Self-control is in high regard these days.
The regard, however, is for a kind of self-control that pushes against outside feedback. It says, I know myself best. So only I can control how I live.
But this is not how the Bible talks about self-control in the slightest. The Bible is cautious about the self, recognizing man’s fallen nature and indwelling sin. Scripture urges us to stay in command. In other words, self in self-control is not an exclusive authority to appeal to but a wayward force to exercise control over.
Culture at large seems defines to self-control as, “An individual having the right to decide for themselves what is best.” Yet, the Bible defines it in the exact opposite way. A summary might be: “A believer in Christ proactively controlling their self, which needs be to trained up in godliness.”
The phrase “a believer in Christ” is essential to fruitful self-control, for here is the truth: Only the one who is in Christ can truly control their self.
Self-Control Without Christ is Limiting
Here are a few reasons why self-control without Christ is unfruitful and limiting.
1.) Without Christ, we cannot view ourselves rightly.
Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:6)
Earlier in Titus, Paul gives a whole list of things for older men to do, while here he has one pointed thing to say to Titus when it comes to teaching young men: urge them to be self-controlled. Why is this such an important command for younger men?
The first answer we’d all set forward is something having to do with equipping young men to fight against lust. This is good and true. And, there might be another lesson here as well.
Here’s my guess, the same word Paul uses in Titus, translated self-control, is used in his letter to the Romans, translated as sober judgment:
I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. (Romans 12:3)
Paul is telling his readers that they should view themselves rightly. Is it not true that young men tend to think of themselves more highly than they ought? So Paul then might be saying to Titus: “Make sure the young men know who they really are. Don’t let them have too high a view of themselves. Make sure they are sober-minded.”
Surely this is something we all need to be reminded of. So how can we have sober judgment about ourselves?
Look to the cross. Look at our perfect Savior, who bled and died for us. What does this tell us about who we are? We are sinners, we need redemption, and God made provision for us because we are loved by Him.
That’s who we are!
2.) Without Christ, we remain in darkness.
…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8)
The line above, written by Paul to believers in Ephesus, applies to believers, who have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. They were once darkness, but now they are light because they are “in the Lord.”
The implication, then, is those who are not in Christ are still in darkness. This is a spiritual darkness that keeps a person from seeing reality. Not only this but a person in darkness confuses their thoughts for true light. Jesus warns us about this:
Be careful lest the light in you be darkness. (Luke 11:35)
This trick of the mind, where one mistakes darkness in them to be light, where one mistakes falsehood as logic, hate as love, reminds me of the illustration given in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”
People are stuck in a cave. They are watching shadows on the walls which they mistake to be real forms. The light creeps in from outside. It catches someone’s eye. Though they first feel pain, they eventually turn toward the light. And they leave the cave to go out into the pasture of the real world.
There are many and great dissimilarities between the Christian message and this allegory, but the point here is to illustrate that those stuck in the cave are controlled by many external forces—chains, shadows, falsehoods—while the one in the light is free to roam.
Of course, Jesus is the true light that frees us from darkness. Being in Him brings greater freedom!
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
3.) Without Christ, we are powerless over our desires.
You may challenge, How is there a difference between myself and my desires?
But you know the answer already. You mean to tell the truth, but you lie. You mean to honor others, but you slander them. Though you mean to be at peace, you are often in conflict.
The person caught in these things naturally says, “but I am only human!” This gets at something very true—you, by yourself, cannot control what you do. You cannot overpower the rule your sudden desires have over your life.
Even so, humanity is no less culpable.
So what then? How are we to achieve true self-control? It is found only in Christ. As Scripture tells us:
…we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:2-5)
Christ’s death and resurrection defeated sin. This victory is yours too if you are in Him.
Self-Control in Christ Brings Great Freedom
So, the one outside of Christ has little to no control over themselves after all. Only in Christ do we know who we really are. Only in Christ can we step into the light. And only in Christ can we overpower our sinful desires.
And in this new life in Christ, you will find that self-control brings unparalleled freedom. As R. Kent Hughes writes in Disciplines of a Godly Man:
Spiritual discipline frees us from the gravity of this present age and allows us to soar with the saints and angels. (25)
We become, in a sense, ascended humans through our self-control, being set free from our natural earthbound state. Here is what is ours in Christ:
1.) Unlimited Fruit
When Paul talks about the fruit of the spirit, he says “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:23). That means they can be enjoyed luxuriously forever. There is no cap on how much you can eat the fruit of self-control.
Imagine if Adam and Eve had not eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How long could they have lived in Eden? How many times would they have been able to eat of all the other trees? Infinity.
That is the reality now before us with spiritual fruits.
2.) Imperishable Wreath
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Corinthians 9:25)
An athlete earns a reward through great and difficult self-control. What they have accomplished is mighty, and they are given a reward—here a wreath. A wreath may just be a Christmas decoration for us these days, but for them it was a grand symbol of victory—a literal crown of honor.
Our self-control brings about a wreath as well. But this one is imperishable and eternal. Consider too how our self-control was not our own doing, but Jesus’s doing. It is His accomplishment.
And so the wonderful, eternal reward we receive is witnessing the imperishable crown of honor resting on Jesus’s head. And living under His rule forevermore.