“A person without self-control is as defenseless as a city with broken-down walls” (Proverbs 25:28). In biblical times, the walls of the city were the most important aspect of defense from intruders. To have a breach in the walls was to have a weakness such that the enemy could come in and strike. Recall in the days of Joshua that the army of Israel marched around the walls as the Lord commanded and the walls crumbled down. With the walls down, victory over the city was easy.
We have been studying characteristics of godliness. Last time in this series we talked about our need for contentment, not only with possessions, but in our relationships, in the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the position that we enjoy in this world. Another need in our pursuit of godliness is to practice self-control. Paul said self-control was one part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and Peter commanded us to add self-control to our faith (2 Peter 1:6).
The proverb warns us that we are defenseless to the world without self-control. We are defenseless against Satan and his attacks without self-control. We are called to exercise self-control in such a way that we do what we ought to do though we may not want to at the time. Another way to speak of this is discipline. We have to discipline ourselves to do what God wants us to do even though there are times we do not want to do what God says. Paul understood this need to self-control when he said, “I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). I would like for us to consider three important areas where we must discipline our bodies and bring it under strict control in our efforts in godliness.
I. Control the Flesh
A. To not be mastered by anything
We have the tendency to become enslaved to the things of this world. The blessings that God has provided too often become used for selfish pleasure and not the way God intended. Paul gave an important reminder in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be brought under the control of anything.” Paul is warning us that there are good things in this world, even permissible things, that can be misused to the point that we are brought under its control.
This is a key point to practicing self-control toward godliness. We cannot allow anything in this world to bring us under its control. This requires self-discipline. We cannot be brought under the power of alcohol. We cannot be brought under the power of any of the desires of our flesh. It does not matter if the desire is sinful, questionable, or permissible, we cannot allow the desire to become master over us.
We must always have the power to say no. We must always be able to walk away from the desire. Now, we must realize that we always think that we are in control but we really are not. For example, the compulsive gambler thinks he can stop gambling at any time. Yet because he does not stop, he is under the power of it. The sex addict believes he or she can stop at any time. But because he or she does not stop, then that person is under the power of it. There is only one way to know if we are under a desire’s power: stop it. If you can stop it and live without it, then you have maintained control. When we cannot stop, then we are under its control and we no longer have self-control. We may find out that we think there are a lot of things we can give up but really cannot. How would we do losing the television? How would we do losing the internet? How would we do losing certain foods and drinks? We have to show we can stop if we truly have self-control.
B. Sexual impurity
One area were self-control is demanded of us more and more as society continues to push sex upon us is concerning sexual purity. Sexual immorality and impurity is constantly in our face. It can be found easily on television, movies, internet, magazines, and simple ads on billboards and buses. We must control our flesh when it comes to sexual purity.
Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, “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.” This is the will of God and it is for each of us to remain pure before God that we control our bodies and not burn in the passion of the flesh. Some want to ask today what is really sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” or in some versions “fornication” is the word porneia. It is the base word from which we have our word today “pornography.” It does not take much thought to realize how broad the phrase “sexual immorality” encompasses. We can about boil this down to a practical statement: if it is not with your spouse, it is sexual immorality. If you are looking, touching, or engaging in any sexual way with someone whom you are not married to, it is a violation of God’s law.
Marriage is to be the fulfillment of our sexual desires. Spouses have an obligation and a duty to each other to fulfill these desires. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:5, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” We have a responsibility as spouses to one another and marriage is the only place these desires can be met. The world creeps into our mind and says that if our spouse is not fulfilling their obligations to us, we can have our needs met in our ways. But this is absolutely wrong. We are commanded to control our bodies and we must control them, without excuse. While a spouse may be wrong for not keeping their end of the marriage covenant, I am not justified by committing sexual immorality because of another’s error. Both are wrong and must do what is right.
I think it is important for our children who are in high school, junior high, and even higher elementary school grades to hear these things. Sexuality is beginning at younger and younger ages. We cannot think that we can wait till our children are 16 anymore to explain to them the need for sexual purity. Many news reports have been done to show that sexual activities and sexual favors are even taking place among elementary school aged children. We must teach self-control and we must practice self-control.
II. Control the Thoughts
A. Control the mind
Paul said, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). We are not only supposed to discipline our bodies, but we must also take control of our minds. The reasoning is very simple: what we think about is our minds is what we will practice in our lives. If immorality is in our hearts, then at some point we will practice immorality. James 1 tells us that the temptations begin when we are enticed by our own desires within us. Solomon said, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
We have the tendency to think that it is okay if we only entertain the thoughts but do not act on them. It is okay if I think about fulfilling these desires of mine as long as I do not actually go out and do it. Jesus taught otherwise. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). What was Jesus teaching here? Was Jesus teaching that you can put away your spouse for thinking about another woman or man? No, that is certainly not the point. But Jesus is teaching that we must clean up our minds. We cannot justify keeping lusts in our minds by thinking that as long as we do not actually commit the act it is okay. This is what Jesus is telling us. Do not think it is not a sin to have these lusts dwelling in our minds. We have to remove them from our minds.
