“…and to knowledge, self-control…”(2 Peter 1:6)
Temperance is the next quality on Peter’s list of spiritual virtues, and it means self-control. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32).
“He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls” (Prov. 25:28). Paul in his letters often compared the Christian to an athlete who must exercise and discipline himself if he ever hopes to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 3:12-16; 1 Tim. 4:7-8).
Self-control means mastering one’s emotions rather than being controlled by them. The false teachers whose views Peter was exposing believed that knowledge freed people from the need to control their passions.
To this practical knowledge must be added self-control, or self-mastery. The word is egkrateia, and it means literally the ability to take a grip of oneself. This is a virtue of which the great Greeks spoke and wrote and thought much. In regard to a man and his passions Aristotle distinguishes four states in life.
There is sophrosune, in which passion has been entirely subjugated to reason; we might call it perfect temperance.
There is akolasia, which is the precise opposite; it is the state in which reason is entirely subjugated to passion; we might call it unbridled lust.
In between these two states there is akrasia, in which reason fights but passion prevails; we might call it incontinence.
There is egkrateia, in which reason fights against passion and prevails; we call it self-control, or self-mastery.
Egkrateia is one of the great Christian virtues; and the place it holds is an example of the realism of the Christian ethic. That ethic does not contemplate a situation in which a man is emasculated of all passion; it envisages a situation in which his passions remain, but are under perfect control and so become his servants, not his tyrants.
We don’t use the word “temperance” in our daily speech very often, but we’re all likely familiar with the concept of self-control. It speaks to the willingness to seek to master and control the body or the flesh with all of its lusts. It means desire, appetite and passion, especially sensual urges and cravings. It means to be strong and controlled and restrained. It means to stand against the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-16).
William Barclay informs us that the term rendered “self-control” means literally “to take a grip of oneself.” Self-control is the opposite of self-indulgence. As unbelievers, we are dominated by our physical appetites, enslaved as we are to them: As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance (1 Peter 1:14).
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
But we have been delivered from our bondage to the flesh: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone [as] slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:15-18; see Romans 8:12-13).
Living a godly life requires us to master the flesh and make it our servant, rather than our master: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but [only] one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then [do it] to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Sin uses the flesh to keep us in bondage (Romans 7:14-21). Satan and the world encourage us to live according to the flesh. But being a child of God requires that we live no longer for the flesh or in the power of the flesh. Our flesh still has a strong attraction, as Paul’s words in Romans 7 and our own experience make painfully clear. Only by God’s grace can we overrule fleshly lusts, and because of His provisions, we must diligently strive to do so. The prompting of the flesh must be brought under control, and we are to heed the prompting of the Spirit of God, as He speaks through the Word of God (see Romans 8:1-8; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 3:16-17; 4:6).
False teachers appeal to fleshly lusts. They gather a following by proclaiming a gospel which indulges the flesh rather than crucifying it: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.… 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, 11 whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, 13 suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, 14 having eyes full of adultery and that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; … 18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:1-3, 9-14, 18-19).
Such false teaching is not uncommon in the pulpit today. The “good-life gospeleers” offer a different gospel than the apostles. Rather than proclaim a gospel which involves suffering and self-denial, they proclaim a “better” gospel of self-indulgence and success in life. They promise that those who possess enough faith can escape suffering and adversity and be guaranteed peace and prosperity. They promise that when one gives a little, one may be assured of receiving much more in return. These rewards are not looked for in heaven as much as on earth, now.
The gospel of the apostles was very different: “But some days later, Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him [speak] about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you” (Acts 24:24-25).
“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 Envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 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 (Galatians 5:19-23).
Let us not dilute the gospel to make it attractive to men by appealing to their fleshly lusts. We must proclaim the message of the gospel in its fulness and its simplicity, knowing that only through the Spirit of God are men enabled to grasp the truth of the gospel and quickened to do so (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 14-16; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 3:1-11; 4:1-15).
A father noticed that his son lacked self-control and decided to confront him about it. Before he had a chance to do so, however, he felt the Spirit begin to deal with him. He realized that his son lacked self-control because he lacked it too.
After seeking the Lord for direction, the father recognized he needed to develop discipline in certain areas of his own life. He then apologized to his son for failing to set a good example.
Next, he began to incorporate discipline into his everyday life through consistent Bible reading, prayer and personal devotions. The change in his father had such influence on the boy that shortly afterward, the son also began to change. The difference was so dramatic that the boy’s baseball coach called the father to ask what he’d done to effect such improvement. The boy’s attitude had changed, and he no longer had a temper. The father responded, “My son’s changed because I’ve changed.”
In Peter’s day, self-control was used of athletes who were to be self-restrained and self-disciplined. Thus, a Christian is to control the flesh, the passions, and the bodily desires, rather than allowing himself to be controlled by them (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27; Gal. 5:23). Virtue, guided by knowledge, disciplines desire and makes it the servant, not the master, of one’s life.
Henry Ward Beecher told of an acquaintance who barged into their home one day, his face flushed with anger. “He was in a terrible rage, supposing he had a serious grievance against us,” said Beecher. “As the man aired all of his complaints, my father listened in complete silence. Then he said in a low tone, ‘You only want to do what is right, don’t you?’ ‘Certainly,’ replied the disturbed visitor. Before anything could be explained, however, he again flew into a rage and restated his charge. Father then inquired gently, ‘Brother, you are misinformed, wouldn’t you be interested in knowing the true facts in the case?’ When calmness was restored, our side of the story was quietly presented. The man cooled down as the circumstances were fully revealed. Meekly he said, ‘Forgive me, Sir, forgive me! I was wrong!’ My father had won a great victory. It was a lesson I never forgot, for it gave me an insight into the calming effect of Christian self-control.”
