Curtis burst into my office, pushing past my administrative assistant, leaving in his wake papers fluttering from her desk. “I can’t take this anymore! I’m done!”
I continued looking at the papers on my desk as he paced the floor in front of me. Finishing the paragraph I had been reading, I looked up at Curtis and said, “Hello, Curtis. It’s good to see you.”
“I can’t take this anymore! He’s driving me crazy!” Chest heaving, still pacing, eyes darting from one side of the room to the other, Curtis seemed to be having a conversation with himself more than me.
I finally came around the desk and asked Curtis to sit on the brown futon across from me. He paced a minute more then forced his body onto the couch. “Now,” I said softly, “tell me what’s going on.”
I learned a lot about Curtis that day—about his acrimonious relationship with his father, about his desire for a new life, about his ambitions as an artist, and about the workings of his inner life. At this point in his 19-year-old life, Curtis lacked that one ingredient essential to biblical manhood: self-control.
Why Self-Control Is the One Essential Ingredient
Self-control (or its absence) lies at the root of so many other things we recognize as problems in the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of men. For example, the inability to say no before intoxication indicates an ungoverned inner life (Eph. 5:18). Immodest clothing stems from a lack of self-restraint (1 Tim. 2:9; it applies to men too!). So does sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:9). When pornography ravages a man’s inner life, it is in part because he has not yet learned to harness and master his desires. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28).
Perhaps this is why self-control emerges in so many places where the Bible gives us glimpses into the lives of men. Consider the examples from the book of Titus. Paul writes to Titus, in part, because he wants to see things put into order in the churches in Crete. That means the appointment of elders in every town, elders who among other things are self-controlled (Titus 1:8). This quality stands in contrast to being “arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” (1:7)—all things that describe men whose inner lives are wrecked by sin.
If elders in the church must possess this quality, they must do so in order to model the same for the members of the church. Titus must “teach what accords with sound doctrine” to the various demographic groups of the church (Titus 2:1). So, “older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:2). Though several virtues are listed for older men, when Paul mentions what younger men must learn he lists only one thing: “Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (2:6). Young men eventually must grow to embody many more things, but at bottom they must first learn to master their thoughts, feelings, speech, and action. They must harness their hearts if they ever hope to blossom into older men with gravity.
How Such Mastery Comes About
Titus 2:11–14 teaches that the same grace that saves us also results in the self-control so essential to one’s inner life:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Between the first appearing and the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are being trained by grace. Specifically, in his undeserved kindness God trains us to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions,” which are the antithesis of self-control, and instead to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (2:12). Self-control follows freely from saving grace and faith in Christ Jesus (Acts 24:24–25). Part of what we receive when we receive Christ in the gospel is the kind pruning and molding of our hearts so that we live in a manner pleasing to God “in the present age” of darkness and evil (Titus 2:12).
If we are Christ’s, we will learn self-control because our Father will graciously teach it to us. We should never think our inner lives are beyond the reach of God, or that self-mastery involves only the self. No, God reaches into the deepest center of our lives, turning us on the inside from rampaging worldly desires that overrun us to a greater hope—the appearing of Christ—that calms and orders us. We have omnipotent help in learning self-control.
Paul reminds us of God’s presence in our sanctification and inner lives with these famous words from Galatians 5:
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. (vv. 19–24)
Once again Scripture makes a graphic contrast between the unrestrained inner life that results in all manner of disorderly and wayward sin (5:19–21) and the life that God produces in his people. The Spirit of God, who lives in those who trust Christ, produces certain internal and external fruit, including self-control (5:22–23).
Indeed, the ordering of the Christian man’s inner life and the production of self-control must necessarily result from belonging to Christ. Galatians 5:24 tells us that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” When Christ calls us to himself in saving faith, taking ownership of us as Lord so that we “belong to Christ Jesus,” we simultaneously perform a crucifixion. At our conversion—notice the past tense verb, “have crucified”—we execute our flesh or sin nature. Relying on God’s grace, we mortify those passions, desires, wants, lusts, and interests that held captive our thoughts, feelings, and will, and God’s grace and Spirit begin to train and produce in us the self-control so necessary to mature manhood.
As men, we can fight the symptoms of a disquieted inner life—anger, lust, insecurity, anxiety, and the like. Such fights are necessary. Or we can wage war against the bunker out of which these enemies come: lack of self-control.
In this battle at the bunker, we have certain promises from our Captain. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:25). Indeed, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible (Crossway, 2015).