For this very reason, 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)
So far in this series we have taken a look at faith, goodness, and knowledge. You believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are changing your attitudes and behaviors to be good and do good. You are growing in your knowledge of God and the Holy Scriptures.
Well done! Keep it up!
Now get ready for a real challenge: Self-Control.
Why is self-control (or willpower) so difficult?
I can think of a few reasons. One reason is that we tend to take the easy way out. We go with the path of least resistance. It’s easier to stay home than it is to go work out. It’s easier to throw a frozen pizza in the oven than cook a nutritious meal. It’s easier to sleep in on Sunday than it is to get up and go to worship. Humans are prone to take the path of least resistance. We don’t like challenges. We like things to be simple, easy, uncomplicated. This leads to complacency or even apathy, not success and health.
Another reason self-control is so difficult is that we are masters at coming up with excuses. We tend to blame others for our bad choices or reactions. We claim that someone “made us” do something or say something that we know we shouldn’t. But there is no one who has full control over you. Every choice you make comes from the inside.
The last big reason that I’ll mention (there are many more reasons!) is related to the first point. Self-control is also about habits. Humans are great at forming habits – particularly bad habits. Habits serve us well much of the time. They allow us to act without conscious decision making. There are certain behaviors that become hardwired into our brain, which frees up a lot of extra brain power to be devoted to other processes. Here’s a great video explaining the power of habits:
Why is self-control so important?
But I also believe that self-control is one of the most underrated virtues in our society these days. Even though study after study has shown the importance of self-control, willpower, and delayed gratification in achieving success, society tends to place an emphasis on “telling it like it is” and reacting rather than responding. Self-control is not fun or entertaining. But it’s important for many reasons. Let’s look at some scriptures:
Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:32)
Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. (Proverbs 25:28)
Self-control goes hand in hand with wisdom and maturity. It’s about keeping your eye on the long-term success rather than instant gratification. It’s about leaning to say YES to the right things and saying NO to everything else. It’s about judging what and whom to let into your life.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Self-control is also a fruit of the Spirit, evidence that the Spirit of God is dwelling inside you. When you follow Christ, God gives you his Spirit to guide you and strengthen you. Paul says that the fruit of the Spirit in your life include all these virtues – including self-control. The Spirit in your life should be evident in your ability to control your emotions, your reactions, your patterns of behavior, your attitude, etc.
Does that mean it will always be easy as you follow Christ? Nope!
Just see if any of this sounds familiar:
But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:17-25 | The Message)
You want to do good, but you don’t. You try not to fall back into your bad habits, but you find yourself stuck in the same cycles and patterns again and again. It happens to everyone. We all know what it’s like. But thank God for what he has done through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
6 steps to building self-control
So how can we add and increase our level of self-control? After doing some research, it’s interesting how well the studies line up with principles we see in Scripture. Here are six steps you can take to increase your self-control/willpower.
Step 0: Be Brutally Honest
Ok, before we begin, we must be painfully honest with ourselves and with God. God already knows whatever it is you are struggling with. But often we are unaware of our own blindspots or bad habits. Or we claim that it’s not really that bad. Let’s take the blinders off and see ourselves, flaws and all.
What is at least one area in your life that you need more self-control over? I’m pretty sure everyone has at least one thing – lying, cheating, sneaking out, watching porn, overeating, gossiping, arguing, going to far with your boyfriend/girlfriend, phone addiction, video game addiction, anger, the list goes on. Name it. That’s the starting point for taking control over it. Until you name it, that thing actually has control over you.
Step 1: Pray About It
When Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, he gave them what’s known as The Lord’s Prayer. The final couplet in that prayer is this:
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:13)
What is that temptation in your life? Pray about it. What evil is trying to drag you away from God? Pray about it. Let God know that you are aware of the evil and temptation around you. Realize that in following him, God will not lead you astray. God is the good shepherd (Psalm 23) and will guide you where you need to go.
Step 2: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
You may be familiar with “The Marshmallow Test.” It was an experiment to test self-control, willpower, and delayed gratification among children. The experimenters would leave a child alone in a room for several minutes with a large marshmallow on the table. If the child did not eat the marshmallow, then they would receive TWO marshmallows when the experimenter returned.
The children who had the hardest time with it were those who stared at the marshmallow the whole time. They couldn’t look away. They kept their eyes on the marshmallow and ultimately gave into temptation. The children who faired the best were those who looked away or found some way to keep themselves otherwise preoccupied.
