Self-control (Greek, egkrateia; Antonym: unrestrained lust)

As the famous American novelist Jack Kerouac said, “My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.” I am pretty sure most of could agree—learning self-control and finding the proper ordering and balance for our lives is no easy task. Knowing when to say yes and when to say no to ourselves is perhaps one of the more difficult things we do in life. As you and everyone else has discovered, to have perfect command over your self is a trait that each of us has had many failures, whether that is in respect to spending, eating, sex, our emotions or a myriad of other aspects of our lives.  And beyond this is the fact, that often in the hidden, private moments when no one else is looking is precisely when we need self-control the most—when no one is watching.

To look at the fruit of self-control in a different way, I remember some years ago in one of my psychology classes reading about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. This study done in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel focussed on deferred gratification with children. The research overall was fairly simple—a marshmallow was offered to each child and if the child could resist eating the marshmallow within a fifteen minute period, they would be given an extra one. When one observes the footage of these poignant moments when the children are waiting for what must have seemed like an eternity to them, you see some of the children covering their eyes and others kicking at their desk in anticipation. In a myriad of different ways, each child tried to cope in waiting to get that extra marshmallow. All in all, over six hundred children were a part of the research and as you might guess, only one-third waited long enough to get the second marshmallow. Again, self-control can be really hard—even for just a marshmallow!

However, in conducting this research, Mischel learned something important which is important for us. The children in the study were ages four through six and the single determiner for those who could wait for that second marshmallow was their age. The truth was that the older kids had an advantage over the younger ones. Why? Simply because they were more mature. This is key, because self-control at the end of day is about maturity. The more self-controlled a person is—with their emotions, when they go shopping, with the words they use, their actions, their relationships—this is the determiner of how mature they are. If on a regular basis I do not exhibit self-control in my life—on some level, I must be immature. Haven’t you ever met someone in your life who was maybe thirty or fifty years old, but really they acted like a child? If you think about it, the common denominator would have been their lack of control over their lives. This is why it is so important for God to work in your life and help you develop this fruit, because on some level, growing in maturity is really about taking control over each area of your life.

Again, if there is one fruit that determines how “adult” or mature you are, it would have to be self-control. We know from many other studies that self-control should increase with age due to the development of our sensory system. As this system develops, our perceptual abilities expand and we gradually gain the ability to envision the future consequences of our actions. This is precisely what self-control is—it is my ability to enact long-term thinking. If I continue to over-eat, I will become obese. If I continue to spend money at my every whim, I will be broke. If I continue to speak to others out of anger, I will no longer have any friends. For me to be self-controlled, I have to envision the consequences of my actions. This is the main difference of those who get in trouble with their lives and those who don’t—the latter look into the future and have the ability to see that what they are doing today that will impact them tomorrow .

This makes me think of a story I heard recently. A good friend of mine took his two teenage sons on a hiking trip out to Arizona this past summer. The first day there as they began their hike, the temperature already read ninety degrees, and so he reminded them that the nearest creek would be at least an hour away and therefore, to conserve the water in their canteens. Every now and then he would glance over at them and find them pouring the water over their heads to cool off or drinking the water without any care. With a half an hour to go to get to the creek, both sons had run out of water and began complaining: Dad, give us some water! I am dying of thirst! My friend simply told them they would have to wait until they reached the creek. When they finally arrived, he did something different and I like what he did in terms of trying to teach them an important lesson that we should all attempt to learn. Both sons eagerly ran to the creek having their canteens at their side ready to fill them. My friend yelled out in a loud voice, Wait! He then asked them to sit down by the side of the creek and to NOT fill up their canteens. For ten minutes, he made them wait beside the creek, listening to its water running south and insisting that no water touch their lips. My friend was teaching his sons self-control. In hearing that story, it made me ask myself—at what times in my life, do I need to just sit by the creek and wait? As Aristotle wrote: “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self.”

Questions you can ask yourself: while you may not struggle with some of the other fruit, invariably self-control is the one we all struggle with in some manner. In what areas of your life do you need to become more self-disciplined and become a person who has control of their thoughts and actions? In terms of examining your life, what areas are you strong at with regard to self-control and where do you need to grow? In what areas of your life are you impulsive or excessive? What do you need to do or what do you need to eliminate in your life to become more self-controlled? What kind of thoughts or emotions do you have a hard time controlling (e.g., depression, inappropriate sexual thoughts, anger, anxiety etc.)? What do you need to change in your life to become a self-controlled person?


In: Spiritual Formation
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