The Development of Self-Control


Dan Petty

Self-control follows moral excellence and knowledge in Peter’s list of qualities in 2 Peter 1:6 that we need to add to our faith. This means that through the strength of moral virtue and the light of the knowledge of God’s word, the Christian is enabled to govern the appetites and passions and keep them under the rule of the conscience.

What is self-control? It is self-mastery. The Greek word includes the notion of strength and was used to describe the virtue of the emperor who never let his private interests influence the governance of his people. So, the idea is that he must master himself before he could master others. Self-control is the ability to regulate one's emotions, thoughts, and behavior in the face of temptations and impulses. When one becomes a Christian the passions still exist. But the Christian must learn to bring the passions under control. They should become our servant, not our tyrant. It’s better to follow reason than passion. But even reason is not a good guide if it is not enlightened by knowledge and truth. So, self-control here involves the exercise of the human will. The will is controlled by reason and enlightened by knowledge.

Self-control is a sign of wisdom. One who possesses self-control is more noble than one who captures a city (Prov. 16:32; 25:28). To control the temper is a sign of wisdom, while the failure to do so is the way of the fool (Prov. 14:17, 29). “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger; and do not give the devil an opportunity” (Eph. 4:26-27). Bridling the tongue is also ultimately a matter of self-control. How we use the tongue demonstrates the difference between earthly wisdom and the wisdom from above (Jas. 3). And consider the stories of Joseph and David as a study in contrasts. Joseph exercised self-control in the face of pressures from Potiphar’s wife. David’s sin with Bathsheba shows his foolish lack of self-control and it brought about a very different outcome.

Self-control requires dedication. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 uses the analogy of the athlete to illustrate the need for self-control. Three important principles stand out.

First, self-control involves striving. When Paul says the athlete “competes” (v. 25), he uses a word that means intense, agonizing effort. Developing self-control in our lives is neither quick nor easy. Perseverance is needed.

This leads us to a second principle, and that is that self-control is the result of discipline. Just as the athlete must discipline or train his body (v. 27), we as Christians must place ourselves under the discipline and teaching of the Lord. This is why we add moral excellence, then knowledge, and then self-control.

Finally, we have to be motivated in our development of self-control, just as the athlete is motivated by keeping his eye on the prize. So, Paul says to “run in such a way that you may win” the prize (v. 24). Our prize is imperishable wreath of salvation.

Of course, ultimately, self-control for the child of God is made possible because we are constrained or controlled by the love of Christ who died for us (2 Cor. 5:14-15). If we walk by faith, then we can say, with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).