Sadly, every warm-blooded Christian knows what Paul meant when he said in Romans 7:14–25,
I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate… Evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.
Though the image of Jesus suffering for our sins burns into our minds, and though we know that we have been called to put away the old man of sin and put on the new man in Christ, we still struggle daily with temptation and sin. We deceive ourselves if we think sin is not a constant problem (1 John 1:5–2:2).
But let us not think that the commonness of sin makes it okay. Sin has tragic consequences, even in the church (maybe especially in the church). It ruins our lives, empties our wallets, damages our health, strains our relationships, and spoils our example as Christians. One day soon, God will pour out His righteous wrath against sin. “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
Self-control is the cure for sin! The word self-control is enkrateia in the Greek, from the root kratos or strength. It signifies the ability to rule one’s self. Self-control is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19–23), one of Peter’s virtues (2 Peter 1:5–8), and one of the qualifications for a shepherd (Titus 1:8). Paul made self-control one of the first things he mentioned when spreading the gospel (Acts 24:24–25). Maybe the best passage describing self-control is 1 Corinthians 9:24–27,
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
If an athlete expects to compete and win, he must exercise self-control in all things. The marathon runner can’t make excuses when he sees the smorgasbord—he must maintain a strict diet. He puts aside his hunger pains, puts aside his cravings for chocolate mouse pie, puts aside his taste for soda. The discus thrower can’t make excuses when 5:00am comes and he needs to hit the weights before going to work at 7:00. It doesn’t matter if he’s tired, it doesn’t matter if he just doesn’t want to, it doesn’t matter if he has something else important to do. He gets out of bed, gets dressed, and hits the gym with all the diligence and intensity he can muster.
Paul applies this to the spiritual realm of temptation and sin, and of diligent service to God. He has subjected his body to his mind. He makes his body obey the spirit of Christ. He controls the desires and appetites of the flesh through the power of his will. He actually deprives his body of certain things, so that he may walk more closely with God. One of the axioms of Christianity is that “the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Galatians 5:16).
James reminds us that sin enters our lives when we are carried away by our own lust and give in to temptation (James 1:14–15). Self-control applied firmly at the moment of temptation halts the process. We must obtain the ability to say, “No!” to the voice that is saying, “I want.”
Lusts are powerful. When it comes to the willpower weneed to resist the lust, to resist the temptation to just “charge it” on our card, to resist entering the liquor store, to overcome an addiction, to bridle our tongue, we had better get some self-mastery. We need to stop making excuses and playing the part of the victim. If there is something in our pathway that needs to be overcome, some temptation that needs to be resisted, we have the power to overcome it, and that power is called self-control. It just needs to become important enough.
Finally, when we repeatedly face something that routinely defeats our powers of control, we must take the drastic step of eliminating that item from our life. Jesus doesn’t want us to literally chop off a hand (Mark 9:42-48). But if necessary, pour out the liquor, burn the books (Acts 19:18-20), cancel the cable subscription, quit the job, end the relationship, move to a new town. Don’t play footsie with that which can destroy your soul. —John Guzzetta