|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES
|BY-LAWS OR BYE, LAWS?: Self Control
Charles H. Dyer
I AM REVEALED
Jan 06 2013
Discipline is an unpopular word! At least that’s the impression we give by our inability to exercise self-control. The
national debate over health care stirred up strong passions on all sides, and many found it difficult to control their
emotions. During President Obama’s speech to Congress on health care, one congressman shouted out, “You lie!” He
later apologized for his regrettable lack of self-control, but his remark illustrates the struggle we all face exercising self-
control. A lack of self-discipline isn’t admirable and can be embarrassing!
Parents who desire to fashion their children into responsible adults are painfully aware of the struggle over self-control.
Parenting is the process of moving children from external discipline to internal self-control…and at times the process
seems to move at a snail’s pace.
But why worry about self-control? Our society champions an individual’s right to freedom and self-expression. “If it feels
good, do it!” “Have it your way!” “Just do it!” Doesn’t too much emphasis on self-control stifle creativity, inhibit freedom,
and squeeze the fun out of life? Not necessarily.
True self-control doesn’t hinder freedom – it promotes it. Alcoholics have no self-control in their consumption of alcohol
– and it enslaves them. Compulsive gamblers have no control over their impulse to gamble – and it destroys their
financial security. Those addicted to pornography have no control over their sexual addiction – and it destroys their
ability to maintain healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.
Absolute freedom without any self-control, will always produce chaos. Self-control provides the boundaries inside which
true freedom and creativity can flourish. It brings a maturity that allows an individual to say no to some things so he or
she can say yes to those things that are more significant, helpful, or necessary.
In his runaway bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey stressed the importance of
commitment and self-control. He explained that as we make and keep commitments – even minor ones – we begin to
establish an inner integrity that gives us the awareness of self-control and the courage and strength to accept more of
the responsibility for our own lives. By making and keeping promises to ourselves and others, our honor becomes
greater than our moods.
EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!
All parents learn the “airplane method” of feeding little children. The child, like a condemned prisoner, is strapped into
the chair. On the table, just out of reach, are the jars of strained, pureed – and otherwise mutilated – vegetables that no
self-respecting adult would ever eat. Then we try to trick our children into eating the necessary amount of pureed
spinach and squash by saying as excitedly as possible, “Here comes the plane into the hangar! Open wide!”
The child grows, the style of chair changes, and the plate and utensils become more “adult” in appearance. But the
hassle over vegetables continues. “No dessert until you eat those peas and carrots!” The struggle still remains to get
children to do what they need to do rather than what they want to do. Given a reasonable choice, few children would
ever choose peas and carrots over cookies and ice cream without some form of “encouragement.” The war to establish
self-discipline is a series of such battles.
Self-discipline sounds great in theory, but try putting it into practice! Try telling a hormone-driven eighteen-year-old boy
to control his thought life. Or try telling the frazzled mother of an energetic two-year-old to control her frustration. Life’s
pressures and difficulties sometimes catch us in their vise-like grip and squeeze until we feel as though we will explode.
Every nerve ending seems rubbed raw, every ounce of strength sapped by these problems that hang on us like weights
and suck out our strength like leeches. How can we develop self-control in a world that seems to do everything possible
to titillate, tempt, test, and try our patience at every turn?
One wrong response to the struggle over self-control is to set up legalistic barriers – using external controls to regulate
an internal problem. After Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic fundamentalist allies took control in Iran, they imposed
strict Muslim law and external controls over behavior. Women were no longer allowed to dress in “provocative” Western
styles. Instead, the authorities required them to wear the chador, a dark robe that covered the entire body. Possession
of pornography became a crime punishable by death.
Did such draconian measures solve the problem of sexual self-control? No! The regime still struggles vainly to plug the
many loopholes in the law and impose their external moral standards. They even banned satellite dishes because
thousands of homes were receiving X-rated movies and other sexually explicit programs through these dishes.
External controls do not provide a long-term change in behavior.
UNDER PAUL’S WING
The essential struggles we face have not changed through the years because human nature has not changed. Two
millennia ago the apostle Paul wrote to a young man in western Turkey struggling with some of the same problems
facing us today. Timothy served as Paul’s young protégé. He traveled with Paul on his journeys and learned much from
this great apostle.
Life with Paul must have been both exciting and stressful. Paul’s own description of his ministry leaves no doubt it was
not for the faint of heart:
death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten
with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have
been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own
countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in
danger from false brothers.” (II Corinthians 11:23-26)
Traveling with Paul was like serving on the front lines in a war. Always on the go. Always in harm’s way. One hair-
raising adventure after another. Paul had a mission from God, and Timothy did his best to keep up with his dynamic
mentor. But being around Paul was intimidating. And Timothy was painfully aware of each of his perceived
Timothy must have felt like the odd-man-out of church leadership. In a society that valued age, associating it with
wisdom, Timothy was a mere lad (I Timothy 4:12). In a culturally segregated society, Timothy was the product of a
religiously and racially mixed marriage – a believing Jewish mother and a pagan Gentile father (Acts 16:1). In a church
that needed vigorous, powerful leaders, Timothy was timid and subject to frequent illness (I Timothy 5:23; II Timothy 1:6-
Imagine Timothy’s concern when the apostle Paul left him alone in Ephesus as Paul’s official representative. Paul
expected Timothy to handle some serious problems that threatened to fragment this strategic church. To add additional
stress, times were tough for all churches in the Roman Empire. The number of believers in Jesus Christ had grown to
the point where the authorities in Rome were now taking notice. Sometime after leaving Timothy in Ephesus the apostle
Paul was arrested, taken to Rome, and imprisoned by the Roman government for a second time. This imprisonment
ended with his execution.
