The Lost Virtue of Self-Control

There are two different lives I lead. Two different kinds of life. There is the life I love, but that is so difficult to maintain, and there is the life I hate, but am so often tempted toward. The first is a life of discipline and self-control, while the second is a life of disorganization and instability. I love the first life, but am constantly sliding toward the second.

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The Bible commends self-control and discipline. We are told that self-control is fruit of the Spirit, an imprint of God’s presence in our lives. We are told to discipline and train ourselves to godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), to labor for habits and patterns that will drive us toward holy thoughts, holy desires, and holy lives.

I consider self-control a lost virtue, a quality we too easily ignore. I think we can be uncomfortable with the very idea of self-control because we love to emphasize grace. Somehow grace seems to equate with freedom from structure, with freedom from rigidity. We revel in the freedom of the gospel, not realizing that the gospel doesn’t free us from self-control, but to self-control. Because we are no longer counting on our habits and patterns to discipline us toward salvation, we can joyfully mobilize them to discipline us toward sanctification.

Self-control and discipline are gifts we can use to constrain sin and promote holiness. They are gifts we can use to hinder old habits and promote new, better patterns.

I love my life of discipline and self-control. I hate my life of confusion and instability. And yet that life is always beckoning, always calling. The very moment I begin coasting, I coast away from restraint and toward chaos. I coast away from discipline and toward disorganization.

As a Christian I am influenced by an old man and a new man, the man I was and the man I am becoming. The new man loves to see each moment as a gift of God that must be stewarded well; the old man loves to fritter away time and opportunity, one moment at a time. The new man sees the benefit of living a disciplined life; the old man insists it is just not worth the effort. The new man sees that patterns and habits can be renewed and redeemed and used for good; the old man screams that this is weakness, a crutch for the person who lacks better motivation.

As summer gives way to fall — as summer’s chaos gives way to fall’s schedule — this is the time to renew my commitment to a life of self-control, a life that is disciplined toward godliness. It is time to renew my commitment to their sheer goodness, and their plain value. There is no better time than right now.