How to Develop Self-Control
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists the fruit of the Holy Spirit and in this list of spiritual virtues, he mentions, among others, the virtue the gift of self-control. I would say the gift of self-control, a most necessary gift if one is to live a Christian life successfully. If you want to be successful as a Christian, in other words, live a Christian life and bear fruit and just feel that you're you're living that life successfully, you need to cultivate, absolutely, the virtue of self-control.
The divorce courts, and the hospitals, and jails are filled with people who failed at one thing in their life and that was controlling themselves. They just never learned how to control themselves. Not just one part of the body, the whole body.
Now, the problem we have with this particular gift, the gift of self-control, is that if we just wait around for it to happen, it won't happen. Babies are not born with self-control. Anybody who's had a baby knows what I'm talking about. Self-control, like other things mentioned in this verse, are attributes that need to be developed or cultivated in our characters with the help, with the strength, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
How to Develop Self-Control
So I'd like to review with you five things that each Christian must do in order to cultivate this so important virtue of self-control.
#1 - Know God's word
15and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
-II Timothy 3:15-17
So knowing God's Word is the very first thing on the to-do list. The very first thing to enable us to cultivate self-control is knowing God's Word. Let's pretend that God's will is a line, that's like this here, all right? And this is your will and what you're trying to do is line up your will with God's will. So that there are a line like a car. If you're, if you have a bad alignment, right? The tires are gonna start to wobble, and the front ends gonna get out of shape, and it's gonna be a bumpy ride. So the two sides of the wheels, they have to be aligned.
Well, in the same way God's will and your will have to be aligned. Because when God's will and your will is aligned, then this third will line over here, that's your body, your life, is also going to be aligned. So there's God's will, your will, and then your life or your body. When these elements are lined up together, what happens? You have peace, you have harmony, you have self-control. But when they are misaligned, you're out of control, out of self-control.
So the first step in gaining control over self, believe it or not, is to know God's will. And the only way to know God's will, is to know his word. The knowledge of God's word, which contains his will, reveals to us the direction that God wants our wills to guide, and the way that our body should go.
People say to me sometimes, "I wish I knew what God's will... can you tell me what God's will is?" And it's like saying to me, " Can you read God's mind?" And they sit , and they think, and they wonder, "I wonder what God's will..." and it seems that the last place that they'll go to find out what God's will is, is this book. And I often say to them, "Well when was the last time you read the word?" "Well I don't have a lot of time and I try to get to it when I can." Well no wonder you don't know his will, know his word. You have to know his word in order to know his will. So when our will is lined up with God's direction, the body will follow. When we are absolutely sure of the right direction because we know it from God's Word, then we have the strength to make our bodies follow that direction.
You've had that experience, haven't you? When you're absolutely sure because you've read it in God's Word, you're absolutely sure because you've seen it in black and white, what God wants you to do or not to do. The fact that you're absolutely sure of it, makes it easier to accomplish because you're doing God's will. When you know what God's will is for your will and your body, then you do have the courage to say no or to say that's enough, and exercise control over yourself.
It's amazing when you are able to say to yourself, you know that self talk? "Yeah I better not do that that's just wrong and I know it's wrong because of this chapter and this verse." And the only way to know God's will is to know his word, and the only way to know his word is to read it, and study it, and hear it often.
#2 - Be aware of the danger of the lack of self-control
29If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
- Matthew 5:29-30
If anyone doubts that the Bible teaches of the reality of Hell, you have to realize that Jesus is the one that talks the most about Hell. And so, how to develop self-control, number two: be aware of the danger of the lack of self-control.
I'll give you an example. When Paul, our son, came home from the Marines many, many years ago, when he was in the Marine Corps. He goes away to the Marines (18-year old, skinny little guy) and they feed him ten times a day, with mashed potatoes and gravy, put some fat on his bones. And they go through all the exercises. The problem, he comes back and he's a man, right? He's hard as a rock. And when he was little, we used to wrestle around on the floor and Lise (my wife) was there, "Be careful, you're knocking over lamps!" We had fun like fathers and sons do. But when he came back from the Marines, I mean he says "Come on Dad, let's wrestle." That was not a pretty sight. See in those days, I was around fifty years old or something. But I mean, he just, he's bending me like a stick. But I had my secret move. See, my secret move was 'the pinky death hold'. The 'pinky death hold' is the great equalizer. And he was stomping and whomping on me and getting me in all kinds of positions that I couldn't get out of, but I managed to find his pinky and all I needed was to bend it a little bit. Imagine, I had control over that guy because I just bent... "Get off me uh-uh, pretty please Dad" Dad is tougher than the Marines. "Yeah okay, okay, you're tougher than the Marines." Somehow I got hold of a place that allowed me to control his entire body and then, of course, I declared victory and ended the match before he killed me.
