Another Angle on Self-Control

‘And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”’
— Mark 1:36-38

When thinking about the commands of Scripture, it is often helpful to consider what is not being commanded. Running the thought experiment of what the opposite of a virtue or command would be can help clarify what the virtue or command is. I have been considering this recently in reflection on the nature of self-control. There is one obvious dimension to self-control, the one normally considered and taught on: which is that we must control our own passions and desires. Indeed, the passions of the flesh are contrary to the Spirit, and they must, by the Spirit’s help, be controlled and mortified. The eight passions of the soul, as the Eastern church tradition has them — pride, lust, envy, wrath, greed, gluttony, akedia/sloth, and despair — are all enemies within, and self-control demands that we are able to choose their opposites, the virtues: justice, temperance, fortitude, prudence, faith, hope, and love.

Yet there is another dimension to self-control which is less considered, but also evident in the Scriptures and in the life of Christ, which is that self-control also demands that we not let ourselves be controlled by others. To be self-controlled is both to control the self (i.e. the flesh, our unruly and unspiritual selves), and also to be controlled by the self (i.e. our reborn, remade, Spiritual selves). In the text above, we see an example of Christ’s self-control, just one of many in his ministry. Christ was constantly under pressure from people who wanted him to do things for them, on their terms and according to their schedules. On many occasions, he obliged, but his control over the situations was always clear from the fact that he did, at times, say no. Consider the wedding at Cana (John 2) — Christ told his mother that his time had not yet come, but then performed the miracle anyway. In doing so, he demonstrated both his compassion and his self-control. He could not be coerced into working according to anyone else’s priorities or schedule: not his mother’s, not Simon Peter’s, not the crowd’s. Christ was self-possessed and self-controlled in his ministry.

There are obvious occasions where this kind of self-control straightforwardly means resisting sin: take the first chapter of the Proverbs. The one who might be led astray by the sinful must learn to control herself, rather than be controlled by so-called friends. Even when it comes to doing good, however, the example of Christ shows us that we cannot do all the good that there is to do, and that sometimes self-control demands saying no to some goods in order to pursue greater ones, such as prayer, or rest for the sake of longer-term fruitfulness. Yet churches are full of people exhausted by saying yes to every request made of their time. Is this a manifestation of their godliness? Not always. The uncomfortable truth is this: many people find it difficult to say no to things because they lack self-control.

Saying no does not mean that one cannot continue in self-giving. In fact, true self-giving demands this sort of self-control and self-possession. After all, we cannot freely give what is not truly possessed. Some people whose time is constantly filled by various ‘good works’ that have all been undertaken indiscriminately have not given themselves away, they have allowed themselves to be taken. Christ himself draws this distinction in John 10:18, ‘No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.’ Had Christ’s life been taken from him, it would not have been a gift, and we would be guilty of possession of stolen goods. Even the stronger language of ‘submission’ (cf. Rom. 13:5; Eph. 5:21) demands having a will of one’s own to submit freely to others.

The fruit of the Spirit is self-control. As we live by the Spirit, we can say that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20), and at the same time find that we are more truly and fully ourselves than we were before. Christ sets us free from the tyranny of our fleshly desires, as well as from the tyranny of other people, and in his service there is perfect freedom. The calling of those who are children of God is mature sonship, which includes real personal agency which may be freely employed for the service of Christ. If we are called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), that means that we must have the freedom and agency to make that offering. We now stand and fall before our own Master (Rom. 14:4), rather than being mastered by others.

Growth in self-control requires this ability to say no. We may not like to think to deeply or introspectively about ourselves, as we fear navel-gazing and narcissism, but without adequate knowledge of ourselves — our gifts, strengths, needs, weaknesses, capabilities, obligations, etc. — we will not reach maturity in this area. We will forever be trying to please others, stretched thin by their demands, living and dying with their approval or disappointment, their praise and blame. Christ, by contrast, sets us free from serving as slaves in order that we might serve as sons, he frees us from slavery to others and gives us freedom in him. As his disciples, we can begin to learn to say no not only to sin, but also to the demands — both the well-meaning and exploitative — of others. He gives our selves back to ourselves, in order that we may finally give ourselves freely, rather than under compulsion.

Truly, his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

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