Self-control – the negative kind, and the positive kind

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19/11/2018 by Chris Green

Spas, holidays, chocolate and craft beer.  It’s a lovely world (if you can afford it), and it’s a world of easy, relaxed enjoyment, log fires, family and good friends.

As we head into what advertisers are rather queasily calling ‘the Festive Season’ (probably because ‘Christmas’ has the C word in), then that’s the universal language of their appeal.

What comes next, in January, is rather more bracing, and probably involves a diet.  A detox, with kale. And some self-control required.

But for Christians, ‘self-control’ is not something that’s difficult, unpleasant, and has to wait until we need to drop a few pounds.  No, for us – and especially for us leaders, self-control is a necessary feature of every day life.

And it’s about so much more than resisting one more mince pie.

It has two sides – both good, although we only tend to think about one.

Negative self-control

tick-40678_1280Negative self-control is what prevents us from doing anything foolish or (more likely) sinful.  It’s in Proverbs: Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. (Prov. 25:28). It’s the kind of self-control in  Its presence is a necessary characteristic of a Christian leader: Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach (1 Tim. 3:3), and its absence is a mark of serious moral and theological error: People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Tim 3:1-4).

Negative -self-control is essential.

The reason this kind self -control is essential, is because what it controls us against is so powerful: at the least, it’s indwelling sin, but that is usually given extra power by the world (our culture’s preferred sins), the flesh (our private preferred sins), and/or the devil (who seeks to take each and every Christian down).

This kind self -control is essential, because what it controls us against is so powerful

If we were doing a serious bit of pastoral theology here, we’d say that to be more precise, the flavour here is of flesh-control, or sinful nature-control.  Saved-self controlling the sinful-self.

The temptations that are fatal to so many pastors –  sinful aspects of desire for money, sex, power, love of people’s good favour, addictions or abuse, greed – all war against us in uniquely devilish ways, and we need to fight with all the spiritual weapons of our warfare.

But negative self control is only half the battle.  Negative self control leaves you standing where you were standing before – victorious (for the moment), but static. It’s that moment  when the gospel teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions,  but we need to move to the second kind, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Tit. 2:12).

Positive self-control

tick-40678_1280Positive self-control is what keeps us on a pathway of obedience – ambitious obedience. Again, here’s Paul:  I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 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. 9:22-26).


This time, the self-control, or self discipline (translations vary, but the concept transfers) is for the purpose of achieving something important.  In this instance, there are two ends for Paul: working unceasingly to receive his own salvation, and working unceasingly to share that salvation with others. He exercises self-control so that both will occur.

The thing

So here’s the thing.  I think we usually take ‘self-control’ in the negative sense.  A self controlled person is someone who doesn’t lose their temper in a meeting, and doesn’t watch porn in a hotel bedroom.  Don’t mis-hear – those are a vital spiritual standard.  We need to exercise that negative self-control.

But unless we add in the other kind of self-control, it becomes something which is only solid, immovable. Solid and immovable is good, of course, but so is nimble, fast-moving and goal-oriented self-control.  The kind that says, ‘This sermon series is going to take three months of reading before I stand up to deliver a single talk.’  That says, ‘These non-Christians are never going to come and meet me, so I am going to go and meet them.’

This is the kind of self-discipline that gets good things done.

That’s the kind of self-discipline that gets good things done, over and over, until the momentum becomes irreversible.  Again, we’re fighting the sinful flesh, but this time the battle is to wake it up, force it out of the armchair and its love of Netflix, into actually doing something, however small, for the work.

Remember Captain Jack Aubrey? ‘This journey will take six months,’ observed someone. ‘Then we have not a moment to lose!’ he cried.

Is your personal walk marked by self-control?  Both kinds?

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