I tell you this little story here because Satan works exactly in this way in our lives. He tries to control one little part of our lives. Because of the lack of control in one part of our life that he takes advantage of, he's able to control all of our lives. It's as if Satan gets that pinky death grip on us and somehow manages to move the entire body around because he's got a hold of one little part of us. So when he succeeds, he manipulates all the parts of our lives from that one part.
So for example, if you're a secret drinker, and I don't mean you're a moderate person. I mean, you have an issue with alcohol, you abuse alcohol, but it's a secret thing, right? And he gets a hold of that and because you have that weakness, because he's got a hold of you there, well then he makes you lie about it. And then your job begins to suffer because of it and then your health begins to suffer because of that hold that he has on just one part of your lie.
You see, once Satan controls one little part, he will then try to control everything else because if God doesn't control you, Satan controls you. For example, most people who have abandoned the church, usually have done so because there was one thing they could not control and eventually that one thing took over their spiritual lives and demolished it.
So what's my point here? My point is we have to realize that what happens to these people happens because of lack of self-control. And if it happens to them, it can happen to us.
We need to understand the danger of not having self-control. When Jesus says, "Better you lose your pinkie than the entire body." Recognize the danger of not having self-control, recognize the danger of allowing Satan to worm his way into a part of your life, to control it to the extent where he controls other parts of your life from just that one area.
#3 - Be prepared to suffer
Jesus says in Matthew 16:24 to his disciples, What should they do if they want to be his disciples? Well he says, "They have to deny themselves and pick up their crosses and follow him.
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
- I Corinthians 10:13
In other words, there's nothing new. Whatever you're tempted by, whatever it's greed, or sex, or lust, or whatever, abusing. Whatever it is, it's nothing new. Human beings have been tempted by these things forever. Sometimes you can escape it, but sometimes you just have to endure it. Notice he mentions both here. Sometimes there's a way to escape, but sometimes the only reaction is to endure.
Most people who fail at gaining self control over self. They fail because they think this should come without cost. It shouldn't cost them anything. When we realize that our bodies and fleshly mind will react violently, when our will begins to exercise godly control, it makes the effort just a little bit easier to handle. Peter refers to this in 1st Peter chapter 4 verse 1.
because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,
- I Peter 4:1b
So he's saying, "I can tell that you are making an effort at self-control, at ceasing from sin because I see the suffering that's taking place in your life." You say to the devil, "I'm not going to do what you say. I say no. I say be gone." And the devil said "Oh yeah, I've got news for you buddy. I'm gonna make your life miserable." And you say to your flesh, "No no no no, I'm in charge of my flesh. My will is in charge of my flesh and you're going to do what I say." And your flesh answers, Oh yeah? Over my dead body. Because that's the way it is."
Be prepared to suffer. That didn't hurt at all. Be prepared to suffer, yes, but also be prepared to rejoice as you see yourself liberated from the slavery of sin.
I was talking to somebody during the health fair, as a matter of fact. We're just talking about things in general and talking about, actually, addiction, and the problem of addiction, and some of the programs that are out there to help people deal with addiction. And this individual saying to me, "The programs are good but there's never any reference to God. There's a reference to a higher power, maybe, but they never describe that higher power, because they don't want to offend anybody."
And so the programs for those who are addicted, usually help them deal with the addiction, so that they deal, they aim at what's called sobriety. So that someone who is an addict of whatever, can get to the point where they say, "Hi my name is Joe and I'm an alcoholic, but I have been sober for three years." or "I have been sober for six years" or six days or 79 days. The goal is sobriety. And that's a good goal but in Christianity, the goal is not sobriety. The goal is deliverance.
The difference between sobriety and deliverance is that sobriety is always living with the desire to sin but fighting it off and deliverance is no more desire to sin.
Now I can share with you some stuff but I really don't want to, because I'd be embarrassed. But I will share you one thing that I'm less embarrassed to say in public, okay? So I started smoking cigarettes when I was maybe 10 years old or something like that. 10 or 11 years old, and I smoked until I was thirty. That's a long time. It's almost 20 years that I smoked cigarettes and I love to smoke cigarettes. I mean, I loved it. I had done other drugs and everything else, but the hardest thing to let go was cigarettes.
