Webster defines self-control as “control of one’s feelings, desires or actions by one’s own will; the power of controlling one’s external reactions, emotions, etc.; equanimity.” Roget lists as synonyms: restraint, self-discipline, willpower, mettle, resolve, composure and reserved.
The word temperance in the KJV conveys this idea of self-control and more. Unfortunately, it is usually now associated only with abstinence from alcohol or other intoxicants. The Greek word is best translated by the word “mastery” which indicates full control over self and the things which one may desire.
There are numerous examples of men exhibiting heroic self-control in the Bible. Let’s consider three of these.
Joseph was sold by his envious brothers into servitude in Egypt. As a youth he was purchased by Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. Joseph served his master well and the entire house prospered (Genesis 39:5). After a while, Potiphar’s wife began to seduce Joseph. She wearied him incessantly with her invitations to commit adultery (39:7-10). His response was always the same -- No!
The free thinkers and free lovers of today would “poo poo” Joseph’s Victorian morals. As Joni Meenagh said, “Teenagers are going to have sex; nobody can stop this from happening” (SIECUS Report, Apr/May 2003). Their view of things is that teens do not and cannot have mastery over their desires. Yet, Joseph a teen away from home, on his own, with a willing partner refused to sin against God, his master, his master’s wife and his own body (I Corinthians 6:18).
Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah are four more youths that demonstrated incredible mastery over themselves (Daniel 1). These four teens were brought from Palestine to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. His intent was to train them for service in the government. One aspect of their training involved their diet which was provided from the king’s table. For some reason this food and drink was regarded as unclean by Jews. It may have been unclean because of the kind of food it was, or it may have been so because it had been offered to idols (Leviticus 11; cf. I Corinthians 8) The drink may have been rejected because it was intoxicating (Proverbs 23:31; Isaiah 5:11, 22).
Again, these views would be ridiculed by most men today. The disbelief that youth can possess self-control is popular, even among the most educated. For example, Richard Keeling M.D. said, “Teenagers are going to drink no matter what the legal age is” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 07/15/05). However, here are four teenagers that did not and they proved themselves the better for it (Daniel 1:12-16).
The greatest example of self-control found is that of Jesus. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. The test began in earnest after Jesus had fasted for forty days and nights. Having had no food and no water Jesus was hungry (Matthew 4: 2). In this time of weakness, Satan came and tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. But, our Lord refused because man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Luke 4:4).
It was only natural that Jesus should be hungry; there was no sin in hunger. Yet, Jesus understood that he must rely upon God for his needs to be supplied, and, so, He disciplined Himself. God had brought Him into the wilderness and God would provide (Psalm 78:19).
How foolish this seems to men today. The psychiatrist Theodore Rubin avers we are not human if we exhibit mastery, saying, “I must learn to love the fool in me…it alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility and dignity but for my fool” (Love Me, Love My Fool, p. 76). Well, Jesus was ever as much a man as lived (Hebrews 2:17–18; 4:15) and He gained the mastery over the flesh (Romans 8:3).
Self-control is something which can be taught, learned, acquired and practiced. The Apostle Paul taught Felix the Roman Governor concerning the principles of self-control (Acts 24:25). Peter urged the Christians in Asia to supply or provide self-control in addition to their faith (2 Peter 1:6). The Hebrew Christians were chastened by Paul because they had not learned through the exercise of their senses to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:13-14). Each of these examples demonstrates that self control is acquired through a rigorous spiritual education. We acquire it as we become more and more familiar with God’s Word.
As suggested by the last text, joined with this instruction is a proper application. As we become skillful in the Word of God our “senses” are able to differentiate between that which is good for us and that which is evil. We are able to make the determinations that Joseph, Daniel and Jesus made. Paul, having acquired this discernment said he buffeted, or disciplined his body daily and brought it in subjection to the will of his mind (I Corinthians 9:25). We must grow in wisdom to the point that we can apply the Word to the various situations we encounter daily.
Another means whereby we acquire mastery over the body is through planning. Paul urged that we make no provisions for the flesh (Romans 13:14). We must learn to avoid those things that tempt us to give in to our desires. Job made a covenant with his eyes (Job 31:1). Paul purposed he would not eat and drink (I Corinthians 8:13; Romans 14:21). The wise man said we should avoid wine altogether (Proverbs 23:31). Don’t be like the drunken cowboy who after taking the pledge continued to tie his horse up in front of the saloon on Saturday. Before long, he was back in the saloon.
We acquire self-control through moderation (1 Corinthians 9:25). It is possible to get too much of a good thing (Proverbs 25:16). Learning to deny yourself or restrain your participation in even harmless and beneficial things brings a discipline to life that is helpful (Proverbs 20:13; 23:1-3; Philippians 4:12).
Finally, self-control is acquired only through a constant vigilance (I Corinthians 9:27). Paul “buffeted” his body; literally, he “beat down” the longings of the flesh. There is a constant conflict between the spiritual mind and the flesh (Galatians 5:16-17). Long term success is determined by the daily victories that result in a spiritual walk (Luke 9:23).