Porn addiction. Greed. Verbal abuse. Gluttony. Drunkenness. All different kinds of sins, but they all stem from the same problem: a lack of self-control.
I’ve argued before that self-control is one of the biggest indicators of Christian character. Without it, you’ll eventually ruin your life and legacy. With it, you can thrive and be a blessing to others around you. You’re probably convinced of the need for self-control. But how do you get it?
Here are four ways to grow in self-control.
1. Understand your identity in Christ
Your identity affects your activity. We often fail because we don’t remember who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.
Writes Paul, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). It is significant that “crucified” is in the past tense. Paul is saying, “Hey, your old life of giving in to sin regularly is gone. That’s not who you are anymore. You’re now in Christ.” And even though “crucified” is in the past tense, it has present implications. While our old-self is gone, we must continually be putting indwelling sin to death. Remembering your identity in Christ is the fuel that will help you to kill sin.
2. Keep in step with the Spirit
I’m more convinced than ever of the need for the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. This is especially true when it comes to self-control.
Again we turn to the Apostle Paul, who says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
Part of growing in self-control is walking in step with the Spirit. In the Greek, this expression literally means to “walk in line behind a leader” (ESV Study Bible, pg. 2255). It’s a cooperative effort. You cannot expect to grow in self-control by doing nothing, but growing in self-control takes more than mere human effort. As you appropriate the Spirit’s help in prayer and seek to obey God’s commands as revealed in his Word, the Spirit will empower you to obey him. Cry out to the Holy Spirit for help.
3. Remember the right things
Years ago someone tweeted something like this: “When tempted to sin, remember: obedience is joy.” Yes, when temptation comes, we must remember that obedience is joy. But we also must remember the other side of things, that sin brings misery, and potentially can ruin our lives.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” The context here is defeating spiritual depression. But I think this concept can apply in self-control.
When you’re tempted to sin, talk to yourself. Preach the gospel to yourself. Remind yourself of the negative effects of sin, how it can distort your walk with God, and how it affects others around you. Don’t listen to those urges and impulses alone. Give yourself truth.
Willpower matters. Of course, you can obey for the wrong reasons. Some people like to obey God’s law not because they love God, but because they want to seem superior to everyone else. But gospel-driven willpower and the sheer mustering of personal strength to obey God even when you don’t feel like it is to be commended, not rejected.
4. Get satisfied in Jesus
“I know of no other way to triumph over sin long-term than to gain a distaste for it because of a superior satisfaction in God,”says John Piper.
Are accountability groups helpful? Maybe. Should you get protective internet software? You could. Should you go to a small group? Yes. All of these things have their place. But they’re not enough. You can lie to your accountability group, cancel the software, and skip small group. If your heart is not satisfied in Jesus, all systems that you set up to kill sin will eventually fail. Addicts always find a way to get their fix.
Imagine you go on a date with your spouse (forgive me if you’re not married). You enjoy your favorite meal together. While you’re full already, you make room for dessert. Now you’re stuffed! You’re enjoying time with your beloved. Your heart is full and so is your stomach. After a while, you make it home to relieve the babysitter. When you get home, do you reach for the saltine crackers in the cabinet? No. Why? You’re already full.
The same is true with fighting sin and growing in self-control. If your heart is full of Jesus, you’ll be less apt to reach for sins like porn or greed or gluttony.
Self-control is crucial. Do whatever you can to grow in it. You (and everyone else around you) will be glad you did.