The challenge this month is to write out a Christian life plan. Why are we doing this? The answer is self-control. By gaining a clear sense of direction we will be able to avoid drift and steer our decisions toward the priorities of God.
Men like to pretend that they are warhorses. We tell ourselves that self-control is a natural muscle that can be flexed at will and that develops coordination and stamina over time. Our problem with self-control, so we think, is not that we don’t have it, but that we choose not to use it. Like a warhorse, we are capable of showing self-restraint in difficult circumstances. We are men, not boys. We are soldiers, not recruits. So we think.
This is false. By nature we are not warhorses; we are mustangs. A mustang has no capacity for self-control. It moves by instinct, not discipline. A mustang behaves as all wild animals behave, impulsively. No mustang could be taken straight from the wild and placed in a battle. It would fret. It would flee. Ignoring bit and bridle, it would not be able to control itself.
This is the condition of men outside of Christ. They cannot restrain their basest appetites, much less direct their noblest faculties. The consequences of this are frightful. Spiritually, to pursue godliness without self-control is like trying to swim with a millstone tied around your neck. Intent does not matter. The strongest of efforts is doomed for failure. But, thank God, Christians are not in this condition. With the presence of the Spirit comes the power for self-control. In Christ, men have no excuse not to develop this grace-given virtue. Self-control is part of our inheritance in Christ (c.f. Gal. 5:22-23; 2 Pet. 1:6).
When talking about self-control it is necessary to begin by clarifying what self-control is not. Not every brand of self-control is the same. There is true self-control, the fruit of the Spirit, and countless secular variants. Like counterfeit money, counterfeit virtues must be avoided.
First, self-control is not self-reliance. Self-control, like all of the fruit of the Spirit, is a product of grace. When we think about self-control we are mistaken if we imagine human willpower on steroids. Self-control is not a mental muscle that can be boosted artificially. Self-control is a complicated dance that only the Spirit-born are able to begin to perform.
Second, self-control is not self-mastery. Only God can see the depths of the human heart. Human motivation is every bit as complicated as the laws of quantum physics. No human being will ever achieve total mastery over himself. The motions of love, desire, fellowship, grace, and indwelling sin are too mysterious for this to happen. But if we cannot attain total mastery, we can attain a degree of control. The aim of self-control is for behavior to be deliberate, for truth to mold action, for the unconscious influences of an ungodly environment to be replaced with the spiritual influences of grace. Self-control has two opposites. One is being out-of-control. The emblem of this is a two-year-old. The other is being controlled by a godless environment. The emblem of this is a teenager.
Third, self-control is not absolute control. We are not princes sitting on thrones who can do as we please. God is sovereign; we are not. Our control is always limited to a station and calling ordained by God. Here the image of a warhorse is again helpful. A warhorse is under the authority of another. There is a lieutenant on its shoulders providing it with constant direction. Yet, a warhorse ought to have relative control. A good horse will not allow internal emotions or external circumstances to interfere with the lead of a rider. If all is done rightly, horse and rider are in-sync. This is a picture of what self-control looks like for a Christian. Relative control, not absolute control, is what Christians are seeking.
So what is self-control? Self-control is the freedom and strength to follow a path to godliness, which is made possible through the working of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, self-control is freedom. The human heart is not free by nature. It is shackled by sin, deluded by the world, and entrapped by Satan. This is why self-control is impossible outside of Christ. If lust is resisted, greed sprouts to replace it. The battle against sin is hopeless until sovereign grace is at work. On the other hand, self-control is strength. Self-control is the spiritual power to direct my steps according to the directives of God. He is the officer; I am the warhorse. Self-control is my ability to follow His lead.
Questions for Small Groups and Self-Reflection
Why don’t Christians receive much teaching on the nature and importance of self-control?
How can a Christian version of life-planning reinforce self-control?
What are the greatest obstacles to self-control? Consider both internal factors like and external factors like environment.