Timothy inherited a church that was floundering because of false teaching and defections from the faith. Some
advocated rigid, external obedience to restrictive laws as the way to achieve self-control and acceptance with God.
“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” (I Timothy 4:3). Others promoted self-
centered philosophies based on vain speculation. Paul expected young, struggling Timothy to model the message of
biblical self-control to these people. To do so, Paul shared three specific pointers with Timothy for developing this
character trait in himself and others.
POINTER #1: FALL IN LOVE WITH JESUS CHRIST
A magical transformation takes place in a young man’s life sometime during his teenage years. Those “yucky girls” he
had once tried to avoid suddenly become interesting, exciting…desirable! It’s as if the poles of a magnet suddenly
reversed. The shapely cootie-carriers that used to repel now seem irresistibly attractive. That’s amoré!
Love also causes changes in actions and attitudes. A young man in love starts caring about his overall appearance –
his clothing, his hair, his complexion. Moms stand in awe, mouths hanging open, as their sons willingly assume
responsibility for their personal appearance.
The desire to please someone we love is a powerful motivational force. The patriarch Jacob worked for seven long
years to gain permission to marry Rachel, “but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her”
(Genesis 29:20). If you love someone deeply, you willingly limit your freedom because your greater desire is to please
them. Self-control flows easily from a heart of love.
The apostle Paul understood this pointer for developing self-control. Leaving Timothy in Ephesus, Paul urged him to
stop the spread of false teaching. Timothy was to promote God’s true message in the church. “The goal of this
command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Timothy 1:5).
Paul knew firsthand the power of love. As a zealous Pharisee on the road to Damascus he experienced God’s
love…and it changed his life. Paul unflinchingly described himself before he knew Jesus Christ as “a blasphemer and a
persecutor and a violent man” (I Timothy 1:13). God extended His grace to someone deserving only of judgment, and
Paul’s debt of love motivated him to serve his Lord.
How much do you love the Lord? Another apostle, John, reminded his readers of the order in which love develops. “We
love because he [God] first loved us” (I John 4:19). The more you realize the depth of God’s love for you…a love so
deep He willingly sent His Son to die for your sins…the more you will grow in your love for Him. And the more you love
Him, the more willing you will be to make those changes in your life that will please Him.
POINTER #2: LEARN AND LIVE OUT THE WORD OF GOD
Racquetball is a fast-paced sport that could be described as kamikaze tennis! Up to four people stand in a small room
swing short racquets at a hollow rubber ball. The ball bounces wildly off the floor, ceiling, and four walls. Each player
tries to hit the ball off the front wall in a way that denies the other player(s) an opportunity to make a return shot.
The secret in racquetball is knowing where the ball will bounce after hitting the front wall…and anticipating your
opponent’s next shot. A strong, quick, but inexperienced racquetball player will usually lose to a more knowledgeable
opponent, even if that opponent is older, slower, and weaker. Knowledge and skill are more important than strength and
speed. Mastering the disciplines of the game gives a player an edge.
Paul wrote to Timothy to give him the knowledge and skill he needed to direct the church at Ephesus. Timothy needed
to master the skills essential for becoming an effective leader. In I Timothy 4 Paul shared with Timothy the vital link
between self-discipline and the Word of God.
He began by reminding Timothy he had been “brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you
have followed” (I Timothy 4:6). Before Timothy could serve as a “good minister of Christ Jesus” (4:6), he had to know
the truth of God’s Word. Mastering the fundamentals is essential for developing self-discipline.
But knowing and teaching the truth of God’s Word is not enough. The truth must move from our head…to our heart…to
our hands. Timothy was not only to “command and teach” God’s truth, Paul also expected him to “set an example for the
believers” (I Timothy 4:11-12).
Paul listed five specific areas in which Timothy needed to develop self-discipline. Each is important.
I suspect young Timothy’s throat tightened and his heart started racing in his chest as he read through the list. Paul
wanted self-discipline in every area of life, and Timothy was keenly aware of his own struggles and limitations. How
could he possibly live up to all these requirements?
Paul’s answer follows. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (I
Timothy 4:13). As Timothy immersed himself in God’s Word, he would find the answers he needed to develop self-
discipline – in himself, and in the lives of God’s people in Ephesus.
God’s word provides the knowledge we need to live in a way that pleases God. The more we study God’s Word and
make it part of our thought process, the more we will be able to live lives characterized by self-discipline.
