How do you learn self-control?
You don’t learn self-control by reading about it or hearing about it. In fact I am honest enough to say that this post on self-control isn’t going to increase your self-control at all! It may help you see that you need it. It may help you see why it is important. But no matter how good I may explain it, and no matter how well you may understand it, you will not get more self-control by it. Sorry, no one is that good! You don’t learn self-control by learning about it, you learn self-control by practicing it. God will teach you self-control by putting you in places where you need to use it. So don’t be surprised if you continually find yourself faced with people, problems, and situations that test the limits of your self-control. That is how you learn.
Self-control is a fruit if the spirit (Galatians 5:23). That means it is something that is grown by the Holy Spirit. It is a supernatural thing. It is a fruit, a proof that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in you. The Spirt is intentionally growing that in you. But it is not instant. And while it is spiritual, meaning it is grown by the Spirit, it is not grown independent of what you say and do. Self-control is a discipline that you learn as you are learning to walk with the Spirit. You need to be intentional about growing it with the Spirit.
If you have ever tried to garden or know about farming you know what I am getting at. When you are growing a garden or a tree or a crop, you don’t really grow anything. The plant or tree does that on its own. What you do is make sure that the conditions are right for it to grow. As a farmer is concerned about cultivating the right environment for his crop to grow, we need to cultivate our minds and hearts to have the proper environment in which love can grow. Like farming, learning self-control takes effort. It doesn’t just happen on its own. Self-control is a discipline that you grow as you practice it. It takes intentional work on your own behavior. And it takes even more intentional work to have self-control in response to others behavior.
Self-control also requires submission to Jesus’ teaching, His yoke. In Matthew 11:29-30 (NIV) Jesus says, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. That is what “yoke” means, it means following His understanding of Scripture and living His practice of it. That is His yoke. It means following Him as His disciple. It means listening to Him. It means conducting yourself in truth and responding in grace when it is not what you want to do, or when you don’t see the reason why you shouldn’t do what you want. We need to follow Jesus’ leadership and listen to the leading of His Spirit and trust Him.
Submission will grow self-control surrender will not. It may look like it at first, but the results will be very different. It’s like someone controlling your diet and exercise so that you lose weight vs you changing your diet and habits so that you will lose weight. That is why so many attempts to change or control our behavior doesn’t work in the long run. When we get into trouble we surrender to the need to change and work at it to relieve the pain or solve the problem. But if that surrender never becomes submission, eventually we will slip back into our old habits.
Self-control requires us to be meek and humble. We have a natural inclination to think more of ourselves than we should, and less of others than we should. When we think we are right we like it to show, and when we think others are wrong we like them to know! When we approach people from a position of humility, we will be thinking more of them and less of ourselves. That’s what humility is, it isn’t thinking less of yourself, it is thinking about yourself less, and thinking more about the needs of others.
Self-control also takes wisdom. Wisdom is knowing how to act on what you know. Wisdom will tell you that sometimes when it comes to love, that discretion is the better part of valor. Wisdom will bring discernment about what the loving thing to say or do is at a particular time. Because what maybe loving in one situation may not be loving in another.
Wisdom comes from having good judgment. That’s another way of saying that it comes from experience. How do you get experience? Poor judgment! That’s important because it means that we gain wisdom from both success and failure.
One of the places I have often found myself learning the importance of self-control when it comes to love is in what I say or don’t say. Proverbs 18:21 (NIV) says, The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. If that is true, then we need to be learning to exercise self-control of what we say.
It is so easy to blurt out negative, critical, self-serving stuff! It is our words more than anything else that are the things that will choke and kill the growth of love in the heart. James goes so far as to say, Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (James 1:26, NIV).
Proverbs 15:4 (NIV), The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit. What we say has incredible power. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” was very misled. How many times have we heard in the news about a person committing suicide because of what people said to them or wrote about them on social media? But all of us (I hope) have experienced what it was like to have someone speak just the right words at just the right time. We don’t forget that, do we? We don’t forget the life that those words breathed into us. Love grows in the hearts of those who speak in such a way as to bring life to people.
I found a great tool I use in R.T. Kendall’s book Total Forgiveness that I want to share with you as I close the sermon today. If you have the self-control to use it, it will help strengthen and deepen your ability to love others well. Kendall made an acrostic out of the word NEED.
Ask yourself is what I am about to say going to meet this person’s need:
Necessary—is it necessary to say this? 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV) says, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Is it really necessary for you to say what you want to say? Is it necessary for them to hear what you want to say, or it is more that you are rationalizing that it is necessary for you to say. We need to remember Proverbs 11:12 (NIV), Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to say nothing. That is almost harder than saying something gracious! We so much like strutting our stuff, pointing out mistakes, and getting in the last word. But the one who has understanding knows when to hold their tongue.
Encourage—will it encourage them? Will it make them feel better? That should be our intent. Paul says in Ephesians 4:29 (NIV), Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Edify—does it edify them? Will what you say build them up and make them stronger? Or is it going to simply tear them down? In other words, is what you want to say meant to make him or her better, or is it meant to make you feel better?
Dignify—will it dignify that person? Jesus treated other people with a sense of dignity. Psalm 115:3 (NIV) says, Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. That means that every person, every man and woman and child in this world today was made because God was pleased to make them. He knit their soul together out of nothing for His glory.
Think about it like this: Everything God does is an expression of His perfect love, wisdom, goodness, and power. The very fact that you are here in this worship service this morning implies that had God not created you, His creation would not be as good or perfect or as much an expression of His glory! Every man woman and child is a unique and necessary part of God’s creation. And therefore we should treat one another with dignity. Does what we want to say recognize that dignity?
If you can honestly say “Yes” to each of those questions, then you can be reasonably sure that you are in a place to speak. If, however, the answer is “No” to any of those questions, you should exercise self-control and not say anything.
If we exercise the self-control to discipline ourselves to ask those questions, before we speak to each other, we will go a long way in cultivating an atmosphere of love that people will be irresistibly pulled to.