What is Self-Control in the Bible?
Self-control—temperance in the KJV—is the ability to exercise restraint over our behaviors.
The Greek word egkrateia, which we translate as self-control, is ‘the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, esp. his sensual appetites.’ Although this is a fundamental quality for Christians to possess, this word only shows up three times throughout the New Testament (and its Hebrew equivalent, mahtsawr, appears only once in the Old Testament).
Why is Self-Control Important?
Despite its sparse usage in the Bible, self-control is far from trivial. To understand its importance and its relationship to other qualities, let’s examine the two passages where self-control appears in an instructive context:
Self-control is best known as the ninth and final ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ The fact that self-control is listed last should not cause us to consider it less than the others. If we view this passage as an ordinal list, as some scholars do, we see that all of the fruits of the Spirit flow from love, and are capped by self-control.
In this manner, self-control is the quality that enables us to exercise patience, goodness, and the rest. In the verses that follow, Paul adds, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:24-25). Self-control is the quality that keeps us in step with the Spirit, by giving us the means to exercise the restraint that keeps us from straying back into our old sin habits.
In the preceding verses, Paul describes the acts of the sin nature as ‘sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’ (Galatians 19-21). Many of these sins involve excess or reckless indulgence of worldly desires and sensual pleasures, which is precisely the temptation against which self-control shields us.
Peter offers a similar ordinal list, in which self-control is a key building block in raising up a mature Christian:
Peter opens this discourse by stating, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life…’ (v 3), crediting the Spirit (divine power) for all of the qualities that he lists, including self-control, which is built on knowledge and lays the foundation for perseverance
Just as Paul contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with the acts of the sinful nature, Peter cautions us about failing to exercise self-control and other godly qualities, adding, ‘whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.’ 2 Peter 1:9
Consequences of Lack of Self-Control
Peter and Paul both present self-control as part of a larger suite of characteristics, which collectively help a Christian maintain a sound faith journey. The absence of any of these qualities could easily lead a person to stray from their walk with God. But does the Bible warn us about what happens in the absence of self-control specifically? It does:
is a person who lacks self-control. ” Proverbs 25:28
In ancient times, city walls were necessary to keep the inhabitants safe. Walls protected people from hostile neighboring nations and even wild animals. If the walls were broken down, most cities would not have sufficient manpower to effectively protect themselves from threats.
When self-control breaks down, we let sin overrun us by introducing improper behavior or excess indulgence. That bad behavior then introduces bad habits, further crumbling the walls, until ultimately sin has completely taken over the person’s life.
Paul paints a bleak picture of this progression and the damage it brings:
They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women,… They are men of depraved minds… their folly will be clear to everyone ” 2 Timothy 3:2-9
The person without self-control is a lover of themselves and a lover of pleasure rather than a lover of God. By their actions, such people not only damage their own walk with God, but they invite harm on the people around them.
Example of Self-Control in the Bible
As we further consider how self-control affects us, let’s look at some Biblical examples of people who got it right—and who got it wrong!
Bible Characters Who Lacked Self-Control
- Adam and Eve: Genesis 3 tells the story of the fall of man, which started with the throwing off of self-control. God had provided a garden full of fruit trees for Adam and Eve, and all of them were good. But the serpent enticed Eve to eat from the one tree that was off-limits, by promising that she would be like God (v 5). Eve saw that the fruit was pleasing, ate it, and shared it with her husband (v 6).
In abandoning self-control, Adam and Eve allowed the attractiveness of the fruit to override their contentment with being God’s people. They hoped to become like God, but instead, they invited a curse on themselves and the whole world.
- Samson: Samson had a weakness for women. Once, he encountered an attractive Philistine woman and demanded that his parents arrange for him to marry her (Judges 14:2-3). At their wedding feast, he wagered new garments for his guests if they could solve a riddle within the seven days of the feast (v 12-13).
After several days, the Philistines began to pressure Samson’s wife to give them the answer. But she did not have the answer, so she cried for days until Samson relented and told her (vs 15-17). Samson’s wife relayed the answer to her people, causing Samson to lose his wager and initiate a conflict between Philistia and Israel (v 19-20).
Samson wasn’t done letting his lack of self-control do him in. On another occasion, he was seduced by another Philistine woman, Delilah. Just as his wife had coaxed him into revealing the answer to his riddle, Delilah eventually coaxed Samson into revealing the secret of his strength. Delilah then cut Samson’s hair, removing his strength, so the Philistines could capture him. Samson lived out the remainder of his days as a prisoner.
People Who Showed Self-Control in the Bible
- David: When Saul was king and he was at war with David, David had an opportunity to take Saul’s life, but chose to spare him:
David was convicted that, because Saul was appointed by God to be king, it would be a sin against God to kill Saul and usurp his throne. Later, David had a second chance to kill Saul, but instead, David only took Saul’s spear. Afterward, David presented the spear to Saul to show that he had preserved his life (1 Samuel 26). Eventually, Saul was killed in battle (not by David or his men), and David was given the throne of Israel.
Benefits of Self-Control
From these stories, we see that self-control is a beneficial quality for Christians to possess. We should all be cognizant of it, and we should all seek the Spirit so that we can grow in our self-control.
When we exercise self-control, we live in contentment without the need to indulge in excess. And this, Paul tells us, is how we experience the strength of Christ: