I am a habitual nail-picker.
If I’m nervous, I play with my nails. If I’m distracted, I play with my nails. Whether something occupies my attention, or I have nothing else to do, guess what? I play with my nails. By the end of all my fiddling, I’ve practically worn my fingers down to the bone—or at least it seems that way, by how exposed and ashamed I usually feel.
Now that I’ve officially made you squirm, allow me to redeem the illustration: This tendency has caused me to wonder what Scripture says about self-control, why it is important to cultivate, and what it looks like when we exercise it. I’m ready to break my bad habit with gospel-power, and I’m praying this biblical exploration is equally helpful to you.
(A brief disclosure before we dive in: I am personally applying the biblical virtue of self-control to my habitual action of nail-picking because that is where I’ve been convicted that the root of this action lives.* But exercising self-control may look different for us all, and not every “bad habit” is necessarily rooted there. Only the Almighty God can reveal to us through his searching Holy Spirit what is at the root of any of our thoughts, words, and deeds. So we should seek his truth and ask for his help in knowing our own hearts and in responding accordingly to his Word.)
What Scripture Says About Self-Control
To exercise self-control is to discipline ourselves, set boundaries, and rule over our actions. A lack of self-control, then, leads to the free reign of fleshly, worldly patterns that end up exercising control over us. What is one area of your life that is succeeding in the exercise of self-control? Praise God for that! What is one area that is lacking self-control, in which you desire to grow? Thank God for his Word, which convicts us of the truth, and for his divine power, which is everything we need for life and godliness.
Here is some of what the Bible says about self-control:
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Proverbs 25:28)
...women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire… (1 Timothy 2:9)
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… (1 Timothy 3:2)
...for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7)
Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:6)
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4:7)
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control… (2 Peter 1:5-6)
I could have stopped at Proverbs 25:28 because of how alarming it is: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” That is no insignificant description of the importance of self-control. This characteristic is clearly of value to God; for the exercise of self-control is one way we display him to others, a protection for our souls, and a greater, eternal good we are to pursue with “every effort.”
Why Self-Control Is Important
We display our God and his gospel when we are self-controlled.
Self-control is one part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), so exercising it means reflecting the Spirit of God. Throughout the Bible, there are lists of attributes describing godly men and women, and most of them include the faith-filled trait of self-control (as you see above). When we exercise self-control, we pursue a holy life that is glorifying to the Lord who made us in his image, redeemed us through his gospel, and gave his indwelling Spirit to live within us.
Self-control displays our God because our God is self-controlled. This is no more evident than in the gospel! He is patient toward sinners, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9). All his words are perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true (Psalm 19:7-9); the Lord needs no guard set over his mouth to keep watch over the door of his lips (Psalm 141:3). God’s heart never inclines to any evil, to busy himself with wicked deeds (v. 4); rather, there is no unrighteousness in him (Psalm 92:15). The unrighteous man must forsake his thoughts, but God never does, for his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). Similarly, God is never anxious about anything, so we can come to him for his peace, which surpasses understanding and guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).
God is a God of self-control, and we bear his image and magnify his gospel-work when we pursue exercising this aspect of godliness.
We protect our souls when we are self-controlled.
Jerry Bridges comments on Proverbs 25:28 and how self-control is a necessary protection against sin and temptation:
Self-control is necessary because we are at war with our own sinful desires. James describes those desires as dragging us away and enticing us into sin (see 1:14). Peter says they war against our souls (see 1 Peter 2:11). Paul speaks of them as deceitful (see Ephesians 4:22). What makes these sinful desires so dangerous is that they dwell within our own hearts. External temptations would not be nearly so dangerous were it not for the fact that they find this ally of desire right within our own breast.
Exercising self-control keeps our enemy from gaining a foothold over us, and it keeps sin from having the upper-hand in our thoughts, words, and actions. If we do not discipline ourselves and rule over our own actions, we leave ourselves vulnerable to temptation, the influence of the world and the enemy, and, consequently, sin.
We pursue a greater, eternal good when we are self-controlled.
I’m particularly struck by 1 Peter 4:7 which says, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” What does the end of all things have to do with being self-controlled? As believers in the Lord Jesus, we await the day when our Savior and Judge will return to earth, to claim those who are his and usher in a new creation. This will be our eternal destiny, and it is what we now watch and prepare for, especially since we do not know the day or the hour of our Lord’s return.
Watchfulness is to keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on eternal matters; to store up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth; and to demonstrate through our spiritual groaning a deep desire to be with Jesus once and for all time. Ruling over our impulses and actions is one way we remain watchful, sober-minded, and readied for Christ. By exercising self-control, we are valuing greater, eternal good over immediate gratification. On the discipline of fasting in particular, John Piper writes that we are saying, “Lord Jesus, I want you more than this immediate need!” Through self-control, we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ; we set our minds on things above; we flee from sin; and we do battle against it through prayer.
Pursue a greater, eternal good through self-control because Jesus is coming back!
Six Steps to Exercising Self-Control
The gospel is the motivation we need to overcome anything that has threatened to overcome us. Christ is glorified when we exercise self-control because we seek an imperishable prize that only he can give us, rather than a perishable one, which we give ourselves through fleshly indulgence and immediate gratification. These suggestions are not exhaustive, but here are a few practical ideas for exercising godly self-control, as seen in Scripture:
Step 1. Renew your mind through God’s Word. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Step 2. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s help. “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him...and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:16,17-19).
Step 3. Confess your habits to God and others. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Step 4. Identify and remove your triggers. “...put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Step 5. Remember the gospel when you fail. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Praise God for the magnification of his grace in our weakness, as we pursue the important exercise of self-control, which is highly glorifying to him and the wonder of his eternal gospel!
* John Piper’s short book The Marks of a Spiritual Leader was instrumental in helping me understand how self-control relates to my nail habit. I’d highly recommend it, for many different reasons!