Self-control is one fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) that we don’t often discuss. But the apostle Paul didn’t have our hesitations. He writes about this virtue all over the New Testament, most frequently in his letter to Titus. In that little book, we learn the following about self-control.
- The elders Titus appoints must be self-controlled (Titus 1:8).
- Older men are to be self-controlled (Titus 2:2).
- Older women are to train the young women to be self-controlled (Titus 2:5).
- Titus must urge the younger men to be self-controlled (Titus 2:6).
- The grace of God has brought salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and to live self-controlled lives (Titus 2:12).
So, no one is exempt. We all must be self-controlled.
But what exactly does that mean?
We may think of the self-controlled as monks or nuns, strict ascetics who squash every stray desire and distraction. Creating this caricature lets us write self-control off as something out of reach, only available to (or expected of) the elite few. We justify not understanding or growing in self-control since we don’t feel very elite. (I’m writing of my experience here, but maybe—just maybe—there are others like me!)
Drew Dyck set out to help us with self-control, not as an expert but as someone badly in need of that virtue himself. I found his book Your Future Self Will Thank You really helpful in understanding this elusive fruit of the Spirit.
Dyck describes self-control as a foundational character trait in the sense that other traits are built on top of it. Self-control makes acquiring other virtues easier. After exploring some of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible which are translated as “self-control” (or a synonym), Dyck arrives at a working definition: “Self-control is the ability to do the right thing, even when you don’t feel like it.”
Like all fruit of the Spirit, the purpose of self-control is to glorify God, not ourselves. Biblical self-control is not primarily about keeping our lives or bodies neat and ordered—rather, it is about keeping our loves rightly ordered and in the proper proportion.
Willpower and Habit
Many of our friends and neighbors might equate self-control with willpower. Drew Dyck says there is an overlap, but that they aren’t the same.
Willpower is needed for self-control but for other activites too: learning new tasks, making decisions, and persevering in difficult circumstances. One of the most helpful images for me in the book is the idea of willpower as a muscle. We all have different innate levels of willpower, but willpower is something that can be built and exercised.
Willpower can be depleted through use as well as through sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, and frequent distraction. This explains why it becomes harder to resist the donuts in the break room each time we pass by! (Interestingly, Dyck suggests this is why we’re urged in the Bible to flee temptation more than to fight temptation.)
There is a vital connection between self-control and our habits as well. Since habits do not take willpower to complete—the automatic nature of habits are their defining feature—wise and thoughtful building of good habits is one of the best ways to grow in self-control. So self-control is not always about in-the-moment impulse control, but it can involve and necessitate advanced planning. (If we know there will be donuts in the break room on Friday, we can plan ahead to resist them.)
Since habits require willpower to create but not to execute, Dyck suggests that one of the best uses of our willpower is to create good habits. Chapter 6 describes some of the psychological research on habit formation and how Christians might take advantage of these advances. (Two excellent books I’ve read on habits are The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I recommend them both!)
A Helpful Guide
Drew Dyck is a good guide for the journey of self-control. The book is well-researched without being academic. Interleaved through the book are Dyck’s reflections on his own efforts to grow—some of these are successful and some are (humorously) not.
Dyck writes with an inviting, winsome style. His book is the first place I’d point if you want to learn more about self-control.