Seizing Self-Control

Proverbs 25:28

August 5, 2001 | Brian Bill

I heard about a stunt pilot who was selling rides in his single engine airplane.  One day he got into an argument with a pastor who insisted on taking his wife along at no extra charge.  Not wanting to miss out on a chance to make some cash, the pilot said, “I’ll take you both up for the price of one if you promise not to utter a sound during the entire flight.  If you make any noise, the price is doubled.”  The deal was made and they climbed aboard the plane.

The pilot quickly proceeded to put the plane through all sorts of stunts and maneuvers designed to make the bravest person tremble.  But the passengers didn’t make a sound.  Exhausted, the pilot finally landed.  As the pastor climbed out, the pilot said, “I made moves up there that frightened even me and yet you never said a word.  You must have incredible self-control.”  The pastor thanked the pilot and then said, “I must admit that there was one time when you almost had me.”  “When was that?” asked the pilot.  To which the man replied, “When my wife fell out of the plane!”  

Talk about self-control!  As we come to the last, but not least, fruit of the Spirit, let’s read Galatians 5:22-23 together: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”

Defining Self-control

Each of the different characteristics of the Fruit of the Spirit focuses on how we respond to God and how we treat other people.  Joy and faithfulness are expressed vertically while peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness bear directly on how we interact with others.  And, the juiciest fruit, which is at the center of our spiritual fruit salad, is love, which has both a horizontal and vertical dimension. 

Nestled among the Spirit’s produce is the seemingly out-of-place fruit of self-control.  This characteristic of a Christ-follower seems to focus more on me instead of on my relationships with other people.  I can exercise self-control when I’m the only person in the house.  In fact, sometimes the hidden, private moments when no one else is looking is precisely when I need self-control the most.  

However, if we properly exercise the fruit of self-control, it will benefit those around us.  In some ways, we might consider this virtue the most important because without self-control the works of the flesh cannot be overcome and the other elements of the Fruit of the Spirit will not be evident. 

When the Greeks wanted to illustrate self-control, they built a statue of a man or a woman in perfect proportion.  To them, self-control was the proper ordering and balancing of the individual.  Aristotle once said, “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self.”   Plato believed that our animal urges must be governed or else they will produce “a feverish state in the soul, a city of pigs” which knows no limits.  When we’re not self-controlled, our life is like a pigsty.  That’s quite a word picture.

The word translated “self-control” in the NIV is rendered “temperance” in the King James Version.  It comes from the word “strength” and means, “one who holds himself in.”  To be self-controlled is to not live in bondage to the desires, passions and appetites of the flesh.  My body is a good servant but a miserable master.  

While “self-control” is a good translation of the Greek word, it’s a bit deceiving because we all know that we can’t control ourselves simply through our own willpower or self-determination.  Self-control is more than just self-help.  Paul speaks of our dilemma in Romans 7:18: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good but I cannot carry it out.”  

walking by the Spirit, under the Lordship of Christ

We can get a fuller meaning of self-control from Paul’s extended discussion of his ministry in 1 Corinthians 9.  In this passage, Paul contrasts exercising control over his body with running “aimlessly” in verse 26.  He argues that athletes exercise self-control because they have a clearly defined purpose or goal.  They cannot afford to be distracted by every passion or desire that comes along.  We can therefore define this final fruit of the Spirit as the “control of the self by the Spirit for the sake of the gospel.”   What looks like self-control is actually the result of letting someone else take control.  Self-control, biblically speaking, means walking by the Spirit, under the Lordship of Christ.

Broken Down Walls

In order to fully understand this fruit, it’s helpful to describe what the absence of self-control looks like.  Proverbs 25:28 provides a dramatic description of the individual living out of control, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” When the book of Proverbs was written, one of the main sources of strength and protection for a city consisted in the building and maintaining of walls.  A wiped out wall was considered a breach in security.  A city with walls in disrepair was a city with a shameful reputation.  

That’s one of the reasons Nehemiah was so motivated to begin a building campaign in Nehemiah 1:3.  Those who lived in the capital were in “great trouble and disgrace” because the wall of Jerusalem was broken down.  It was open to attack and ultimate destruction.  The man or woman who lacks self-restraint is like a city that has no effective defense.  They are not able to resist those things that can destroy their lives and the lives of others.  When occupants of a city for whatever reason neglected their own safety by failing to build and maintain strong walls, they would have been looked upon as a weak and foolish people.  Likewise, when we forfeit the fruit of self-control, we are feeble and not very wise.

The Bible offers several vivid examples of people who lived out-of-control lives.  One of the most dramatic stories is of Samson, found in Judges 14-16.  He is a portrait of self-destruction.  As one of Israel’s judges, the Spirit of God empowered him.  He was known for his strength and led God’s people for 20 years.  One of his primary tasks was to protect his people from the influence of the pagan Philistines.  But because he did not have self-control he instead visited Philistine prostitutes and eventually told Delilah about the secret of his power.  Lacking sexual self-control, he soon lost his hair, his strength and his life.

