If you want to get serious about anything, education is going to be a key ingredient. Even if you want to rescue a dying potted plant, you’ll at least Google it for info. No surprise, then, that the Apostle Peter told Christians to add to their faith knowledge (2 Pet. 1:5-6). Such a great and worthy concern needs significant input. It’s hard to say your spiritual growth will go anywhere when you continue knowing more about NFL draft picks than Jesus.
Still, Peter situated knowledge at the early part of his list. Other things come afterwards, telling us knowledge by itself isn’t enough. If it were, anybody with a footnoted study Bible would be a spiritual person. The truth is I don’t simply need to know, I need to do what I know. I also need to stop doing what I shouldn’t do. Easier said than done, right? That’s why Peter said we should add to our knowledge self-control.
I could point out how every item in his spiritual formation list is critical, but issues of self-control lie at the root of nearly every ruinous mistake and miserable addiction. Adultery, overeating, destructive outbursts of anger, narcissistic pleasures, and excessive vanity all stem from a certain unwillingness to tell ourselves no, or at least accept God-given limitations. Frequently the impulses we refuse to control later become so compulsive that we feel unable to deal with them—literally enslaved.
As enticements increase, encouraging us to dismiss God’s law or push the limits of purity, we rarely wonder how to shore up our self-control. Instead, we look for loopholes. You’ve probably heard the soft assuring lie in your head that if you relent, there will be few, if any consequences. And so it seems the best way to solve the problem of temptation is to yield to it. In fact, I’ve seen studies that suggest it’s actually better to blow up at someone and “be honest,” because bottling our feelings might become emotionally toxic. Worldly wisdom also counsels people to follow their hearts regardless of the cost.
None of these studies ever bother to explore the collateral damage in the wake of a person who lays aside self-control. Apparently nobody wants to hear about the shattered families, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that turned out to be a pot of manure. Surrender to sin is not a strategy for either emotional or spiritual long-term health. It gives relief for the moment. But so does crystal meth.
Then what should we do?
“Add self-control,” Peter would say.
God has provided helpful resources from two places—the outside and the inside. Outside help comes from available wisdom. Check out the book of Proverbs. It’s loaded with practical insights for godly living—nothing overly spiritual—things like having healthy friends and not hanging out with fools, accepting wise correction and not acting like you know everything, using time productively and not falling into idleness, being careful with words and not vomiting out whatever crosses your mind, and seeking wisdom rather than toying with sin.
Proverbs even contains an extended coaching session for the man who is sexually tempted, helping him game out how he ought to respond and escape (Prov. 6:20-7:27). Very little of what you find there says to simply drop everything and pray. Instead, the book commands the implementation of attitudes, plans, and general approaches to life. By doing that, it actually teaches self-control even while sin is still over the hill and out of sight. It is proactive.
Proactive wisdom might involve avoiding the beach if you’re a man who is challenged in the area of controlling his lusts. Otherwise you’ll get there only to discover the human scenery is a lot more alluring than seagulls and shells. You’ll find yourself forced to look down at your feet a lot. For the Christian dealing with weight issues, you might want to quit bringing those jumbo bags of Hershey miniatures into your house, especially when you know the whole thing will be eaten in less than a day.
These are not foolproof measures of course, but they put distance between yourself and the temptation. It’s easier to exercise self-control when temptation is at an earlier stage and become practiced in resisting it than waiting until the heat of full-blown trial. Add self-control now, not then.
Paul models this type of wisdom when he advises his young understudy, Timothy, to “Flee youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). Timothy wasn’t supposed to march into temptation and dare the devil to do his worst. He was supposed to recognize sin from a distance and avoid getting near it. If it unexpectedly cropped up, he was told to run from it. Cautions of this type are supposed to keep us from “letting our hair down” and falling into disrepute, losing our ministries, our families, or our careers.
Resources for self-control also come from the inside where we build up a healthy spiritual life. Let’s face it, you can’t just erect defenses on the outside if you’re a wimp within. You’ll start trying to defeat your own safeguards, like the guy who sets his alarm for 6:00 a.m. Then he sets it to ultra-soft, so it won’t disturb him when it goes off.
External practical constraints cannot substitute for the corresponding self-control that should emanate from within us. Dr. David Jeremiah cites the example of a submarine that once strayed too deeply into the ocean depths and imploded when the tremendous water pressure overwhelmed its steel hull. Yet, tiny deep-sea fish thrive at those same enormous pressures. Their secret is not steel skin layering the outside of their bodies, but a pressure inside them that matches the pressure on the outside.
Paul described his utter failure with self-control in Romans chapter 7. It appears his efforts occurred at a time prior to conversion when he had been without the Holy Spirit. Paul and his sinful drives were the only two parties on the mat. Give him an ‘A’ for effort, but his every attempt to control himself in the face of temptation was like a kid wrestling a Rhinoceros. He always lost. Later of course, he received the Holy Spirit and found that self-control is not simply about personal will power. It is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16)—a product of God’s work in us.
For sure we can’t mentally check out and say God will do all the adding (remember, it is self-control, not Spirit-control), but at the same time it’s foolish to think we’re going to pin the Rhino without serious help.
Of course it’s possible for Christians—people who have the Holy Spirit—to live as though they don’t have Him. Paul had to remind us to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). In other words, fully benefit from the fact that “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
As we fellowship with God through prayer and take the time to behold His glory in the Word, His presence within us counterbalances the pressures we feel without. Don’t skimp here. You’ll end up floating in the middle of an unfinished Christian life. Halfway to the moon you’ll wonder where the calculus failed, when the trouble all along was in the simple addition.
Add to your faith self-control.