I stopped doing drugs in one day and never went back. But cigarettes I must have tried ten times to let that go. But when I became a Christian, I became convinced that the use of this type of product, the consumption of tobacco, this was not a godly thing, this was not a virtuous thing. This was something that I needed to let go, to get rid of in my life, because that wasn't supposed to be part of a Christian's life. I was convinced the Bible taught that. And it gave me the courage to say no.
And you know what, you couldn't pay me to smoke today, you couldn't pay me to smoke. You could say "Look, I'll give you two first-class tickets to Europe, all-expenses-paid, best hotel. All you have to do is start smoking again." No no, never. I detest it. I hate it. I hate the smell of it, the stink of it. That's deliverance. There's nothing inside of me that corresponds to the desire to go back to doing that.
You understand what I'm talking about? Deliverance, that's what Christianity offers people. It offers deliverance, not just sobriety. But if you want to get to the deliverance part, you have to be prepared to suffer. If you're willing to go through the suffering, I repeat, those who exercise self-control, have the joy of knowing and experiencing the peace and satisfaction that comes when their lives are more perfectly aligned with God's will. In other words, when they are delivered, that's what Christianity offers.
#4 - Pattern your life after winners, not losers
In other words, if you want to fly like an eagle, don't hang around with the chickens. Imitate people who are worthy of imitation, who have a proven record of success in, "spiritual living".
6You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.
- I Thessalonians 1:6-8
Paul and his workers set an excellent example for those new converts in Thessalonica. They copied his example and they became models for other churches throughout the region. Now that's on a big scale, right? That's like on a big scale, copy the Apostles, copy the churches.
Let me ask you this, what kind of Christians do you think your children are going to be? Well they're going to be the kind of Christian that you are. That's the kind of Christian they're going to be. That's the model they've got. Please parents, don't think that your children are going to be more faithful, and more devoted, and more hard-working and more than that than you are because they're learning the DNA you're stitching into them, the DNA of their Christian experience.
These people here in Thessalonica, they were pagans and the change in them was due to the fact that they model their behavior on what they wanted to become, not what they once were. The same principle holds true today. We need to have fellowship with, and pattern ourselves, after people who have succeeded where we have failed. To gain self control, we must imitate those who have themselves gained control in the areas where we are trying to gain self control.
I go back to my old smoking example. When I was a new Christian, I hung around with other Christians who were strong and, by the way, who didn't smoke. In this way, we can learn how to do it. And we can receive encouragement from those who have succeeded spiritually. If we're smokers, or drinkers, or gossips, are sexually impure, we'll never overcome these things, If we hang around with people who have similar vices. If on the other hand, we have fellowship with those who walk in the light, who will hold us accountable, who will encourage us in doing what is right instead of excusing our vices, then we'll begin to resemble that positive example, but not before. So if you want to fly like an eagle, you better hang around with the eagles and learn how they fly.
#5 - Pray
And then finally in order to cultivate self-control, you need to pray. In Luke chapter 22 verses 39 to 43, Luke writes the following he says,
39And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. 40When He arrived at the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." 41And He withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, 42saying, "Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done." 43Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.
- Luke 22:39-43
So here's Jesus, who is perfect without sin. He knows God's will completely and yet was tempted. Now his response to these times of testing was to pray and ask for strength to do what God wanted him to do. He was God, but He still had to contend with a weak flesh. His spirit was willing. It was His body that needed help. And it's kind of the same thing with us. I would dare say, I'm looking at everybody here, I think I know everybody here.
In your heart of hearts, I think there isn't a person here who actually wants to sin. Who says, "Man, I can't wait to leave the building so that I can go, whatever, do something bad, steal, cheat, lie, be sexually impure, abused, whatever." Nobody's thinking they're anxious to do that. Most people are saying, "Man, I want to avoid that stuff." But sometimes, circumstances, our ignorance, we fall to temptation. The Spirit inside is willing to do what's right. It's the flesh that double-crosses us.
Now I want you to notice something about Jesus's situation. He knew God's will perfectly, He had done God's will perfectly, He still prayed for the strength to continue to do so. It makes you think that this wasn't the first time that He prayed. And that keeping His human body under control required effort, just like the rest of us. Do we ever make that prayer? We say it by heart, the Lord's Prayer. "Lead us not into temptation..." Do we just think that's like a closing thing? No. How many times do we make that prayer? How many times do we say to God, "Lord I am I am so weak, I'm fragile Lord. I'm nothing. I'm dust, I'm less than dust, please." Have you ever cried out to God in prayer and said to him, "God, please, can I have a day where the sins stuff is down to a minimum. Can you do that for me? Will you do that for me Lord today. Please help me to just do it right, just today."
