Self Control – The Essence of Strength

by Bill Rudge

From traveling and ministering throughout the U.S. and abroad, and receiving thousands of letters from around the world, I have discovered that one of the biggest problems youth and adults face is the lack of discipline and self-control. Almost all the problems people have and the trouble they get into—whether the result of drugs and alcohol; sexual immorality or lust leading to broken relationships, unwanted pregnancies and STDs; overeating, stealing, lying or gossiping; jealousy, bitterness, revenge, outbursts of anger or acts of violence—all could have been avoided had they exercised discipline and self-control.

Weakness Defined

Before coming to Christ, I was out of control in virtually every area of my life. As a result of my foolish, rebellious, out-of-control behavior, I paid the price with injuries from head to toe. I tell youth I speak to in schools or who are going through our obstacle course: “You are free to make almost any choice you want, but it is like being on a high roof, you can jump off if you want. You are free to make that decision. Once you jump off, however, you are no longer free. You are now a slave to the law of gravity which will splatter you on the ground below. So make wise choices!”

Proverbs 25:28 states: “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” In biblical days cities often had walls built around them which made them strong and easy to defend fortresses. But if the walls were broken down, the inhabitants were vulnerable and defenseless against an enemy’s attack. The biblical inference of being without self-control means that one is without strength, weak and powerless, while the person exercising self-control is strong and powerful.

Alexander the Great was a powerful man who conquered and then controlled most of the known world. His empire extended from Greece to India. But he could not conquer his lusts. He died at age 33 after taking ill following a prolonged banquet and drinking bout. Is that real control? Is that strength? Is that what you want in your life?

Consider many of the rock stars, movie actors and great athletes who were so idolized. They flaunt their out-of-control behavior and rebellious lifestyles; many covet their fame, money and power. However, the outcome of their lives is often tragic. This is not what God desires for you.

Proverbs 16:32 says: “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.” You can go out and conquer a city—even conquer the world—but if you cannot tame your spirit, you have not achieved the strength that God wants you to have.

I have known those who could do phenomenal, almost superhuman, feats. Yet they were unable to restrain their tongues or their tempers. They were powerless to control their lusts, jealousy, hatred, bitterness, worry or fear. Is it really that impressive, and is there any real benefit, to being able to do incredible feats while the rest of your life is out of control? Far more important than external displays is the inner molding of one’s character and spirit.

At a maximum-security prison in Florida, I spoke in a large room filled with inmates. I opened by saying: “You are not here because you are strong; you are here because you are weak. Anyone can take drugs, indulge in alcohol, beat their wife, rob, fight, vandalize, shoot someone or engage in other out of control behavior, but it takes true strength to have self-control. So, today, I want to talk about true strength.” Following my message all the men—many who were huge from lifting weights—lined up to shake my hand and said as they looked me in the face, “Thanks for telling it like it is!”

The Strongest Person

Before I became a Christian, I thought Christians were weak. That is one reason why I did not want to give my life to Jesus Christ. I later discovered it takes more strength to live for Christ than any other lifestyle out there.

Do you know who is the strongest person who ever lived? Jesus Christ. He was frequently in situations of extreme pressure and in volatile environments, but He always kept His composure (even when He was driving out the money changers). He was in control of all situations; nobody controlled Him. He let them crucify Him. Before it was His time, He walked through crowds (Luke 4:30), hid Himself and went out (John 8:59) or escaped their grasp (John 10:39); He silenced them with His words (Luke 20:40). Nobody controlled Jesus Christ. As I read the Gospel accounts, I see that Jesus always operated from a position of love, wisdom and self-control.

As a young Christian I maintained an extensive, intensive and rigorous weightlifting and martial arts training program. I would accomplish more in three hours a week and achieve a higher level of conditioning and efficiency than most others did in ten hours. However, God diverted my course as His Word revealed to me what constitutes real strength. Although I still exercise and train on my own, the priority of my life is devoted to achieving true strength as exemplified by Jesus Christ. My desire for physical strength and power has been superseded by something far more important—inner strength, character and spiritual power.

Developing Self Control

There are countless examples in all of our lives, as well as from others throughout history, that show the adverse consequences of not having self-control, and the great benefits from having it.

Many people have made mistakes while being out of control in some area of their lives; but no matter what you have done, there is hope. A man nearing the age of 70, who had squandered his life on reckless behavior, felt he could never be forgiven for all he had done and was doomed eternally. The Lord instantly spoke to my heart the following words: “There is no sin the Lord cannot forgive, except the sin that is not asked to be forgiven.” This man who had fallen into hopeless despair for his wasted life accepted again the Lord’s offer of forgiveness (1 John 1:9). A few years later he died as a powerful witness for Jesus Christ.

We must be motivated to change and the Lord knows how to motivate! He convinced me (through both Scripture and the adverse consequences myself and others were experiencing) that my former way of living led to death and destruction. That motivated me to take steps to bring my life under His control. One reason I fast, exercise, eat nutritiously and limit my viewing of movies and programs to that which is profitable is to help me develop self-control.

Follow the Apostle Paul’s advice to Timothy to flee youthful lusts and evil desires and pursue righteousness (2 Timothy 2:22). I have given many self-defense clinics in schools and for other groups. “The most important principle,” I would say, “is to use wisdom in avoiding places, people and situations in which you know a confrontation or an attack is likely to occur.” Similarly, to overcome temptation for which you have a weakness, avoid places, people, internet sites, movies, music, magazines and so on that would entice you into sin and into compromising circumstances. Stop and consider the consequences before temptation gets out of control.

