In the winter of 2006, Lydia Angyiou, a 41-year-old mother of two, fought a polar bear and survived. Angyiou and her two young sons were walking by the local community center when a group of kids playing ice hockey began frantically shouting. Turning around, Angyiou saw a 700-pound polar bear staring down her 7-year-old. Instinctively, she put herself between the beast and her child, yelled for the boys to run and get help, and began to kick and punch the bear until a man arrived with a rifle.
We hear stories like this from time to time, of men and women carrying out extraordinary acts of will, often using—through the power of adrenaline—what seems like otherworldly strength. It seems the potential capacity of human willpower is far greater than what most of us imagine.
But if this is the case, why do we struggle so much to lose those few extra pounds? Why is it so hard to stop scrolling social media countless times a day, or stop yelling at my kids? If willpower and our adrenal glands are strong enough to fight off polar bears or lift heavy cars in an emergency, why aren’t they strong enough to keep me away from another late-night snack?
Our fight-or-flight responses are built for extreme circumstances. But our waking hours are filled with the ordinary. Where do we find strength for the infinite temptations that abound in life’s daily rhythms? For these, we need more than adrenaline. We need the steady strength of self-control. We must know this need, know the reason for our need (our deceitful hearts), and embrace the kind of nonurgent life that’s necessary to cultivate this virtue.
Admit Your Need for Self-Constraint
In Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22), he presents self-control as a need we have because of our fallen nature. It’s our sinful desires (Gal. 5:16) and acts of the flesh (Gal. 5:19) that Paul puts in the crosshairs of Spirit-fueled self-control. These are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21). These vices paint a picture of what an uncontrolled life looks like.
On the surface, self-control seems limiting, even stifling. Against the backdrop of our culture’s idolatry of individualism and its religious devotion to self-gratification, self-control seems old-fashioned at best and oppressive at worst. But a life without limits is a life without freedom.
On the surface, self-control seems limiting, even stifling. But a life without limits is a life without freedom.
In research studies and social experiments, children have been observed playing on two types of playgrounds—one with boundaries and another without. In nearly all cases, the playgrounds without boundaries leave the children paralyzed in fear while those with boundaries elicit freedom of movement, individual creativity, and higher levels of communal harmony. Self-control means setting boundaries that free us. Specifically, it frees Christ-followers from the paralyzing power of our deceitful hearts and its path of reckless indulgence.
Beware the Uneven Terrain of a Sinful Heart
When Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9, NIV), it was unpopular to say. Today, such a statement is downright offensive. But the message is still true. And self-control isn’t possible without the humility and self-awareness to accept and admit our troubled condition. David Brooks writes that we’ve experienced a shift in recent years “from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.” Such a view removes any moral restraints outside one’s own desires and renders self-control a moot point.
But it’s dangerous. When Jeremiah describes the heart as “deceitful,” he uses a Hebrew word that can describe uneven terrain. The human heart lacks consistency and steadiness. It’s an unpaved trail, rocky and unstable, and its barriers are fragile.
Consider for a moment the potential for evil within you. Harsh, I know. But note Jesus’s words: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21–23).
Clear-eyed awareness of the terrain of our sinful hearts may be the strongest motivator we have to consistently exercise self-control. As we read in 1 Peter 5:8–9 (NIV), “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.”
Embrace a Nonurgent Life
In the digital age, things often move too fast. Ease of use and accessibility have overwhelmed our senses with digital temptations, and the algorithms are designed to move us along with haste. We’ve become addicted to this dangerous speed. Coupled with the deceitful nature of our hearts, addictions to everything from gaming to porn, social media to email, have been the inevitable result.
Self-control isn’t possible without the humility and self-awareness to accept and admit our troubled condition.
The word “addiction” comes from the Latin word addictus. In the Greco-Roman world, the word was used to describe a person who had become enslaved through a court ruling as the legal property of another. Addicts are still slaves today. Alarming numbers of us are shackled to our devices, unable to free ourselves from their tyranny. Proverbs 25:28 says, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control” (NIV). For many today, the digital world has left us vulnerable, and our walls have long been breached. How do we fight such addiction?
Tim Keller once tweeted that “self-control is the ability to do the important thing rather than the urgent thing.” We practice self-control by asking the Spirit of God to undo the addiction and decrease the urgency. But we also participate with him in this work by creating environments that can better support and sustain self-control.
This means living with limits and setting boundaries around technology. Committing certain times of the day to be device-free, leaving phones out of reach at night, and deleting especially addictive apps are all helpful ways to partner with the Spirit as he cultivates self-control in our lives. And as we do, we’ll slowly but surely experience the freedom of leaning into the truly important things of life, without urgency, unhurried, steady, and at peace.