self-control we must probe the why.

Mary Kassian shares some real-life examples of how a “why-probe” might go,

Why did you lash out at your mother?

Well, because she made a cutting, sarcastic comment.

No. What happened is that the situation revealed your unsound thinking. You think you have the right to retaliate for past hurts and return tit-for-tat. You do not have a sophron state of mind.

Why did you scream at your child?

Well, because he drew a mural on the wall with a permanent marker.

No. What happened is that the situation revealed your unsound thinking. You think life should be easy and blame fatigue and stress for your over-reaction. And your child to blame for the way you react to him. You do not have a sophron state of mind.

It’s a lie that we have the right to return evil for evil and a lie that we deserve and easy life. A self-controlled mind knows this.

Sophron helps us take those thoughts captive so we’re not taken for a ride.

Myth #2: Self-control is about saying no.

It is. But it’s only half the truth.

Mary Kassian again– Self-control is the “I will” power to say “yes” to what’s good and the “I won’t” power to say “no” to what’s bad.  As in, Yes to bed by 10  pm, no to ice cream then.  

So it’s wrong to think of self-control as only denial, It is that. But that’s not the ultimate goal.

Self-denial is the just the means to the end. And the end is love. Self-control is the grace that allows us to say no to indulging ourselves for the sake of others. You could call it love… Even Alcoholics Anonymous has discerned that there is a connection between how we live with others and the flare-ups of addiction. Love others and you will be fighting your tendencies to self-indulgence. (Ed Welch, Self-Control: The World’s Secret Desire)

Love others and you’ll fight self-indulgence. Yes to seconds for your guests means no to your second helping. Yes to teaching Sunday school means no to sleeping in.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:14). 

Self-control does say no to self. And yes to Christ.

Myth #3: Self-control confines us.

This one’s another half truth. Self-control is restrictive. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the best way to define a Christian is a slave of Christ. 

But self-control also frees us.

The Psalmist wrote, I run in the path of your commandments, for you have set my heart free (Psalm 119:32). Peter put like this: Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves (1Peter 2:16). The greatest freedom comes when we’re under God’s control.

And living self-controlled frees us to enjoy life. It’s those without self-control, who stray off the path of God’s good ways, whose lives will sooner or later fall apart.

Because we all will be slaves to something. J. Hampton Keathley III brings that humbling truth home,

Simply put, without self-control, we become the slaves of all our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil) and become incapacitated, unable to serve God and one another or even our own best interests. We end up not only serving ourselves, but we become slaves to our appetites. “By what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).

Do our thoughts take us captive or do we take captive every thought? Self-control frees us from rebel thoughts and enemy masters so we are free to serve a loving- and forgiving– Master.

Myth #4: Self-control is self-taught.

Wrong. We need help.

Self-control, the Christian kind* anyway, the kind that brings freedom to humbly love otherscannot be self-taught. We cannot muster it up. Which is why God’s Word specifically calls older women to teach younger women to be self-controlled.

Human Teachers

I struggle with overeating and I needed Gwen to teach me. I struggle with resentment and I’m so grateful for older women- who’ve been hurt far worse than I’ve ever been- who teach me seek a pure heart and forgive. 

You teach, too. We all have a sphere of influence. And our godliness or ungodliness- our self-control or indulgence- teaches others. How we live is never neutral.

Pastor Christopher Ash explains,It matters to others that I cry to God for his help and his grace, that I may begin show the beauty of God to others. No one lives to himself alone. It is a wonderful thought that by the way we behave this week people who see us…will get a glimpse of the goodness and kindness and beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is a wonderful thing. And a little daunting too.

Divine Teacher and Enabler

Thankfully, we have a greater teacher than the best human mentor.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age… Titus 2:11-12

God’s grace is our teacher. He teaches us to keep in step His Spirit so self-control’s fruit will grow.

But a self-controlled life, “does require effort and vigilance on our part. And we tap into the enabling grace of God as we take advantage of the means He has provided for our transformation and growth” (Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, Adorned). In other words, self-control involves both God’s mighty power and our responsible effort.

It’s what Paul wrote “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” And Peter said so too, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control... (2 Peter 1:5-6)

Self-control doesn’t just come. Grace teaches us- and enables us- to Make every effort, and Be diligent, and Work out. To cultivate the soil where self-control will grow.

Myth #5: Self-control will be easy when I’m older.

I used to think that if we fought sin hard when young, later on we could coast right through.

Remember Gwen? She’s around 70 years old.

If anything, the urge to cast off restraint and indulge comes hotter and heavier as we get older. From what I glean in my relationships with fading saints, the struggle never ends. Until our flesh is finally stripped away, the need for self-control remains.

D.A. Carson recounts how this truth hit home one day when read a page in his father’s diary. His dad was about 80 years old when he wrote,

Merciful Father. Save me from the sins of old men. Too much looking backward. A tendency toward self-pity. Whining because of aches and pains. The ease with which I turn on the television. Save me from the sins of old men.

The sins of middle-aged women are not the same as those of young ladies. But, oh, I feel the need to be saved from mine.  I feel my need for a sound, sophron mind.

The battlefronts will differ and the temptations may change. But we will struggle with sin and need self-control until we see our Master face-to-face.

Till then, we can pray. 

Dear Lord, Help me lean into you and learn from your grace so I can live self-controlled, love others well and run free in your good ways. 

 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age…

Titus 2:11-12

 

*Strong souls who don’t know God are capable of a certain kind of self-control. For sure, there’s that remarkable kind of discipline that Olympic athletes and great musicians must have. But it’s not the same strain as Christian self-control because the goal of control different.

One can subvert or sacrifice one’s lazy or indulgent side for the sake of another side that seeks fame and praise from others and is driven by ego or pride. For many, that sort of self-control for the sake of self can be mustered up. It needs no teachers.

But the goal of Christian self-control is to bring all of oneself under the control of Christ, for the sake of Christ. That kind of self-control- the kind that brings freedom to humbly love others– is only learned with help.

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