Self-Control Requires Renewing the Mind

Self-Control Is a Complicated Motion


Most people have a simplistic understanding of self-control. They reduce it to two basic motions. There is the brake pedal and the accelerator. To exercise self-control a person either presses down on the brakes to resist temptation (e.g. eating a second cookie) or steps on the accelerator to overcome fatigue (e.g. finish the last mile).

The truth is that self-control does indeed bear a resemblance to driving a car, but not in the way just mentioned. Regardless of what teenagers might think, driving is a complicated action. To drive well a person must use his imagination in order to think about different possibilities such as switching lanes, passing cars, and making turns. He must have clear and accurate vision in order to see what is happening around him. He must maintain concentration so as to avoid accidents and other unexpected perils. He must be decisive in critical moments, not allowing uncertainty or hesitancy to delay action. The simple motions of turning a wheel, flipping switches, and pressing pedals are, in truth, only a small part of what it takes to drive safely.

Self-control is similar. On the surface, self-control might look like two or three simple actions. However, a more careful look reveals that all of the faculties of the mind are at work enabling self-control to happen. Imagination, intellect, attention, memory, and the will all play a part. Understanding something about the role of each is important so that men can understand the task in front of them. The goal of self-control is far greater than resisting momentary temptations. The goal of self-control is to stay the course of holiness through a long and tumultuous life.   

Men Need Imagination

If a man wants to control himself, he must be able to imagine the space of possibility before him. A high schooler will not consider enrolling in college unless he can first see himself as a college student. The potential of countless youth is restricted due to the shortsightedness of their imagination. They fail to aspire because they cannot see. If none of my parents, aunts or uncles, or grandparents received a college degree, I might assume that pennies on the hour is the best I will ever do. I will fail to attempt because I cannot imagine.

The spiritual application of this is important. Self-control requires a sufficient degree of detachment, reflection, and dreaming.[1] Human beings are always limited by the horizon of their vision. If I can only see five hundred feet in front of me, then I will only operate based on that information. If I can only recognize the obvious options on the table, I will not factor further alternatives into my decision. This is why reading Christian biography is such a powerful activity. To read the life of Hudson Taylor is to reconsider what it might mean for me to depend on God. To pick up the story of William Carey is to re-imagine what it means to live with a calling. The same is true for more commonplace decisions like how to disciple children, show hospitality, or manage finances. Most men follow the ruts of the people around them because they never pause to consider an alternative. They are not able to steer a different course into the future because their vision is limited to the lane right in front of them.[2]

Questions for Small Groups and Self-Reflection

All of us are bound by the limits of our imaginations. If we cannot imagine, for example, what a loving husband looks like, we will not be able to make choices to love our wives. This raises a hard question: how do we improve our imaginations? To answer this question, consider the following:

  1. How can finding good roles models help us re-imagine what it means to be a godly man?

  2. How can reading biographies help us re-imagine what it means to be a godly man?

  3. How can drafting a Christian life plan help us re-imagine what it means to be a godly man?

[1] Of course, there are dangers regarding dreaming. Paul Tripp says, ‘But dreaming is never morally neutral because the dreamer is never neutral. Herein lies the danger of this intensely human gift. Our ability to dream is easily kidnapped by our sin. While our dreams can reveal our faith, they can also expose the lust, greed, selfishness, fear, anger, doubt, hopelessness, and materialism of our hearts.’ Thus the challenge is dreaming according to what is true and holy, not what is false and sinful. Paul Tripp, How People Change (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2008). 

[2] Along with books, life-on-life discipleship is another powerful way to adjust one’s perspective on life. To observe how a mature Christian lives will generate new ideas regarding how to use time, raise children, manage finances, spend time with God, etc.