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Who’s in control?

March 2007 | by Laura Gwilt

It’s a Dodo word – one (or is it two?) that’s fast disappearing from our vocabulary and our lives. It’s ‘self-control’. Our 21st century secular media tell us that we don’t need it any more. We can do what we want, when we want.

Don’t believe it. Everyone needs self-control – even if for non-Christians the motivation is to glorify the human body. For example many starve themselves to get thin, or choose to spend hours in the gym rather than being with friends – just to build up impressive looking muscles. Self-control takes effort.
Of course, Christian self-control couldn’t be more different, because it is all about glorifying Christ, not ourselves. And we do that by avoiding things that go against Christ’s teaching such as anger, jealousy, impurity and greed.

Walking with God

Self-control is immensely important. Paul tells us in Romans 12:1, ‘present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable [i.e., logical] service’. In the Old Testament animal sacrifices were presented to God in worship.
As Christians we don’t offer animals, we offer our lives as an act of worship – that is, we are called to live lives that are pure and pleasing to God. And that takes a great amount of self-control because of the temptations and sin that are in the world.
The Bible is full of people who lacked self-control. Adam and Eve chose to follow their desire for knowledge and power rather than obeying and trusting God.
Cain killed Abel in a moment when his anger was more important to him than God. The result of this lack of self-control was great regret and shame – ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear … I shall be hidden from your face’ (Genesis 4:14).
In the New Testament, Judas Iscariot’s greed and weakness led to the death of Christ: ‘Then Judas … went to the chief priests to betray him … they were glad and promised to give him money’ (Mark 14:10-11).
By contrast, Noah showed great self-control when he refuses to give in to sin when everyone else was doing so, and as a result is described as ‘walking with God’ (Genesis 6:19).
But the greatest example of self-control in the Bible is Jesus Christ. In the wilderness, hungry and weak from fasting, Jesus was sorely tempted by Satan to seek material satisfaction, but he didn’t. Again, Jesus could have removed himself from the cross or destroyed his enemies at any time, but he didn’t. Jesus’ self-control allowed him to lead a sinless life and die a sacrificial death which led to our salvation.

Ask the Helper

To exercise self-control we need to recognise our weaknesses – the points and places where we are most likely to sin – and then take measures to avoid them. For example, if you have a problem with anger, stay away from people who antagonise you.
Spend time instead with Christians who will encourage and support you, and get involved in your local church and community. Above all, ask the Holy Spirit to help and guide you in your daily struggle to imitate Christ. After all, the Spirit is ‘the Helper’!
Paul talks about a war that rages within us between the flesh and the Spirit: ‘The flesh lusts against the spirit and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary to one another’ (Galatians 5:17).
But no matter how hard it may be to have self-control in every area of our lives, it is necessary if we are to imitate and grow in Christ – which should be our goal in life. It is through self-control (one of the fruits of the Spirit) that the Spirit gains victory over the flesh.
And instead of being filled with ‘idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies … envy, murders’ we will know ‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and [yes!] self control’ (Galatians 5:20-22).