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What does the Bible teach about self-discipline?

The idea of self-discipline may be foreign to many, though the idea of self-control is not; the two are essentially the same. We teach children to sit quietly at the dinner table, we expect students to refrain from outbursts in the classroom, we hope young men and women will be aware of their passions and choose to not act on them in a way that is harmful, and we expect our leaders and pastors to be above reproach. Self-control is highly esteemed by God as it is part of the fruit of the Spirit along with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness (Galatians 5:22–23). It is this fruit that God is producing in His children.

When approaching the Bible, it can be helpful to ask two questions: "What does God reveal about Himself through the Bible?" And, "Is there something for me to obey?" God has much to say about who He is and what He does. He also has much to say about how we should act, as our actions are a primary measure of our obedience. Self-control is the ability to control oneself, particularly as related to emotions and desires and how those are expressed in behaviors, especially in difficult situations.

Do we like self-control? Generally, no. Humans don't like any control placed onto us whether by ourselves, by others, or by God. God knows this; we learn in Hebrews 12:11 that, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." All discipline seems painful, whether it is correction from a loving dad, or when your boss points out your mistake, or a conviction from the Holy Spirit when we sin, or when we choose to restrain our desires for the wellbeing of others, or when we delay gratification for a better outcome later. We tend to hate self-discipline because we are choosing to not do what we want to do, or just the opposite, choosing to do what we do not want to do. Paul explains the struggle this way in his letter to the church in Rome: "I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can't. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don't want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it" (Romans 7:15–20, NLT).

The source of a lack of self-discipline is sin. When we choose something other than God, that is our sin acting within us. Sin believes or acts like "there is no God" (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). Sin creates idols to replace God (Romans 1:21–25). But the Bible tells us that we no longer have to choose to sin. If we are in Jesus Christ, we have been given a way out. "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). Self-discipline is a gift: "for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:7). Additionally, we read in the Bible that it is good to be patient and to demonstrate self-discipline (Proverbs 16:32) and that lacking self-control makes us vulnerable to harm (Proverbs 25:28).

Is self-discipline important to God? Paul would say so; he includes self-control as a qualification to be considered for a position as an elder in the church, "For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (Titus 1:7–9).

It is helpful that Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit; he also provides a differing list which describes the behavior of the one who is not living by the Holy Spirit, which he calls the actions of the flesh. Paul writes, "Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity [hatred], strife [conflict], jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19–21). It may be hard to know what self-discipline looks like in a practical sense; it is easy to know what the lack of self-discipline looks like. All we need to do is read the newspaper, watch the evening news or most any television station and we will read and see stories of people living with no self-discipline whatsoever. We read reports and watch stories of violence and adultery and satanic rituals and drunk-driving and theft and drugs and the list goes on… Paul tell us that we should "walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). The world does not walk by the Spirit, but Christians must.

What can we do about sin and self-discipline? True self-control is not about our own power to control ourselves, but the power of Christ to continue His work of sanctifying us, making us more like Him. Jesus lived His entire life "without sin" (Hebrews 4:15); "He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22); He persevered in the face of great anxiety (Luke 22:44) and when He was confronted by false accusations (Matthew 27:14). We should seek Jesus when our lives are spinning out of control, when we refuse to do what we should do, and when we can't stop sinning. Commit to prayer and ask Him to change you, then you will be able to say as Paul said, "I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service" (1 Timothy 1:12).


Related Truth:

What is the fruit of the Spirit?

In what way is self-control a fruit of the Holy Spirit?

Does the Bible talk about managing our emotions?

What does the Bible teach about a Christian's responsibility?

Does the Bible teach anything about setting goals?


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