It’s Not Just You

The Problem With Self-Control

I was at the airport waiting for a flight, when a 60-something man sat down next to me and whipped out a book. The title grabbed my attention: I’ll Quit Tomorrow: A Practical Guide to Alcoholism Treatment.

I asked him about it and immediately regretted doing so. He was clearly embarrassed by the question. He shifted in his seat and flipped the book over to hide the title.

“I’m writing a book on self-control,” I told him. “That’s why your book caught my eye.”

These words seemed to ease his apprehension.

“I’ve been clean for years, but I’m starting to help other people who have the same issue,” he told me.

What did he think about self-control?

“It’s important,” he said. “But if you rely on self-control alone, you’re dead. You need a community around you. I know alcoholics who haven’t had a drop for 40 years and still go to the AA meetings.”


Horizontal Help

I was grateful for his input. For over a year I’d been reading everything I could get my hands on to give me a better understanding of willpower and self-control. But I’d given little thought to the role the people around us play in the process. Thankfully, this recovering alcoholic at Gate 22C set me straight. When it comes to resisting destructive habits, lone rangers are dead rangers.

After that encounter, I started to read the Bible’s teaching about the topic through new eyes. I’d always seen self-control as a solitary enterprise, just one person facing off against temptation. However, Scripture paints a different picture. In fact, I started to see that it was a mistake to separate self-control and community in the first place.

The people around us have a major impact on our behavior. Scripture warns, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). It also speaks of the benefits that come with hanging around the right kind of people: “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). By spending time with people who encourage us and hold us accountable, we give ourselves the best chance at improving our behavior.

I started to see that it was a mistake to separate self-control and community in the first place.

We’re wired for peer influence. Our brains are equipped with “mirror neurons” that help us discern what people around us are thinking and feeling. These specialized neurons enable us to empathize with others and even “feel” their pains and desires. Of course, when it comes to behavior, this unique ability cuts both ways. Willpower failures are contagious, but so is virtue. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes, “You can catch self-control as well as self-indulgence.”

The key for building self-control is to surround yourself with like-minded people who will spur you on to virtue and discourage vice—and also be there to comfort and help you when you fail. Part of the reason Paul urged the early Christians not to neglect gathering together was because it was an opportunity “to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). To exercise self-control, we need each other.


Vertical Empowerment

Our self-control also grows as we strengthen our vertical connection to our Creator. Perhaps the best-known biblical mention of self-control is found in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

A lot of ink has been spilled unpacking this famous passage, but at least one fact is hard to miss: The virtues listed do not grow, apart from dependence on God. The apostle Paul is using a metaphor. Just as a tree must be nourished by the soil in order to produce fruit, so we must be connected to God in order to see these qualities flourish in our life. That can feel counterintuitive when it comes to self-control. After all, it’s self-control, right? Isn’t that something we generate ourselves? Well, not the kind of self-control Scripture describes. Its source is the very Spirit of God.

Just as a tree must be nourished by the soil in order to produce fruit, so we must be connected to God in order to see self-control flourish in our life.

I’ve seen the truth of this in my own life. On the days when I skip spending time in the Bible and prayer, I’m far more likely to succumb to temptation. I’m more likely to snap at my children, gossip about a coworker, or look a little too long at a provocative image. It even seems to affect my productivity. When I begin my mornings by spending time with God, I’m more focused and determined. I plow through my to-do list. There’s something about communing with God that centers my soul and strengthens me against the daily barrage of temptations and distractions.

Researchers describe willpower as a finite resource. In other words, it’s limited. It runs out. But six years ago, German researchers conducted a landmark study showing that prayer actually counteracts willpower depletion, thereby increasing self-control. And it was far from a fluke finding. The researchers concluded, “These results are consistent with and contribute to a growing body of work attesting to the beneficial effects of praying on self-control.”

Of course, as Christians, we’re not surprised by such findings. We know prayer is powerful. Scripture instructs us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Jesus connected prayer to self-control when He commanded His disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Matt. 26:41 NIV). In light of what both Scripture and science teach us about the topic, praying may benefit us as much as it helps the people for whom we pray. We know that spending time in God’s Word has a similar effect on our self-control. As the psalmist wrote, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11).


Self-Control for Others

Galatians 5:22-23 also reveals self-control’s communal dimension. Earlier, I described the fruit of the Spirit Paul lists as virtues, but they’re not virtues per se. They’re more like states of being designed to promote interpersonal harmony. We need love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness if we’re going to get along with each other. Same with self-control. When you have self-control, you’re able to deny your selfish impulses and put others first. Being self-controlled enables us to truly love others. As Sir Alec Paterson prayed, “O God, help us to be masters of ourselves that we may be servants of others.”


People often comment on what a “natural mother” my wife Grace is. Indeed, she’s an excellent mom. After working full-time for the first eight years of our marriage, she now spends her days at home with our three young ones. I marvel at her ability to read children’s books (over and over), do kids’ crafts, play with them, clean up spills, and otherwise entertain, discipline, educate, correct, and comfort little human beings. But she’ll be the first one to tell you that these activities don’t come naturally for her. Some people enjoy the trappings of childcare. They find it energizing to interact with small children and enter their world. Not her. Before we had children, Grace would volunteer in the church nursery and come out frazzled. When she was a teenager, she found babysitting stressful. Even caring for our children has been challenging. “I don’t love playing kids’ games and reading kids’ books,” she told me. “But I love our kids so much that I’m happy to do those things.” Grace isn’t a hero; she’s a mom. And because she loves her children, she consistently puts her own preferences aside. She exercises self-control to do what’s best for them.

The same principle applies when it comes to loving people outside our biological family. We need self-control in order to love our church community. Let’s face it: Christian community is wonderful, but it isn’t always easy.

A few years back, a popular Christian author announced that he was done with church. In the future, he explained, he would not construct his community around a shared set of beliefs. He would hang out only with people who had good character and were nice. I had to admit I could see the appeal of such a decision. After all, don’t we all want to be surrounded by nice people?

Prayer actually counteracts willpower depletion, thereby increasing self-control.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s a biblical notion. As Christians, we come together around our shared belief in Christ. That means being in community with people of different backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities. We gather with people who have different education levels and incomes. We do rub shoulders with people who are nice—and with some who are annoying. In a sense, we’re stuck together. And that’s where self-control is crucial. It takes discipline to set aside our own interests and preferences to make space in our life for people who are very different from us. It takes self-control to love others and, really, just to get along.

We’re not accustomed to thinking about self-control in these terms. On a recent trip to the bookstore, I surveyed the literature on self-control and self-discipline. I was struck by how often words like power and success appeared in the titles. Self-control is presented as a means to get rich or popular or wealthy. It encourages people to set goals—whatever goals they want—and pursue them with single-minded determination. But biblical self-control can’t be divorced from biblical purposes. And we know what those purposes are: to better love God and others. Because of that, self-control is ultimately less about control than surrender. It means consistently suspending our own desires and impulses to glorify God and serve our fellow man.

Fortunately, in this quest to improve our self-control, we’re not called to go it alone. God promises to empower us. He sends other people alongside to strengthen us. And He stands ready to forgive when we fall, reminding us that though we’re weak, “[His] strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJV). Thank God!


Illustrations by Jun Cen

Related Topics:  Self-control

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33 Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals."

17 Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.

24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

17 pray without ceasing;

41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

11 Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.

9 And He has said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

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