King Saul was another man with a deficit in self-control.  He was so determined to destroy David that his life spun completely out of control in 1 Samuel 21-23.  He ignored the important things in his life in order to chase David all over the place.  David, on the other hand, demonstrated remarkable self-control when he had the opportunity to kill Saul.  Instead of allowing his passions to control him, in 1 Samuel 24:6 David says, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.”  Tragically, several years later when David is King, his self-control goes out the window when he commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders Uriah.

I find it interesting in the New Testament, that when Paul had the privilege of presenting the gospel to Felix, a Roman governor, he chose to emphasize “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” in Acts 24:25.  Felix had no self-control, and had indulged in all kinds of cruelty and lust, committing both murder and adultery.  Felix was no different than many others in the Roman Empire.  Scholars tell us that when ancient Rome was disciplined and controlled, it was a great nation, but when it became saturated in its own sin it lost its glory.  Drunkenness, orgies, and an “anything goes” mindset caused Rome to cave inward and implode upon itself.  The decline of the Roman Empire went hand-in-hand with self-indulgence.  I wonder if America is going down that same road?

Felix responded to Paul’s preaching like many of us do today.  The second half of Acts 24:25 reveals that he was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now!  You may leave.  When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”  I doubt that he ever called for a second sermon on self-control.  Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, “He is a governor that governs his passions, and he is a servant that serves them.”  

Unfortunately, some of us have allowed our walls to be broken down.  Instead of governing our desires and appetites, most of us are “bingers” by nature.  Some of us binge on food, some on sleep, others on work, and still others on TV, sports, spending or sex.  Solomon reminds us of the importance of keeping a watch on how we’re doing in Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

A Self-control Inventory

Are you struggling with self-control in any of these areas that are addressed in the Book of Proverbs?  

  • Uncontrolled lust.  Proverbs 6:26: “For the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread, and the adulteress preys upon your very life.”
  • Uncontrolled spending.  Proverbs 21:20: “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.”
  • Uncontrolled ambition.  Proverbs 23:4: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.”
  • Uncontrolled drinking.  Proverbs 23:29-30: “Who has woe?  Who has sorrow?  Who has strife?  Who has complaints?  Who has needless bruises?  Who has bloodshot eyes?  Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.”
  • Uncontrolled anger.  Proverbs 29:11 says, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”

The Premiere Passage

Is it possible to display self-control in our self-centered and self-seeking culture?  Most all of us need it and want it, but some of us may feel like there’s no hope.  Perhaps you’ve tried to control these areas before but have struck out so many times that you just feel like giving up.  Before you throw in the towel, please turn to the premiere passage on self-control in the New Testament: Titus 2.  The young pastor Titus did not have an easy assignment on the island of Crete.

Crete was filled with saloons and was well known as the first century “party place.”  This week’s issue of Newsweek ran an article called, “The Road to Rave.”  Young adults are flocking to spots around the world seeking indiscriminate sex and drugs.  “BringItOn” is an Internet-based company that caters to twenty-something club goers.  It operates under the motto “On the beach ‘til 7 p.m.  In the clubs ‘til 9 a.m.”

Crete was like that.  It was a party place populated by people whom Paul describes in Titus 1:12 as “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”  Temptations abounded and tripped up some of the new Christians with whom Titus worked in the Cretan congregation.  These new babes in Christ had come out of the raucous world around them.  Each of them had friends who were still participating in the drunken love fests for which Crete was famous.  This was not an easy place to win converts to Christ nor was it an easy place for believers to maintain their purity and self-control in their lives.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise to find in Paul’s brief letter to Titus numerous admonitions to seize self-control.  Instead of acting crazy with no restraint at all, Paul challenges four groups of people to “be in their right minds” by being controlled by the Spirit of God.  

  1. In Titus 1:8 elders are to be men who are known for their hospitality, good works, holiness, discipline and self-control.
  2. In 2:1, Titus is to teach the older men to be self-controlled.
  3. In 2:2, older women are to be reverent, truth-tellers and not addicted to alcohol.  As they teach what is good, verse 4 challenges them to train younger women to love their husbands and children and to be self-controlled.
  4. In 2:6, Titus is to be an example to young men and to encourage them to be self-controlled.

The final verses in this chapter give us the solution to out-of-control lives.  It’s not enough to just try to do it on our own.  We desperately need God’s power and His grace.  Look at Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope-the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

The emphasis in this passage and the key to seizing self-control is grace – God’s lavish favor poured out on undeserving sinners.  This grace does at least three things.

1. Grace redeems us (11, 14a).

There is no way we can save ourselves.  God took the initiative and brought salvation to us.  Verse 14 explains that Christ “gave Himself for us.”  He paid the price to buy us back from the shackles of sin.