If you want to change your behavior, you have to change your thought life. Mental discipline is crucial (2 Corinthians 10:5; Romans 12:2; Philippians 4:8). If you want to control your words and actions, learn to control your thoughts and attitudes. Coaches tell players, “You give up first in your mind; then your body quits.”

In Matthew 15:19, Jesus reveals that sin begins in the heart. He states: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” If we are going to overcome the temptations we face daily, we must effectively eradicate the preliminary thoughts before they can control and enslave us.

What you program into your mind will eventually manifest in your thoughts, attitudes, words and behavior. Your thoughts lead to attitudes. Your thoughts and attitudes produce an emotional response. Your thoughts, attitudes and emotions lead to actions. Your actions lead to habits and patterns. Your habits and patterns lead to a lifestyle. Your lifestyle determines your destiny!

That is why God puts so much emphasis on the heart and the inward man. He knows that if you are going to gain victory over your behavior and actions, you must control your thoughts, attitudes and emotions.

If you fill your mind with jealousy, you will eventually end up in bitterness and gossiping. If you fill your mind with hatred and revenge, you will end up verbally, and possibly physically, abusing people. If you fill your mind with lustful thoughts and sexually explicit movies, books and music, your involvement in sexual immorality is inevitable.

If you fill your body with junk food, you will eventually develop a junky body. If you fill your mind with garbage, you will eventually develop a garbage thought life, mental attitude and lifestyle. It is inevitable; it’s just a matter of time. What we watch, read and listen to does affect us.

It is not surprising that so many people have lustful thoughts and sexual problems! No wonder so many cannot control their tongues, tempers or appetites, or are controlled by worry, fear, jealousy, bitterness and hatred! Just consider the degenerate materials that program their minds and the voices they are listening to.

Live by the Spirit

The Lord has taught me that thoughts of worry, fear, jealousy, bitterness, anger, revenge, pride, lust or greed that come into my mind are intruders that will destroy me if allowed to remain. God tells us to “Resist them!” Fight against them as though you were fighting against an intruder in your house who was attempting to rape and murder your family. In such a situation I am sure you would stand and fight and endure until every ounce of strength was gone. You must say, “I will not tolerate these negative and destructive thoughts. I choose right now by an act of my will to resist them. ”

Most Christians think all they have to do is avoid watching, reading or listening to that which is bad for them. While Scripture tells us to avoid things that are unprofitable, it also admonishes us to replace them with that which is beneficial. We should watch, read, listen to, and associate with that which will be positive influences in our lives and inspire us to conform to the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

We have freedom in Christ. However, if something controls you, you no longer have liberty, but enslavement. God wants you free.The choice is yours: Will you be controlled by the lusts of the flesh that eventually lead to destruction, or will you be transformed by the Spirit of Christ, the fruit of which leads to tremendous victory, blessing, peace and joy (Galatians 5:16-25)?

Galatians 5:23 reveals that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, not of will power. If you try to develop self-control merely with your own strength and self-effort, you will be continually frustrated. You need God’s Spirit to help bring your life under control. He will enable you to apply the biblical principles necessary for developing self-control.

When I surrendered my life to Christ, He radically changed me. As I sought the Lord with all my heart, and through the study of His Word, memorizing Scripture, prayer and fasting, His Spirit transformed and empowered me—enabling me to develop the fruit of self-control.

The closer we draw to the Lord, the more we will be conformed to His likeness and the more we will manifest the fruit of His Spirit and walk in victory over that which formerly controlled us.

Nothing but the Lord

The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable [beneficial]. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered [controlled] by anything.”

The Apostle Peter reminds us that by what a person is overcome by this they are enslaved (2 Peter 2:19). I do not know about you, but I do not want to be controlled or mastered by my temper or my tongue. I do not want to be conquered by lust, greed or fear. I do not want to be enslaved to destructive behavior such as immorality, stealing, drugs or alcohol. I do not want to be victimized by peer pressure. I do not want to be dominated by sinful thoughts, attitudes, emotions or actions. I only want to be controlled by my Lord. I want to bring every area of my life under His control and walk in His love, wisdom and strength.

It Takes Time

Although my life was dramatically changed when I accepted Jesus Christ at the age of 18, it took time to develop the self-control I have gained from walking with the Lord and growing in my relationship with Him.

It takes time to develop self-control and the discipline to overcome old habits and patterns. Self-control is developed gradually the way fruit grows and ripens on a tree. After giving my life to Christ, I did not wake up the next day with the ability to control my temper or my thoughts and desires. It took time and effort. Spending time throughout the years in prayer and fasting and applying the truth and principles in God’s Word has been life transforming and worth it all.

Equally important to the gifts of the Spirit are the fruit of the Spirit. Although the fruit of discipline and self-control may be one of the hardest to develop, it is also one of the most beneficial and rewarding. Too often we only want to deal with the symptom, but God wants to deal with the root cause. Suppose there is a spider’s web in the corner of your ceiling, and you sweep it down. Why is it that the next day it is back again? Because you did not deal with the real problem: the problem is not the spider’s web; the problem is the spider. Get rid of the spider and the web will not come back.

What is needed more than instant deliverance, or an easy technique or formula that deals only with the symptoms is a consistent life of discipline and self-control. As one who was totally out of control, I am telling you that if God can change me and bring my life under control and give me the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual discipline and victory that He has, He can do it for anybody.

Never forget, the essence of true strength, is self-control—being under His control!