By Drew Dyck
“The Bible has a lot to say about self-control. In that great repository of wisdom called Proverbs, we’re told that it’s “better to have self-control than to conquer a city” (Prov. 16:32). I’ll admit that the city-conquering language feels a little weird to me (I’m more of a Cappuccino-conqueror), but I get the point.
In the ancient world, people built massive walls around cities and patrolled them with armed guards. Conquering a city was the hardest military feat imaginable. But here’s Solomon, the wisest guy in antiquity, saying that controlling yourself is more impressive than pulling off this nearly impossible exploit.
The image also provides a telling contrast between two kinds of enemies. Defeating the enemy beyond your walls is hard; subduing the enemy within is harder.
Proverbs revisits the city-smashing motif elsewhere to hammer home the point. “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control” (Prov. 25:28). In other words, an absence of self-control is dangerous. Soldiers-breaking-through-your-walls dangerous.
It’s not all wall breaking and city smashing. In one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, the apostle Paul lists self-control alongside core virtues like love, joy, and peace as among the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22).
We tend to think of self-control as a strictly human enterprise, but Scripture describes self-control as a product of being connected to God. It’s something that grows when your life is rooted in divine reality. In fact, if it’s missing, your faith may be a ruse. No fruit, no root.
These are just a few of the mentions of the virtue. Scripture is also crammed with examples of self-control in action, people who demonstrated this vital virtue as they served God and their fellow man.
Unfortunately, self-control has a bad reputation these days. When I told people I was writing a book on the topic, I heard a lot of sighs and groans.
“Oh yeah, I should be better about that,” they would say, their voices tinged with defeat. Most of us view self-control like that overdue dentist appointment—necessary but dreaded.
Others don’t even see the necessity. The self doesn’t need to be controlled; it needs to be liberated. For them, self-expression is the real virtue. Self-control is boring, confining, the cop that shows up and shuts down the party.
Others worry emphasizing self-control will lead to legalism, an approach to spiritual life that reduces faith to a list of do’s and don’ts. Yet it’s a mistake to relegate self-control to this category.
Biblical self-control isn’t about proud self-reliance or earning your way to heaven. It’s not somehow nullified by grace. You will find no asterisks beside the biblical exhortations to exercise self-control.
What you will find is a truckload of commands to resist evil, flee lust, avoid temptation, abstain from sin, control your tongue, guard your heart, and, most graphically, kill the flesh.
Yet these drastic measures aren’t meant to confine us; they are edicts from a loving God designed to bring liberty. The Bible portrays self-control not as restrictive but rather as the path to freedom. It enables us to do what’s right—and ultimately what’s best for us.
From the biblical view, there are only two modes of life available to us: enslavement to sin and life in the Spirit. The former speaks of confinement in the extreme.
Today “sin” is a playful word, associated with decadent desserts and lingerie ads. We see the word sin and imagine someone sampling a menu of forbidden delights.
Don’t be thrown by that connotation. Instead, think of being pistol-whipped by increasingly destructive patterns of behavior, ones that ultimately lead to your demise. That’s what the Bible means by sin: enslavement.
The early theologian Augustine (who knew a thing or two about sin) described it this way: “vanquished by the sin into which it fell by the bent of its will, nature has lost its liberty.”
Life in the Spirit, on the other hand, is a life of liberty. In this scenario a loving God guides and empowers you to live a life of righteousness that leads to flourishing and joy. But without self-control, you’re doomed to the enslavement side of the equation.
DREW DYCK (@DrewDyck) is an acquisitions editor at Moody Publishers, a contributing editor at CTPastors.com and the author of Your Future Self Will Thank You, from which this piece was excerpted with permission by Moody Publishers.