A husband and wife were having a terrible fight. Angry, hurtful words were exchanged, as was some cursing.

In the middle of the battle, their pastor called to ask a question regarding their children/

The husband, who had been just moments before yelling angry, hurtful words, picked up the phone and responded by saying in the calmest voice possible, hi, pastor, how are you doing?

A husband who worked as an armed security guard in a hospital requested biblical counseling after his wife asked him to leave the house until he agreed to get counseling for his anger. Her concern was for their two-grade school daughters, who witnessed his explosions of anger when he got home from his job.

The man admitted that his anger was an issue in their home.

The counselor asked him if staff and patients always treated him with respect at the hospital. He replied that frequently, he would be treated disrespectfully or nastily by both staff and patients, and the staff were the worst.

The counselor asked how he responded to these incidents. He said he just put up with it.

The counselor asked why. The man responded that his job required self-control and not reacting to verbal abuse.

The counselor then asked why he did not exercise self-control in his home among those he loved. The man sheepishly answered that he did not know.

The point of each illustration is that we can exercise self-control when angry. If there is enough reason, pressure, or consequence to hold back, we will, or at least most people will restrain themselves.

We need to ask whether self-control in these kinds of situations is the same as self-control connected to heart change.

Let’s see how the Bible uses the word combination of self-control.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:25-27, ESV)

The word self-control in Greek is nuanced. It means self-governing, the state of being temperate and, by implication, being able “to contain oneself.” 

Paul is using an athletics metaphor to make a spiritual point. To win a wreath, an athlete must be self-controlled (and disciplined). The athlete must govern himself to obtain his or her goal.

Let’s look at Proverbs 25:28.

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Pro. 25:28, ESV)

Compare the ESV version with the Net Bible version of Proverbs 25:28.

Like a city that is broken down and without a wall, so is a person who cannot control his temper. (Pro. 25:28, NETB)

The NETB connects a lack of self-control with a volatile temper-a city without walls and thus no protection. In Proverbs, such a person lacks wisdom and is the proverbial fool which means a person who does not know God or is ignoring God. The Hebrew concept of control means “to rule” oneself.

Both examples above illustrate that a person can be disciplined enough to avoid the consequences of angry outbursts. Paul seeks to discipline his body (single-minded gospel focus) to win a crown that does not perish, and Proverbs would teach that the wise Godly person should learn to rule his/her emotions.

In Galatians 5:16-24 we see Paul pointing out a series of contrasts.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, 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.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:16-24, ESV)

The word self-control appears as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. The meaning of self-control differs from that in 1 Corinthians 9:25, although both English words are derived from a common origin. The Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon defines self-control as used in Galatians 5:23 like this:

Self-control (the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, esp. his sensual appetites).

Note verse 24:

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24, ESV)

In Scripture, the words passions, desires, and lusts all mean the same thing and relate to the inner man.

The word “flesh” in the New Testament often means the sinful element of human nature as opposed to the Spirit. To live according to the flesh is to live and act sinfully.

The Spirit-led Christian is supposed to master (crucify) the passions, lusts, and desires of the heart that function as motives to get us what we want when we want it. The Christian is to be governed by God and His Word and not the sinful (fleshly) motives of the heart.

Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines spiritual self-control nicely:

SELF-CONTROL — control of one’s actions or emotions by the will. The New Testament teaches that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). The Christian is to be governed by God, not by self.

Perhaps the best passage in the New Testament to help us understand the spiritual connection to self-control is 2 Peter 1:3-10.

 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,  and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities, you will never fall. (2 Pe. 1:3-10)

In 2 Peter 1:3-10, we see self-control as a spiritual outcome or virtue of a redeemed heart…

What did the husband in the first illustration want just before his pastor calling?

What did the husband in the second illustration want when he got home from work?

These are good questions for self-examination, but we can determine that the deceitful heart (Jer. 17:9) is bent on satisfying me, having my way, and living life for my pleasures with me at the center of my universe. The heart is the control center of our being; whatever we think, believe, or desire in our hearts guides and determines our actions and what comes out of our mouths.

As in water, face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man. (Pro. 27:19, ESV)

 “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit,  for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45, ESV)

Pastor Bruce Roeder

Biblical Counselor, Training Program Instructor

Bruce is an Elder/Pastor at the Vine Community Church in South Milwaukee, WI. He has an M.A. in Biblical Counseling and is certified with the ACBC (Level 2) and IABC. He is married to his wife, Elizabeth, of 49 years. They have one son, a wonderful daughter-in-law, and three great-grandkids. 

  • The Process of Biblical Change by Julie Ganschow
  • The Process of Biblical Heart Change by Julie Ganschow and Bruce Roeder. (This is a workbook and a more extensive treatment of heart change.)

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