Self-control has been a personal and lifelong battle for me. I grew up an overweight kid who couldn’t control my fork. That lack of control spilled over into other areas of my life, like time management.
I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with self-control. In fact, I believe we’re living in one of the most difficult times in history to practice self-control. Our environment is designed for our overindulgence.
Take food for example. Our brains crave salty, sweet, and fatty flavors. When found in nature, those tastes usually carry high amounts of vitamins, nutrients, and necessary calories. Unfortunately, our food has been modified to excite our cravings without delivering satisfying sustenance. In addition, we are drawn to novelty. So textures like crunchy and creamy cookies send us into a food frenzy. Lays Potato Chips had it right when they said, “I betcha can’t eat just one.”
What about finances? In the past we would put in a hard day’s work. Then we would get paid some green paper that we put in our wallets. When we went to buy groceries, we evaluated if the food we wanted was worth our labor. But now we swipe or even hover a plastic credit card over a sensor. No longer are our purchases connected to our work. Instead, we seem to have access to an endless amount of capital. That is, until we check our Visa statement and realize that we have overspent our income.
What about entertainment? In the past movies and magazines came to an end. But not anymore. Facebook is an everlasting rabbit hole, promising to deliver much needed information with just one more swipe, maybe two. Netflix and YouTube give us about ten seconds to conjure up enough self-control to stop from auto-playing the next show or video. It’s all designed to chip away at our self-control.
I don’t believe the food, finance, or social media industries are being malicious. They’re just in business, and they want to keep us as their customers. At some level, all of us might find something good from each one of these businesses. But a good thing can easily become a bad thing when we no longer practice self-control.
Proverbs 25:28 puts it this way: “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”
This proverb is self-explanatory. It’s unwise to have no boundaries in your life. Saying yes to everything is spiritually dangerous.
Why is that? Because we were designed, even commanded, to overindulge in only one thing.
Jesus said it this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
In other words, we can’t love God too much. We can’t over-obsess about how good God is. Giving our hearts to anything less than God will, at best, distract us and, at worst, destroy us.
3 suggestions for living a life of self-control
Here are some spiritual principles that I’m trying to implement to practice self-control.
1. Let the gospel break the overindulge-guilt-overindulge cycle. Eating a good meal or enjoying a fun movie can be done to the glory of God. But I find that I sometimes run to food and entertainment to escape from my feelings of guilt. Instead of letting my sin be covered in the blood of Jesus, I try to cover over my shame with chocolate sauce or a Netflix binge.
This cycle can only be broken by the freedom we have in Jesus, the freedom that saves us from past sin and empowers us to say no to temptation.
2. Work on your heart as much as your habits. I like self-help books because I need all the help I can get. I’ve learned a lot about self-control from authors like Melissa Hartwig, Cal Newport, Michael Hyatt, Greg McKeown, James Clear, Dave Ramsey, and many more.
And yet, I need more than just some self-help. I need a new heart. That’s why true self-control is a gift of God. As the Bible says, “The fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23).
3. Honor God through your calling. When I don’t feel like I have a purpose, I distract myself with mindless pleasure. Boredom kills my self-control. But when I believe that God has called me to be a pastor, husband, father, and friend and I look to fulfill those callings, I don’t seem to fall into overindulgence as much.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. But hard work on a God-honoring goal seems to extinguish some temptation.
Self-control will probably be a lifelong struggle for most of us. But as forgiven and dearly loved children of God, we need not despair. Our sins have been dealt with on the cross. And right now, the Spirit lives in us to empower us to be more like Jesus. Soon he will return to finish the job.
Pastor Ben Sadler has served as a full-time pastor since 2010. He began his ministry at a Spanish-speaking congregation in Florida. From 2014 to 2019, he served at Goodview Trinity Church in Minnesota. Currently, he is at Victory of the Lamb in Wisconsin. He is married to Emily, and they have three children. Ben loves to spend time with his family, ride his road bike, read, write, and preach.
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