When my two children were much younger, I once took them to “play” racquetball. They swung wildly at the ball and ran
to the right as the ball bounced off the wall toward the left. They had fun…but they didn’t play racquetball! They lacked
the basic knowledge of how to play the game. And without that knowledge they could not be successful.
Our Christian lives are the same. We need a knowledge of God’s Word if we hope to live successfully. It’s hard to
exercise self-discipline if we don’t know which areas of our life we need to develop. Only God’s Word gives us that truth.
POINTER #3: DON’T FALL INTO LEGALISM
Our “hurry-up” society has mastered the thirty-second sound bite. As life becomes more hectic we search for easy
answers. Many citizens choose their elected leaders based on television, radio, and Internet ads that are long on
style…and short on substance.
We expect reporters to summarize national and international news to the point where we can learn what’s happening in
the world almost in real time, especially with breaking news online coming to our computers and cell phones.
We take a similar approach to biblical self-discipline. Self-control takes so long to develop the old-fashioned way. Can’t
we reduce God’s expectations for our lives to the “top ten” or “big five” commands He wants us to follow? It would be so
much easier to live a life of self-discipline if all we had to remember was “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew…or go with girls
A ready-made list of do's and don’ts for living the Christian life sounds inviting, but the results are devastating.
Eventually the list becomes more important than God’s Word. The Pharisees started out with a noble desire. They
wanted to build a hedge around God’s Word lest they accidentally violate a command and sin against God. Their
specific lists of dos and don’ts were fences designed to help them and their followers stay inside God’s Law.
Unfortunately, by the time of Jesus their list of dos and don’ts had grown to the point where they harmed those who tried
to keep them. Jesus reserved some of His harshest condemnations for those who preached such legalism. “They tie up
heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew
23:4). In the same passage Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “whitewashed tombs,”
“snakes,” and a “brood of vipers”! As He spoke these words Jesus’ followers could look from Jerusalem toward the
Mount of Olives and see ornate mausoleums – intricately carved and painted white, but filled with decaying bodies. And
just beyond was the Judean Wilderness with its deadly snakes and scorpions.
Why such harsh words? Jesus condemned those who promote legalism because legalism inevitably does just the
opposite of what it sets out to do. Instead of helping define the Word of God, it replaces the Word of God with human
rules. Instead of providing freedom to do what is right, it enslaves in a system too burdensome to bear. Instead of
promoting righteousness, it fosters hypocritical pride. Instead of leading to life, it ultimately results in death.
Don’t get me wrong. The opposite of legalism is not lawlessness…it’s the standards of righteousness found in God’s
Word. Legalism takes the Word of God and adds to it. It substitutes specific human rules for those ordained by God.
I see two very specific differences between legalism and the standards set by God. First, legalism tries to set tighter
boundaries than God imposes in His Word. God’s Word told Israel to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”
(Exodus 20:8). The legalism of the Pharisees told Israel how they could eat on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-2), what they
could – and could not – carry on the Sabbath (John 5:10), and how far they could walk on the Sabbath (Acts 1:12).
They added shackles to the Law of God.
Second, legalism leads to the belief that keeping a specific list of laws will make a person righteous. But God’s Word
says a person should try to live a righteous life because God has already made him or her righteous. Legalism holds
out the promise of earning favor with God by following a set of rules. Biblical self-discipline encourages individuals to
obey God’s Word so their lives can match their settled position as God’s children.
Legalism is not something new. The Pharisees practiced it in Christ’s day, and some individuals tried to impose it on the
church in Ephesus. Paul warned Timothy of the danger of substituting legalism for self-discipline. The false teachers in
Ephesus stressed obedience to the law (I Timothy 1:7-10). Paul reminded Timothy that “law is made not for the
righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious” (1:9).
Law can help hold evil in check, but it can’t produce righteousness. Law puts criminals in prison…but it doesn’t make
those who are already righteous more godly.
Paul reminded Timothy of the motives behind many individuals who promote legalism. “Such teachings come through
hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:2). Harsh words, but true.
People who add their standards of right and wrong to the Word of God are usurping the place of God.
Paul gave two specific examples of the legalism creeping into the church at Ephesus. “They forbid people to marry and
order them to abstain from certain foods” (I Timothy 4:3). Perhaps these teachers thought that forbidding all marriage
would solve the problem of sexual immorality. It didn’t! Perhaps they thought a list of “forbidden foods” would keep them
from offending others. It wouldn’t! What these additional lists of rules accomplished was to take the very things God
created as good and call them evil. Legalism was not the route Timothy needed to take to develop self-discipline.
Get on God’s Exercise Program
Though Timothy had faithfully served with Paul for nearly a decade, he still needed to continue developing self-control in
his life. Paul challenged him to “train yourself to be godly” (I Timothy 4:7). The process takes time…and effort.
Life is a marathon not a sprint, and it requires discipline and endurance. The author of Hebrews reminds us of this
important principle, and his words of challenge and encouragement are a good way to end our focus on self-control.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the
sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus,
the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2a).
CHARACTER COUNTS, by Charles H. Dyer, Copyright 2010, Moody Publishers.