In ancient times, the walls of a city were the main defense. When the walls were broken, the city was vulnerable to its enemies. Think about how the ancient city made their walls like a fortress that would be impenetrable. The city of Ninevah had walls seven miles in circumference. Ninevah had three walls separated by two moats. The inner wall was 100 feet tall and 50 feet thick. The outer wall was 200 feet thick. The city of Babylon had a wall 56 miles in circumference. The outer wall was 311 feet high and 87 feet thick. The city had 250 towers along the walls that were 411 feet high. These facts reveal the importance of the city’s walls. Without strong walls, the city would collapse. “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28).
Self-control is the disciple’s wall of defense against the sinful desires that wage war against the soul. A number of definitions have been given to explain self-control. (1) “the governing of one’s desires;” (2) “the ability to avoid excesses, to stay within reasonable bounds;” (3) “the healthful regulation of our desires and appetites, preventing their excess.” While these are very good definitions to describe what self-control looks like, we cannot forget that self-control is a very broad umbrella that encompasses every life decision. For example, we seldom want to study our Bible when we first begin a study. There are many things that are mentally easier to do, like watching television or reading the newspaper. But self-control is exhibited when we set ourselves down to the table with by Bible, paper, and pen and study. Self-control reflects discipline in all life areas.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly, or box like one who beats the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Notice the imagery of being runners in a race. Self-control in everything is required to compete in this life race. Therefore, Paul disciplined his body and brought it under strict control. Self-control is disciplining the body and bringing it under control in every aspect. This discipline is not optional. If we do not discipline ourselves and bring our bodies under strict control, we will be disqualified from our race to obtain the heavenly prize. When we add the idea of discipline to our definition of self-control we come up with a very full-flavored definition:
“Self-control is the exercise of inner strength (discipline) under the direction of sound judgment (God’s Word) that enables us to do, think, and say the things that are pleasing to God” (Jerry Bridges; parenthetical mine, BBK). Now we can focus on four important life areas where we must exercise this discipline.
Honoring God With Our Body
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). When speaking about self-control, one of the primary areas that we must focus our attention is concerning sexual purity. There are very few things in life that are not sexually charged. Television shows may be able to be avoided, but television advertisements are just as sexually charged. We used to be warned that going to the beach can be a problem when it is a busy day. Now going to the mall can be just as much of a problem. It is shocking to see what little amounts of fabric are passed off as clothing. The point is this: avoidance alone will not work because lustfulness is promoted and glorified. The answer is for us to control our bodies is holiness and honor. Because I cannot control what other people wear and cannot control every circumstance where lustful temptations may come, each of us has a need to build our strength (discipline) that we will not sin.
Paul had the remedy. It is interesting that he wrote the following words to the Corinthians, a city known for sexually immorality. Corinth “was noted for its wealth, and for the luxurious and immoral and vicious habits of the people” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary). We may think our times are difficult when it comes to sexual immorality, but it seems that Corinth made sexual immorality just as easily accessible. “But because of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. A wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does. Equally, a husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another—except when you agree, for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:2-5). Marriage is the appropriate place for these desires to be fulfilled. When self-control is not exercised, sexual immorality is only a moment away. Good marriages protect us from the sins of adultery and fornication.
But let us realize that we need to put a lock on our eyes. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 6:27-28). To fantasize about another person that is not our spouse is sinful. I believe one of the reasons why lust of the eyes is condemned is because it is rare that we will not act upon the desire of the eyes. To lust in the heart for another person will begin to entertain ideas in the mind on committing sexual immorality to that person. Things that we dwell upon are things that we will eventually act upon. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Sin starts in the heart and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can entertain these lusts within ourselves and not eventually act upon these evil desires.
But let us broaden our analysis into other areas where self-control is needed. Typically preachers will pick out the vices of life that they do not struggle with themselves. It makes for easy preaching. So I can go pick on smoking, drugs, and drinking because these things do not tempt me. But rather than making a list of social activities that are sinful (a list God did not make), how about we understand the principle so that we can see that this is a temptation for every person. “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is helpful. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be brought under the control of anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Notice the principle Paul taught. There may be things that are “permissible” which I would understand to mean things that inherently are not sinful. But though an activity may be “permissible,” I cannot be brought under the control of anything. Stated another way, we cannot be addicted to anything. Consider some areas where we may lack self-control and may find addiction. Television is area where self-control is needed. Neilson Media Research reported, “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day. This is 2.7% higher than the previous season, 12.5% higher than 10 years ago, and the highest levels ever reported since television viewing was first measured by Nielsen Media Research in the 1950’s. During the Sept 2004-Sept 2005 season, the average person watched television 4 hours and 32 minutes each day, the highest level in 15 years.”
Basically, do you come home from work, turn on the television, and do not turn it off until bed? Our families need interaction together. We need to be productive with the time that God has given us and spend it communicating with our spouse and playing with our children. Could you leave the television off for one full day? Or are we addicted and have been brought under its control?
But television is not the only area that we are addicted. Americans are addicted to work. Amazingly, a growing number of people are not taking their vacation days. Worse, Americans do not come home from work to spend time with family. Work is the priority. Working 9-5 is a joke in many instances. The point is that not taking vacation days is a choice. Many times coming late is a choice, reflecting that the family does not want to spend time together. When the father does come home, the television is turned on until bed.
We can become addicted to anything, from Tylenol to exercise and healthy eating. Nothing is to control our lives, however, except the word of God.
Examine the body. Paul said that he disciplined his body so that he would not become disqualified. Do we fulfill every desire and every whim or do we practice self-control? Do we tell ourselves “no?” These questions are a matter of self-control. Further, we need to teach our children the concept of self-control. You do not get everything you want. Unfortunately, because of our wealth we overindulge our children and give them everything they clamor for. The problem is that they never learn control. Instead, they learn that they should fulfill every desire they have. Of course, you can see the problem with this teaching. We cannot fulfill every desire and be pleasing to God. Parents must teach their children discipline.
Are you addicted? One who exercises self-control is addicted to nothing. Even if the things that we are addicted to are permissible, we need to show that we have self-control. Our flesh is to be totally dependent upon God and His word and nothing else. We are to use our bodies to be productive in the kingdom of God. We need to waste less time with the things of this world. Too much work and too much recreation leaves no room for God.