In the second novel of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, the stories heroes retreat to a defensive structure known as Helm’s Deep. This spot was strategically chosen for the location of an accompanying fortress, Suthburg, because of its deep valley walls, the presence of Helm’s dike in front and a solid rock surround in rear. As portrayed in the film by the same name, this fortress was largely considered impenetrable. Two exceptions to this existed, one by way of the main entrance and two by means of a small culvert that allowed water to drain out of the deep. Knowing that one’s surroundings are protected, and knowing that the defenses were firmly established, attention could have easily turned to those areas where weaknesses existed.
As with Helm’s Deep, so too with our soul’s defensive structure, self-control. In Proverbs 25:28 we read, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Wisdom describes for us the fortification of self-control as a walled-city, much like we would imagine Jericho, or perhaps the image conveyed above of Tolkien’s fictional Helm’s Deep. Consequently, when self-control is lacking or missing altogether, the description is that of a city without walls.
Self-control acts as a guard to defend the soul’s city from routine attacks or from acting on internal desires when faced with external temptations. With self-control in place and functioning as it should, we are more inclined to realize, recognize, and react to obvious deficiencies or those sins which so easily entangle us. If the defenses of self-control have been neglected and allowed crumble, not only will we fall for obvious temptations, but we’ll be left defenseless against all manners of sin, even those which may be less besetting for us than others. For instance, if a person realizes they are prone to laziness and lacks the defense of self-control, they may soon find that not only has laziness invaded their soul, but now lust, pride, bitterness, and impatience has come in as well.
How then may we ensure that self-control is in place and operating as our defensive system? First, we need to recognize that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, as the Apostle Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-23, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Likewise, In 2 Timothy 1:7 we read, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” This means that self-control does not originate from within in us, but is a gift of God, a product of His grace, and should be evident or increasing in evidence in the life of every believer through the on-going work of the Spirit to bring forth fruit. The pinnacle of false-religion is the idea that self-control, i.e. will power, originates from within and is capable and sufficient for earning or keeping salvation. Contrary to this, if self-control is lacking, we must first approach the throne of God entreating Him for a greater presence of this gift. We must, therefore, be all the more diligent to ask for this gift and to believe by faith that we will receive it.
Secondly, self-control must be exercised and disciplined. The apostle writing to the church at Corinth states, “25 Every athlete excercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 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 As seen in verse 25, Christians are compared to athletes and following, should exercise self-control. This Christian exercise, as it were, in self-control is a “training in righteousness”. It is a building up of the spiritual muscles to hold more firmly the shield of faith and wield more effectively the sword of the Spirit. This training may include such spiritual disciplines as daily Bible reading and meditation, Bible study, prayer, and fellowship with other believers.
In verse 27 we read of Paul’s bodily discipline for the purpose of self-control. Literally the verse says, “I pummel my body and make it a slave.” In athletic training, the body adapts to the physical strain and exertion that is placed on it. For instance, the muscles would generally get used to lifting the same weight the same amount of repetitions over a particular period of time. Similarly, the spiritual muscles must be disciplined to meet the demands of the Christian life.
Further proof of the idea of training in self-control may be found in Titus 2:11-14
“11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 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.”
Thirdly, for self-control to operate as it is intended, namely as a defensive wall, it must be maintained. Self-control that is left unattended will leave us in a sorrowful state, much like Nehemiah at the sight of the broken-down walls of Jerusalem. The Apostle Peter reminds us that self-control is one of the key ingredients to be mixed with our faith, not that this mixture saves us, but that it is an evident of grace that the Spirit is working in the heart of a believer. “5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” 2 Peter 1:5-7 He places self-control subsequent to knowledge and just prior to steadfastness. We could surmise that with a greater understanding of who God is and a closer relationship to Him that self-control should be our aim. Followed up with steadfastness, this exhortation is unto holiness, a Spirit-led effort to avoid neglect of our self-control.
Finally, self-control is to be persevering. “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” 1 Peter 4:7 For Peter and his constituents the end of their suffering, culminating in a destruction of the temple (70AD) was near. Therefore, he was encouraging them to persevere in self-control all the more. For the 21st century believer, this perseverance unto the end in self-control is no less true. As we read in Hebrew 1:2, these last days have been ongoing since the life and death of our Lord. We are to maintain self-control as those virgins who trimmed their lamps and did not expend their oil as they awaited the coming of the Bridegroom.
In these last days, an age in which consumerism runs rampant and encouragement to self-indulgence is given around every corner, is it any wonder why a believer in Christ is to exercise self-control. Self-control in the way we spend our money, self-control in the entertainment we subject ourselves to, self-control in our diet and food choices, self-control over our bodies, be it our tongues, eyes, hands, or sexual members, and finally self-control over our minds. Be reminded dear reader that self-control is not will power, nor is it an exercise of self-effort. Instead, it is a Spirit-fueled grace of God that should be exercised, disciplined, maintained, and persevering until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, with our defenses of self-control in place, we must be all the more diligent to guard against those areas of sins intrusion, both the obvious front gate and the not so obvious portal into our hearts.