Suppose some morning we go to a race. Runners are lined up, stripped to the bare essentials. All is ready for the race when suddenly we see another fellow coming to the starting line. But strange as it seems he is fully dressed. He has on a full suit, heavy overcoat, hip boots and a heavy woolen cap. In his hands he carries his lunch bucket and an umbrella. His pockets are filled with medicines. Everyone is surprised that such a person would try to win the race.
Finally we approach him and ask him about it. “Of course,” he says, “I’m running the race. What’s wrong with what I wear? Is anything wrong with a coat or cap or medicines? After all, the race is long, the terrain is treacherous, and I may become ill. I’m going prepared for whatever may lie ahead.” We can’t tell him that what he carries is a burden, maybe even a sin. But we know he’ll never win the race. Why? Because he is loaded with weights.
The writer of Hebrews told the Christians to lay aside every weight. Self-control requires us not only to avoid sin but also demands the discipline to give up good things that will keep us from being and doing our best for God.
Self control gives us the ability to know the right thing to say. In a department store a young husband was minding the baby while his wife was making a purchase. The infant was wailing, but the father seemed quite unperturbed as he quietly said, “Easy now, Albert,” he murmured, “keep your temper.” A woman passing by remarked, “I must congratulate you! You seem to know just how to speak to a baby.” “Baby nothing!” came the reply. “MY name is Albert!”
Some times we can over do it. In Scotland, during the early days of aviation, a stunt pilot was selling rides in his single engine airplane. One day he got into an argument with an old farmer who insisted upon taking his wife along on the ride — at no extra charge. “Look,” said the pilot finally, “I’ll take you both up for the price of one if you promise not to utter a sound throughout the entire trip. If you make a sound, the price is doubled.” The deal was made and they all clambered aboard. The pilot then proceeded to put the aircraft through maneuvers designed to make the bravest tremble. But not a sound came from the back, where his passengers sat. Exhausted, he set the plane down. As the farmer climbed out, the pilot said, “I made moves up there that frightened even me, and yet you never said a word. You’re a fearless man.” “I thank ye,” replied the Scotsman. “But I must admit that there was one time when ya almost had me.” “And when was that?” asked the pilot. The farmer replied, “That was about the time my wife fell out!”
Self control certainly speaks to the issue of anger in our lives. We must control our self! Anger is only one letter short of danger. And no man can think clearly when his fists are clenched. When angry, we need to take a lesson from technology; always count down before blasting off.
Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was angered by an army officer who accused him of favoritism. Stanton complained to Lincoln, who suggested that Stanton write the officer a sharp letter. Stanton did, and showed the strongly worded missive to the President. “What are you going to do with it?” Lincoln inquired.
Surprised, Stanton replied, “Send it.” Lincoln shook his head. “You don’t want to send that letter,” he said. “Put it in the stove. That’s what I do when I have written a letter while I am angry. It’s a good letter and you had a good time writing it and feel better. Now, burn it, and write another.”
Erwin Lutzer, in his book Managing Your Emotions, writes: “We all know that Alexander the Great conquered the world. But what few people know is that this mighty general could not conquer himself. Cletus, a dear friend of Alexander’s and a general in his army, became intoxicated and ridiculed the emperor in front of his men. Blinded by anger, quick as lightning, Alexander snatched a spear from the hand of a soldier and hurled it at Cletus. Though he had only intended to scare the drunken general, his aim was true and the spear took the life of his childhood friend. Deep remorse followed his anger. Overcome with guilt, Alexander tried to take his own life with the same spear, but was stopped by his men. For days he lay sick calling for his friend Cletus, chiding himself as a murderer.”
Lutzer concludes by saying, “Alexander the Great conquered many cities. He conquered many countries, but he failed miserably to conquer his own self.”
How does one develop self discipline: These are some things that help through the years:
- Start small. Start with your room. Clean it, then keep it clean. When something is out of place, train yourself to put it where it belongs. Then extend that discipline of neatness to the rest of your home.
- Be on time. That may not seem very spiritual, but it’s important. If you’re supposed to be somewhere at a specific time, be there on time! Develop the ability to discipline your desires, activities, and demands so that you can arrive on time.
- Do the hardest job first. Doing that will prevent the hardest jobs from being left undone.
- Organize your life. Plan the use of your time; don’t just react to circumstances. Use a calendar and make a daily list of things you need to accomplish. If you don’t control your time, everything else will!
- Accept correction. Correction helps make you more disciplined because it shows you what you need to avoid. Don’t avoid criticism; accept it gladly.
- Practice self-denial. Learn to say no to your feelings. Occasionally deny yourself things that are all right just for the purpose of mastering doing it. Cultivating discipline in the physical realm will help us become disciplined in our spiritual lives.
- Welcome responsibility. When you have an opportunity to do something that needs to be done, volunteer for it if you have a talent in that area. Welcoming responsibility forces you to organize yourself.
Why is teaching self-discipline so important? The kind of self-discipline we’re teaching our children at home is no different than self-discipline on the football field or at the office or, for that matter, in any aspect of life. Each of us has tasks to carry out. Each of us gets the job done.
When the Chicago Bears were at a peak in the mid 1980s, winning the Super Bowl in 1986, we had an unbeatable defense not only because of the talent of the players but because we all carried out our given assignments. We didn’t freelance. We didn’t take a day off. We had a plan to execute, and we stuck with it. We demonstrated self-discipline.
Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. 1999. Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary . T. Nelson Publishers: Nashville
 William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, [rev. ed], 1976. The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 302.
MacArthur, J. J. 1997, c1997. The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.) . Word Pub.: Nashville
 Mike Singletary. Men of Integrity, Vol. 2, no. 2.