2. Grace reforms us (12, 14b). 

Salvation not only changes our position before God, we’ve also been given a change in attitude, appetite, ambition and action.  We’ve been given freedom from the condemnation of sin and we also have freedom from the domination of sin.  Warren Wiersbe writes that the “same grace that redeems us also reforms our lives and makes us godly.”  God is training us through the Holy Spirit to be the kind of people that bring glory to Him.  

Notice in verse 12 that we can say “no” to ungodliness and passions.  To be self-controlled is to restrain ourselves by not giving in to our depraved desires.  We can say “no” when everything in us is saying “yes” for all the wrong reasons.  We deny worldly lusts when we withhold our consent from them and when we refuse the delight they suggest.  God will give us the ability to withstand temptations and will provide a way of escape when they become too severe (1 Corinthians 10:13).

His reforming grace also allows us to say “yes” by working on the positive by living “self-controlled, upright and godly lives” in this present age.  Since we’ve been redeemed from this world, we don’t have to be conformed to it.  In fact, we can be “eager to do what is good” according to verse 14.  Here are seven practical ways that we can both say “no” to that which is destructive and say, “yes” to what is helpful.  

  • Admit you have a problem with self-control.
  • Yield to the lordship of Christ.  Galatians 5:16: “Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
  • Cultivate the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer.
  • Invest in spiritual friendships.  Ecclesiastes 4:10: “If one falls down, his friend can help him up.  But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!”
  • Curtail bad influences.  Avoid those things that tempt us.  1 Corinthians 15:33: “Bad company corrupts good character.”
  • Practice good habits.  Job 31:1 says that Job made a covenant with his eyes to not gaze lustfully at a woman.  
  • Welcome gracious correction.  Things would have ended differently for Samson if had listened to those who warned him to let God control his sex drive.

3. Grace rewards us (13). 

We can have self-control because we’ve been redeemed from the way we used to live.  We’ve also been reformed on the inside and have the power to actually change.  Verse 13 reminds us that the return of Jesus is our only hope and glory.  Instead of living for today, we live for what is to come.  This is in stark contrast to pleasure seekers who live only for this life and what it offers.  Knowing that we’ll see Jesus face-to-face should give us impetus to live Spirit-controlled lives today.  While we wait in hopeful expectation we’ll discover a powerful antidote to worldly lusts and passions.

In his excellent book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes: “Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack.  We rely on our willpower and determination.  Whatever may be the issue for us – anger, fear, bitterness, gluttony, pride, lust, substance abuse –we determine never to do it again; we pray against it, fight against it, and set our will against it.  But the struggle is all in vain, and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt…”

Let’s face it.  We’ve been created with a multitude of moods, passions, and desires.  They all need managing.  They must be under control or they will end up controlling us.  Lewis Smedes says that self-control is like the “conductor of a symphony orchestra.”  Under the conductor’s baton the multitude of talented musicians can play the right notes at the right time at the right volume so that everything sounds just right.  

To be self-controlled is to be Spirit-controlled

Likewise, our appetites and longings have their proper place.  Self-control is the Holy Spirit’s baton in our hearts under whose skillful direction everything stays in its proper place and comes in at just the right time.  To be self-controlled is to be Spirit-controlled.

Friends, there is no way we can develop self-control on our own.  The Christians on Crete faced long odds and we do as well.  There are more than enough people pulling us back into unrestrained living.  The good news is that you don’t have to give in to them, or into your own desires.  As you submit and surrender to the Spirit’s control, you can experience freedom and power that you’ve not seen before.


The key to displaying each of the nine character qualities known as the Fruit of the Spirit is not to try harder but to understand the short phrase that appears right after the spiritual fruit salad in Galatians 5:23: “Against such things there is no law.”  This means that these characteristics cannot be legislated or enforced by a set of rules.  You can’t make somebody be kind or patient or gentle.  Likewise, no law can keep us from displaying luscious fruit in our lives.  The only thing that is keeping us from allowing His fruit to ripen is our own selfishness and sinfulness.

I want to close with a very powerful reminder from Jim Cymbala.  He writes this in his latest book, Fresh Power: “While Christ’s work on the cross…was the only way to settle the problem of guilt, sin, and condemnation; the coming of the promised Holy Spirit was God’s way of changing human beings from the inside out.  The law given to Moses had failed on this very point.  It was in itself holy and just, but the problem was the sinful nature within people.  

Now the Holy Spirit dwelling in the hearts of believers would conquer the age-old dilemma of ‘I want to be different but can’t.  I know what’s wrong, but I keep doing it anyway.’  This empowerment by the Spirit would be the dynamic source throughout time for all who live and labor for Jesus Christ.”

Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to empower us on a daily basis.  We don’t have to go up in a plane to seize self-control; we have plenty of opportunities right here on the ground, which is where I want to stay for a while!

As we wrap up this series, I want to give you an opportunity to respond to the Spirit’s promptings.  Please close your eyes as I read a few verses from Galatians 5:16, 25: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

  • Are you living by the Spirit or are you trying to do it on your own?
  • Are you keeping in step with the Spirit or is your life out-of-control?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?