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At the risk of sounding like a therapist – how does that word make you feel?

If you’re like me, that rather common seven letter word simultaneously evokes a range of conflicting reactions. On the one hand, it inspires a sense of confidence, security and empowerment. On the other hand, it may be an anxiety inducing word leading to fear, uncertainty and doubt. Control in some form or another, wielded by someone or something, is an undeniable reality of daily life “under the sun.” Whether we think about it or not, it’s there. Someone or something is “in control” and ideally has things “under control” and hopefully is not (unlike my spending and eating habits around the holidays) completely “out of control.”

As Christians, there’s a certain brand of control that’s especially important – self-control.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach and famously insightful John Wooden once said, “If you lose self-control, everything else will fall.” 

Of course, Coach Wooden was really just paraphrasing an idea that we find in scripture.  Proverbs 25:28 reads, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down without walls.”

You may have heard it said that self-control is the power to “do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.” While we’d agree that this sentiment is true, it’s not entirely complete. It’s admirable, imperative even, to control our speech, impulses, actions, and emotional responses, but the Christian has a nobler calling. The goal of the Christian is to go beyond controlling our outward actions and to strive higher still towards controlling our thoughts. I find what the inspired apostle Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians particularly relevant to this topic. 2 Cor 10:5 - “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Paul, in his signature unvarnished style, makes it abundantly clear that the goal we should aspire to as Christians is complete and total submission to Christ, even the submission of our very thoughts. 

God’s word in fact has much to say about the subject of discipline and self-control. Scripture repeatedly reminds us that these qualities are not only useful for gaining mastery over our thoughts and our actions, but that discipline and self-control are also essential to progressing in our faith and producing fruit for God’s kingdom. In Ephesians 5, we see self-control is mentioned among the fruit of the Spirit. In another of Paul’s letters he writes - “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:24-27). 

Here Paul uses an effective sports analogy to emphasize that we, similar to athletes, ought to cultivate a goal-oriented mindset and develop the habits of discipline and self-control, as we strive toward the eternal goal of heaven.

Discipline and self-control are the bedrock of true discipleship. Self-discipline begins with a humble, Christ-centered heart, which enables us to have power over our thoughts. And the mastery of our thoughts is essential, because if we’re unable to control what we think, then we’ll be unable to control what we do. This may sometimes feel daunting in a world cluttered with excessive information and littered with countless distractions, where our senses are being bombarded daily from every possible angle. Yet, we know that the truth of God’s word, His wisdom, His comfort, His encouragement, and His power provide us with the tools to be self-controlled, even when it seems that everything around us is careening out of control. 

2 Peter 1:3-8 records – “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As we approach the end of the year and begin looking ahead to the next, let us all be encouraged to renew our efforts to be more disciplined, self-controlled, and committed to the instruction we find in God’s word. To be relentless in our pursuit of righteousness and fruitful in our work. And to press on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

-  Jeff Clark