Scripture for Self-Control

Draw willpower and strength from the Bible.

By Elizabeth Peale Allen, Pawling, New York

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“I wish I had more self-control!” How many times have you heard someone say that—or said it yourself? Whether it’s sticking with a diet and exercise program or knowing when to hold your tongue, most people feel they come up short in the self-control department.

Even the Bible is outspoken on its importance. “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28).

So what is self-control? The phrase seems to imply a hefty dose of sheer willpower. And there is, indeed, work involved.

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Peter writes, “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

Yet Scripture also tells us that self-control is a gift. “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline,” we learn in 2 Timothy 1:7. And “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace...gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

So how much self is there in self-control? What’s up to us, and what’s up to God?

“For the grace of God...teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-13). Since the grace of God is our instructor, it is imperative that we do well as students.

To learn takes attentiveness—and humility. We have to trust that our teacher knows more than we do. We need to accept that perhaps the lessons aren’t going to be entertaining, relaxing or humorous. They may not satisfy our obvious desires, but, rather, lead our hearts toward deeper ones.

Becoming a good student in the school of self-control requires listening with the intention of learning what’s being taught. With the Psalmist we can pray, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11)

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What does a person with good self-control look like? Often it’s easier to come up with a list of people who clearly lack self-discipline. We all know someone whose struggles with “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

Self-control grows when we pay attention to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8).

Take a bit of time each day to meditate on these things. A large part of self-control is about removing our focus on who we are now and refocusing our attention on who God wants us to become.

“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray, as Jesus instructed. Those words come after we’ve said, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:9-13).

The order of the requests matters, because self-control depends in large part on how much we put God in control of our lives. The more we desire God’s will, the easier it is to choose it.

No matter how hard we try, there will still be times when, like Paul, we lament that, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do” (Romans 7:18-19).

We will stumble and fall, and we will get up and refocus our eyes on the prize. We will resolve to “put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Then we will pray to the Holy Spirit to renew the gift of self-control within us. And he will.