Look at what Paul tell Timothy, a young preacher:
Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:2)
Many times we want to know where the line is so we can get as close to it without crossing it. But if we want to get serious about developing self-control, then we should be concerned about turning our backs on the line and going the other way. “Flee” from whatever temptation is holding you back.
Are your friends constantly dragging you down? You can find new friends. Is that ice cream just too tempting in the evenings? Stop buying ice cream to keep in the house. Do you find yourself looking at inappropriate websites at night alone in your room? Don’t use your computer behind closed doors. Are you Snapchatting at all hours of the night when you should be sleeping? Turn your phone off and put it in a drawer in the kitchen.
Take control of your surroundings. Make things easier on yourself!
Step 3: Remove AND Replace
Addiction counselors will emphasize this need. It’s not enough just to cut something bad out of your life. You have to replace it with something better, more positive, or at least not as destructive. A lot of former smokers become constant gum-chewers. Breaking a habit becomes more effective if it’s replaced with another habit.
Paul was even aware of this:
Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18)
Don’t just stop stealing – find something positive to do with your hands. Don’t just stop getting drunk – fill your life with the Holy Spirit. Remove AND replace. Stop looking at porn and start reading more books. Stop eating all that junk food and start drinking herbal tea in the evenings. Stop hanging out with those bad influences and start spending more time with your fellow Christians. Stop gossiping and start encouraging. Stop spending hours on your phone and start spending more time talking with your family.
Step 4: Plan Ahead
Temptations are going to come. That’s a fact of life. You will find yourself in situations where your self-control and willpower are put to the test. So have a plan. As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
I can’t help but think of the conversation God has with Cain in Genesis 4. Cain had become jealous and angry at his brother Able. Cain would then go on to murder Able, but it’s interesting to see what advice God gives Cain before that fateful act:
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it. (Genesis 4:7)
Cain failed to gain control over his anger and his actions. God tried to get Cain to change his plans, but he didn’t. Temptation reared its ugly head, and Cain totally gave in to the sin.
It doesn’t have to be that way for you. Make if/then plans. For example, if they bring out alcohol at the party, then I will leave immediately. If my sibling is mean to me, then I will go to mom and dad rather than fighting back. If I’ve had a stressful day, then I will get some exercise or release in some way other than those websites.
Step 5: Accountability
This is one we may have the hardest time with. We don’t want anyone else to know what our struggles are! We don’t want to tell, because we may feel judged or looked down on. But I can guarantee you that your closest friends will understand. They may be going through the same kind of situation.
The reason Alcoholics Anonymous is so effective is that they have a group to open up with and they have an older sponsor who is able to walk them through the process of recovery. Being answerable to someone else is an important step in overcoming bad behaviors.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
This is what the church is for. This is why we need each other. We can keep each other in check and on the right path. We can help each other when we mess up. That’s what love is all about.
But there are also Apps you can get to help you, too. If you’re needing help with nutrition and exercise, MyFitnessPal is a great free app to help get things under control. If you need help managing your screen time and phone usage, Moment (iOS) and Digital Detach (Android) are two good options to track and limit your screen time. If you want to get in the habit of reading your Bible and praying more, the YouVersion Bible App has tons of great resources and can send you notifications throughout your day. Whatever your struggle, there’s probably an app for that.
But don’t rely on Apps alone. You need to have other trusted friends and mentors in your life. And if things are serious enough, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. There are some problems that are two big for and app or even for your best friend. Mental health professionals are a great resource in overcoming addictions, eating disorders, or other self-destructive patterns.
Step 6: Practice
Think of your willpower as a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows. The less you exercise it, the more atrophied it becomes.
Practice self-control by beginning with the little things. I’m not going to have dessert after dinner. I’m only going to play one hour of video games. I’m going to spend 30 more minutes studying and 30 minutes less on my phone. Begin with small goals and work your way up.
Is temptation still going to be there? Yes. Are you still going to mess up? Yes! So have some grace with yourself. Learn from your mistakes and move forward. I love what Paul says:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Your temptation and struggle is not unique to you. Others have been there and done that. But God is faithful (one of my favorite lines in the whole Bible). When it comes to temptation there is always a way out. Always. There is always a power button. There is always another channel to watch. There is always a ride home. There is always the possibility of saying NO. If we are praying for God to “lead us not into temptation,” then we have to keep our eyes open for the way out.
It may not be easy at first, but it will be worth it. The more you practice, the stronger your willpower can become.
This is a lot to take in. It can seem really overwhelming to start. But remember that you are not alone in your journey and your struggle. If you add self-control to your life, you will find joy and success in the long term. Which we will pick up with next week when we look at PERSEVERANCE.