The Cardinal Virtue of Self-Control

September 3, 2020 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

In my Scripture reading and sermon study over the past few months, a particular word has been catching my attention. The word is “self-control,” a single word in the Greek. In my recollection, “self-control” does not receive much attention in Christian circles. Other virtues and character qualities are often highlighted before self-control, like love, joy, peace, humility, patience, mercy, etc. Such underemphasis can lead to a lack of appreciation and understanding of this core virtue. 

Consider how essential “self-control” is to the Christian life: 

In Acts 24:25, when Paul is explaining faith in Christ to governor Felix, “he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.” Self-control came up in an introduction to Christianity. 

In Galatians 5:23, Paul lists “self-control” as one of the nine fruit of the Spirit. 

In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8, Paul names “self-control” as one of the essential qualifications for elders. Then in Titus 2:2, 5, & 6, he teaches that everyone in the church ought to be “self-controlled.” It is required of not only the spiritually mature. 

In Titus 2:12, Paul explains that the grace of God appeared, training us to live “self-controlled” lives. 

In his final charge to Timothy, Paul encourages him by saying, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). 

Twice in his letters, Peter calls followers of Christ to be “self-controlled” (1 Pet. 4:7 & 2 Pet. 1:6). 

Pressing deeper into this virtue, we find that the English translates two separate Greek word-groups with the word “self-control.” One of these word groups focuses on the “restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, or desires.” These are used in Galatians 5:23, 2 Peter 1:6, and 1 Corinthians 7:9. The other word group focuses on “the practice of prudence, good judgment, moderation, thoughtfulness.” These are used in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter 4:7.

 Highlighting the difference between these two word groups reveals that there is a self-control of the heart and a self-control of the mind. In old English, these would be called temperance and prudence, respectively. C.S. Lewis highlights these in his chapter on the four cardinal virtues in Mere Christianity (along with justice and fortitude). So, historically, self-control has been acknowledged as an essential component of Christian life. 

Why might we overlook self-control as an essential virtue to pursue? Why is it essential? How do we grow in self-control? Let me briefly touch on these in closing. 

  1. Self-control is an underlining virtue. What does this mean? Self-control feeds other, more visible virtues. We will be people of peace and joy if our hearts and minds are self-controlled. We will act justly and with wisdom if our hearts and minds are self-controlled. Being self-controlled leads to other virtues. 
  1. Being self-controlled is not so much something we do as it is having something done to us. As a fruit of the Spirit shaping and influencing our hearts and minds, self-control is a work of God in our lives. We submit our minds and hearts to be self-controlled when we seek to be renewed in our thinking by God’s word and walk by the Spirit. In this sense we can say self-control really is God-control. 
  1. Being self-controlled does not happen in an instant. It takes a slow, long process of submitting to God’s word and Spirit. In an instant-gratification society, we often do not have patience for virtues that take so much time and effort. 
  1. Without self-control, we will not grow in other virtues. Everything we do flows from our minds and hearts. Without submitting our minds and hearts to God’s leading and control, we will not grow in other areas.






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