Is that the nature of our prayer? Is our prayer, "Can I have more, please? More, more, more, more." Instead of giving in and finding excuses for our weaknesses, we should pray and ask for strength to overcome them and God will give it to you if you ask.
How Self-Control is a Gift
Now a good question that might come up after a lesson like this is this, "If I have to do all these things, how is self-control a gift? Where's the gift here? Sounds like a lot of work. Well self-control is the Holy Spirit's gift because He provides all the elements to make it happen in your life very quickly.
1. The Holy Spirit provides the Word of God
We say you got to know the word so your will lines up with His will. Who do you think gives you the Word of God? Well it's the Holy Spirit.
20But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
- II Peter 1:20-21
And so, the Holy Spirit provides God's Word which reveals God's will without which no man could know what is right or how to act.
2. The Holy Spirit is the one who warns your conscience
That little voice that says, "I don't think you ought to be doing this." Sometimes it's just a feeling, you just get a feeling. It's like resistance, like wind resistance, you're going here and you're just thinking "Man, this doesn't feel right here." What do you think is doing that? The devil? Do you think Satan is the one that'll stop you from doing something stupid or wrong? No, that's the Holy Spirit working in your life. Paul says:
For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.
- Galatians 5:17
What is it that you want to do? I want to do what s right, I want to obey God, I want to be a holy man but my flesh, and the world, and Satan continually pushing against me." Who's pushing back? The spirit. The spirit in me is pushing back. The Holy Spirit is the source of those warning bells that signal danger and that you're out of control.
3. The Holy Spirit strengthens your spirit for the fight
Remember I said it's not easy. It's gonna be a fight, you're gonna get beat up. Who do you think gives you the strength to come out for the bell every round. Paul says:
if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
- Romans 8:13b
If by the spirit, not self will. By the spirit, you're putting to death the deeds of the body. Overcoming ones fleshly desires is not easy, but we're not alone in the battle. The Holy Spirit works with our spirit to bring our bodies into line with God's will.
4. The Holy Spirit leads our leaders
We have leaders (or examples) in the church, pattern yourself after them. I'm not gonna pattern my life on the life of a man or a woman who's been a Christian for six months. I'm gonna pattern my life, ministry and approach to things on one of our elders, who's been an elder for twenty years, that knows something about living the Christian life. Well, who do you think leads the leaders? Again Paul says,
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
- Acts 20:28
In the end, the things you admire, and imitate, and others, are those things which have been created in them by the Holy Spirit. And then finally, the Holy Spirit brings our prayers before God. Yes, I pray.
Sometimes I'm just going, "I don't even know what to say anymore, God are you hearing me?" Paul says in the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know how to pray as we should. We know how to pray but we don't always know how to pray as we should. But then he says, "The Spirit, Himself, intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." I am so at peace knowing that the Spirit is helping me to pray in a correct way before God. We can have confidence when we pray for self-control, because our prayers are brought before God by the Holy Spirit Himself.
And so the ability to control oneself is definitely a gift from the Holy Spirit because he provides all the essential resources that make it possible, and he provides them freely and abundantly. This is why it's a gift.
So if our lives are out of sync with God's will, it's usually because of ignorance of His word, the love of sin, or disbelief, lack of prayer. We may spend a lot of time rationalizing or justifying, but the reason usually lies within these things that I've just mentioned.
Self-control is something that is cultivated. And as I mentioned tonight, you do that by knowing God's Word, by being aware of the danger and consequences that are a result of the lack of self-control, by being ready to fight and suffer in order to win control, by following leaders instead of losers, and by praying constantly for God's help.
Well, some people here tonight have already begun to exercise more self-control just in the last 40 minutes, because they have believed what I've taught and are already asking God for help in the battle to gain control over self.
And others have grown weaker because they've argued with the teaching in their heart, or they found new excuses for their lack of control and refused to see the danger that they're really in. My question to you is, which group do you belong to? Are you getting better? Are you getting worse? Have you gotten better in the last 40 minutes, 35 minutes? Have you gotten worse? Have you gained something? Have you lost something? if you need to put on Christ and make him the one who is controlling your life and there are ways to do that, of course.
According to His word, the first alignment, I confess Christ, I repent of my sins, I'm immersed in the waters of baptism. Now I am lined up with God, as far as salvation is concerned. If you haven't done that, if you haven't done that alignment, you can begin there tonight.
If you need other alignment, as far as other areas in your life, the prayers of the elders for you, counseling, whatever ministry that you might need, we encourage you to make known that need, as we stand and as we sing our song of encouragement.