The Difficulty of Developing Self-Control

Someone asked two questions during a class I taught at my church on the subject of the roles of thoughts and feelings in spiritual growth: why is self-control so especially difficult? and how do you develop the virtue of self-control?  That question lingered in my mind for days and my ponderings were trapped on how can self-control be developed other than saying “to will yourself” as the answer.  And then it hit me last night while I was having my time with the Lord – it was one of those insights that seemed oh-so-familiar and yet strikingly fresh.

A major problem with self-control is desire.  Our desires naturally run up against many things that we are trying to have self-control over, so that we feel like we’re fighting against our ourselves as we attempt to resist our own inclinations and wants.  How do we resist something we really want?  I think most strive for one of two answers: 1) a behavioral modification approach of discipline and forcing oneself to not have what one wants & 2) praying for the appetite to go away.  Both of these have biblical validity and are important.  We experience problems when we find ourselves repeatedly failing in these two approaches – either when we don’t have the will power to resist the urges or when our appetites don’t subside or go away.  When we’ve invested in the latter approach with no results, we find ourselves getting angry with God.  Along with the first approach, the discipline of feeding our thoughts with truth and moral goodness helps.  But desires are a strong human compelling that don’t easily go away.  Immanuel Kant wrote that we are driven by our pleasures or our pains.  If we find it pleasurable, we’ll want more of it; if it’s painful, we’ll avoid it.  But this sort of self-centered, animalistic living does not take into account any standard of moral goodness.

Then last night I read Jesus’ words in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”  I used to think this verse felt non-genuine, combining love with obedience though logically it makes sense especially if you thought of it from a parent-child/master-servant perspective.  But another insight into this principle is the wording of the if-then statement: the love is the condition for the obedience, not the other way around.  That is, the genuine love for Christ is the drive and motivator for obedience and obedience is the natural consequence of a fervent love for Christ.  What resolves the desires we should not have is a having a greater desire for someone else.  The greater loves in our lives will win over the smaller and lesser ones.  So that, when faced with a temptation or distraction that challenges our ability of self-control, it will be the quality of our love for God that causes us to say no to other desires.  In essence, I’m saying no to something because I choose to say yes to someone else.  The principle ruling in me is that I’m avoiding sin not just because it is morally wrong or spiritually corrupting, but because it displeases the God I love.  So I find myself not focused on trying to diminish my abhorrent desires within in (though I still give attention to that) as much as I’m investing time and energy into increasing my love for God.  What keeps me from dating other women is I’m already spoken for and my heart is already captured by another.  What keeps me from turning to sin and temptation has to be that I’m already spoken for by Jesus and my heart is captured by my God.  There are certain things I like to do but avoid doing because I know they would annoy my wife, but I gladly avoid doing them because my love for her outweighs my simple wants.  There is no loss when one is giving up something for the one he/she loves.

Perhaps then, the problem of self-control is not merely a matter of a weak will or a lack of discipline; it can be a question of the place, quality and depth of one’s love.  I think self-control which is a matter of the will always points to an issue of the heart.  Perhaps we are still too Kantian in our thinking because we are wrestling between a self-love versus a love for God which delineates between what we do for ourselves and what we do for Him.  When we are faced with the struggle of self-control, what we need is not only a smaller desire for the forbidden things but a greater desire for the God of beauty.  So my answer to the question of developing self-control is to develop a mad love for the Lord.  At least, I think that’s where it starts.

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