B. Thinking on wholesome things
The way to fight these lustful thoughts is to use the tool Paul gave in Philippians 4:8. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We must keep pure things in our minds. We have the power to change channels in our mind. We can think about other things. We simply must choose to think about something else.
Self-control of the mind is not simply about refusing to dwell upon lustful or evil thought when they come into our minds. Self-control of the mind requires us to always keep wholesome thoughts before us. Allow me to remind you of some easy ways to do this. Keep a Bible with you so you can change your attention when something comes into the mind. Listen to Bible lessons or spiritual music that will help you keep you mind away from evil. I have personally found such useful. It is more difficult to have bad thoughts in mind when you are listening to godly songs and lessons. Whatever it takes, we need to turn our minds elsewhere.
III. Control the Emotions
A. Keep feelings in check
Emotions are perhaps the area we control the least. I do not know how many times I hear people in counseling or on the radio talking about what they feel as the reason they are doing something. We do not feel like doing such and such. We justify our actions based upon our feelings and not upon what is rational or what is right. Too often we let our emotions go because that is simply the way we feel and we have the right to feel the way we want to feel. But that is not right and is not what the scriptures teach.
We have many emotions that we must always bring under our control. Some of these emotions include anger, rage, resentment, self-pity, and bitterness. Sometimes these feelings are explosive and sometimes we allow these feelings to simmer over a period of hours or days.
Consider this for a moment: many of our emotions come from an improper focus upon ourselves. Anger and rage come from the feeling that we have been mistreated or have suffered injustice. So we turn around and harm others because we have been harmed. Self-pity and bitterness stem from the same feeling that we do not think people are paying the attention to us that we deserve or ought to receive. Not only are we destructive to others with our emotions, but we are destructive to ourselves, warping our sense of reality and of what is right and fair. Listening to our emotions causes us to become self-centered and egocentric, believing that everyone should pay attention to us and if they do not, we are hurt.
We are to govern our emotions. We have to know our emotions and feelings, yet also know what is right and rational. Our feelings often lead us in the wrong direction and cause us to act foolishly. Proverbs 16:32 says, “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” There is great might when we can control these emotions. We often do not realize how we may be enslaved to our own feelings.
B. Never act on emotions
As difficult as it is, we must try not to act upon our impulses, feelings, and emotions. It is easy for us to make reactive decisions based upon how we feel, without weighing the good and the bad of a decision in a calm, rational way.
One great challenge to controlling our emotions is realizing that we do not have to act the way we have been taught to act. Most of us have learned how to receive communication in the same way that our parents did. If our parents had an explosive temper, it is likely that we do also. We must see the flaws of what we learned and fight to change those emotions. We do not have to act the way we have been trained. We can fight against those feelings to act the way we ought to act. We must realize that our emotions get us into trouble and not think that our feelings are always correct.
IV. Keys to Self-Control
A. Develop sound judgment
Sound judgment begins with a knowledge of the scriptures. We must know what is right and what is wrong so we can have proper control of our bodies, our thoughts, and our emotions. Great training in the word of God can improve our self-control because we will have a conscience for strongly trained to warn us of wrong doing.
Sound judgment also comes from relying upon God. Prayer is key to a life of self-control. How often do we see the people of God praying in times of emotional distress, when control was needed most! A stronger prayer life will encourage better judgment and continue to help give us the inner strength we need to act godly.
B. Surrender to God’s control
Are we really willing to give up the fleeting pleasures of this world in return for knowing we are living lives pleasing to God? Self-control requires some will power. The will power, however, is not within ourselves. We fall to Satan in one on one battles. We must have the will power to make a commitment to obey the will of God. We must make an important decision that we want to exercise greater self-control in our lives. One reason we fail at exercising self-control is because we really do not want to exercise self-control.
We want other people to see our anger and feel our rage. We want fantasize about various desires of the flesh. We like feeling like a victim and casting pity upon ourselves. We want to give in to the desires of the flesh. We have not made the commitment to fight. We have not made the commitment to control ourselves. Remember what Paul said, “I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul is speaking of a commitment to surrender his body to the will of God. Self-control has much to do with wanting to do what is pleasing to God.
C. Wage the war in the mind
Finally, the battle for self-control begins in the mind. When the lustful or evil thoughts come in, it is up to us to take that thought captive and make it obedient to Christ. It is up to us to not dwell upon these thoughts so that we desire to act upon them.
We know better. We know what is right. We must fight against the desires, against the thoughts, and against the emotions to discipline ourselves in godliness. I have a hard time teaching Paige because she says she wants something, and expects that since she wants it, she ought to get it. I am trying to teach her that we must have discipline and we do not get what we want when we want. But as I thought about it, how often do we act like a two year old! We want something and so we think about how to attain it and we act upon our desire. We feel a certain way and we act upon it.
Romans 7 says there is a war going on within us. Will we listen to what we want to do even though we know we should not do it? Will we listen to what we know we ought to do even though we would rather do something else? Paul said, “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:23). Control is our choice. We exercise control when we want to. We simply need to exercise that control more frequently as we practice godliness.