I know what happens when you mention self-control. It’s like sucking the oxygen out of a room. When I told people that 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.
That’s too bad. Not only is self-control a thoroughly biblical virtue (it’s a fruit of the Spirit after all!), it’s something that’s essential to the mission of the church. Why should we talk about self-control? Especially when it’s not exactly the sexiest subject? Here are four reasons why.
It helps our witness.
When the #Metoo movement erupted some Christians felt a little smug. It seemed that after decades of promoting sexual license, “godless” Hollywood was finally reaping what it had sown. Then a number of high-profile Christian leaders were accused of sexual abuse or harassment and the #Churchtoo movement was born.
Suddenly we didn’t feel so smug.
These scandals serve as grim reminders that character isn’t optional for leaders; it’s essential. Not only does it protect parishioners from potential abuse, it preserves our witness to the outside world. Let’s face it: you can communicate the gospel powerfully but if your life is a mess, people aren’t going to listen. To live a righteous life that draws people to Christ—and to avoid the kind of moral failings that push people away—you need self-control.
It fuels discipleship.
Self-control isn’t just one good character trait, a nice addition to the pantheon of virtues. It’s foundational. Not because it’s more important than other virtues, but because the others rely upon it.
Think about it. Can you be faithful to your spouse without self-control? Can you be generous without self-control? Peaceable? Selfless? Honest? Kind? No, even the most basic altruism requires suspending your own interests to think of others. And that can’t happen without self-control. Fuller Seminary’s Thrive Center describes self-control as an “instrumental virtue” because it “facilitates the acquisition and development of other virtues.”
Often our discipleship efforts give people knowledge but fail to challenge them to the hard work of fighting the flesh. Don’t get me wrong: knowledge is important. We must teach people about the nature of God and the core doctrines of the Christian faith. But unless we also help them learn how to say no to sinful desires and destructive impulses, they won’t make progress in their spiritual journey.
It facilitates community.
We tend to think of self-control as an independent virtue. It’s self-control, after all. But Scripture stresses its value for community. It’s no coincidence that the fruit of the Spirit Paul lists (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) has a communal dimension. In fact, most aren’t virtues per se. They’re more like states of being designed to promote interpersonal harmony. By placing self-control at the end of this list, I believe Paul is emphasizing its value for relationships.
The beauty, and challenge, of church life is that we’re thrown into a community with all kinds of different people. That’s enriching—and challenging. It takes self-control to set our preferences and comfort aside. Ultimately, only mature, selfless Christians can fulfill Jesus’ command to “love on another as I have loved you.”
DREW DYCK (M.A. in Theology) is an editor at Moody Publishers and the former managing editor of Leadership Journal. His work has been featured in USA Today, the Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and CNN.com. Drew is the author of Generation Ex-Christian and Yawning at Tigers. He lives with his wife Grace and their three children near Portland, Oregon. Connect with Drew at www.DrewDyck.com or follow him on Twitter @DrewDyck.
Drew Dyck is the author Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science (Moody).