What would you say to the governor if you had a few minutes of his undivided attention? In light of our current coronavirus situation, I’m sure it would be easy for you to create a short list of questions, comments, and concerns for Mr. Newsom. When Paul stood before Felix, the apostle had three items of discussion for the governor and his wife: righteousness, the coming judgment, and—wait for it—self-control (Acts 24:24).
I have to admit that whenever I read this portion of Scripture, I am often surprised by Luke’s inclusion of “self-control” in Paul’s list of concerns. Was self-control really such an important issue to make it one of three talking points with a man who was without Christ and who had jurisdiction over Paul’s freedom?
While the phrase “self-control” is not featured often in the biblical text—you find it a total of only eleven times in the ESV, eight times in the NASB and NIV—the concept is embedded into much of the biblical narrative and many of Scripture’s instructions to believers. If we consider for a moment the phrase itself, we can begin to understand why.
The English word “control” means “to exercise restraining influence over; to rule.” It is often used in the common parlance with reference to a person, institution, or substance successfully exerting a certain amount of regulatory power over other individuals or groups. Self-control evokes imagery of a person who is able to reign effectively over themselves. In other words, a person with self-control determines how they will think, decide, and act; they are not at the mercy of their passions, appetites, emotions, or impulses.
The very concept of self-control assumes that there is such a thing as the “self” that is distinguishable, though not separate, from the components that constitute the whole person. Modern materialistic anthropologies erroneously argue that we are physical and nothing more, and therefore can’t provide a coherent basis for a “self” that is distinct from one’s biological features. The biblical worldview, on the other hand, correctly teaches that we are composite creatures with a body and a soul who have the capacity to relate holistically to their Creator, other humans, and their environment. This engagement with God, others, and one’s environment, therefore, is meaningful, not deterministic: because the “I” is more than the sum of one’s material parts, the “I” is not ultimately controlled by those material parts.
Well, at least we’re not supposed to be.
Adam and Eve’s Lack of Self-Control
In a real sense, Adam and Eve’s sin of eating from the forbidden tree resulted from a lack of self-control. There were other motivations at play, of course; but at basic, Adam and Eve did not rein in their God-given appetites and, therefore, succumbed to disobedience: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6). The desire for food, aesthetic beauty, and wisdom were all wholesome desires. Adam and Eve, however, allowed these desires to overtake them and find fulfillment in a way that God had forbidden. In other words, they didn’t control themselves.
Immediately after the Fall, sin’s infection spread comprehensively through Adam and Eve’s entire being, and their now-sinful nature would be passed on to their progeny (Gen 4:1ff; cf. Rom 1:18-32; 3:10-19 Eph 2:1). God-given physical desires for food, rest, and sexual intimacy would now be distorted and misused. The gift of work and child-rearing was now fraught with frustration and pain. People would now pursue positions of authority for personal benefit rather than the benefit of the community. And human language would become a weapon of destruction instead of a tool of edification.
God’s work of redemption, however, restores to men and women their ability to bring their physical appetites back under control. Those who are in Christ have been endowed with a new heart, a renewed mind, and the Spirit-empowered capacity to exercise dominion, not just over the world, but over themselves. By God’s grace, we are now able to reign over our God-given appetites and fulfill them in the right way. We are no longer dominated by our passions and desires, pulled hither and yon by anger, lust, and physical hunger. By God’s grace through faith in Christ, we can experience the Spirit’s gift of self-control and harness our appetites for the glory of God, the good of others, and our own benefit.
For believers, therefore, self-control isn’t an element of the Christian life that we can take or leave. As we’ve already noted, a lack of self-control characterizes someone who doesn’t know God. To be apart from Christ is to be one who is, by definition, dominated by their passions (Rom 6:1-23).
Scripture also teaches that without self-control a person will be overrun by his passions, thus endangering every aspect of his life. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov 25:28). The imagery here is of a person standing defenseless and vulnerable to every imaginable danger. Think of it. Failure to bridle our tongue will cause destruction to our relationships and reputations (Prov 17:9); unrestrained anger will destroy friendships (Prov 29:11); constant indulgence of our physical appetites beyond what is reasonable will lead to poor health, laziness, and poverty (Prov 23:20-21); profligate, impulsive spending and excessive rest will lead to financial destitution (Prov 20:13); fulfilling sexual desires with someone who is not your spouse will lead to much pain and trouble (Prov 5:7-14).
Self-Control Begets Self-Control
Actually, what many Christians don’t realize is that when self-control is neglected in one area of our life, we are often hindered from exercising self-control in other areas. Constantly feeding our physical appetite for food can make it difficult to say no to more and more entertainment. Over-the-top spending can lead to a decreased sensitivity to lust. Letting our tongue run amok can make us more susceptible to angry physical outbursts. But the opposite is also true. When we are careful to exercise self-control over our eating, we will often find it easier to enjoy entertainment in its proper proportions; restraint of our tongue empowers us to restrain our anger, and so on. In other words, self-control begets self-control. But when we allow our passions and desires to find fulfillment in disproportionate or otherwise sinful ways, we are not keeping in step with the Holy Spirit who is seeking to produce the fruit of self-control in our lives (Gal 5:16, 25).
However, it’s important to recognize that the essence of self-control is not located in the mere rejection of God’s good gifts. That approach is easy at first, but it never ultimately works (Col 2:23). Food and sexual intimacy, for example, are good gifts from God that he intends for us to enjoy and thank him for (see 1 Tim 4:1-5). Spirit-empowered self-control is found in thankfully enjoying these good gifts in their right order and proportion and not allowing them to exert inordinate influence over our life (1 Cor 6:12).
Self-control is a gift of the Spirit that enables us to regain dominion over our unruly desires. While we can’t expect to exercise flawless self-control at all times, we can thank God for this gracious gift and seek to keep in step with his Spirit every day. Spirit-led self-control is a mark of a person who has been freed from the domination of his appetites. A constant lack of self-control is an indication that God’s Holy Spirit does not yet reside in you. Come to think of it, talking to Felix about self-control was a great idea.