So, should we give up now? Obviously not. Thankfully, the good news is coming. Ed Welch says, ‘Only the grace of God takes self-control out of the realm of hopeless self-reformation into that of great confidence that we can be transformed people.’ As His children we need, and we have, God’s grace.
Come Near to God
Not long ago, I met my brother in Ireland. It was the only place we could meet up, and I knew even before the plane landed that we would be eating out every day. He’s a chef, and food is his passion. He always wants to go for some tasty food, see what other people are doing and judge if he’s cooking at the right level. It was lush! But one of the first things I did when I got back was to stand on the scale to see what the damage was. Even before I got home, I was already planning to get my butt back into gear and be self-controlled about my diet and exercise.
Food, smoking, exercise, meeting up with family, doing our quiet time, taming the tongue—whatever it is, we all have something we want to change, to be disciplined about, areas where we need to show some self-control. Most of the time, we last a few weeks and then old habits come back. It feels futile and, to be honest, downright demoralising. But as long as we are continually trying to transform ourselves, only dealing with the surface issues, we won’t get anywhere. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you might stop eating chocolate for a year, but the reality is, without God completely transforming our sinful hearts – the ‘greed’ living deep within our hearts will stay there, grow, fester and simply find something else to feast on.
Like me and my ‘thinking before speaking plan’—I might be able to reign it in for a few weeks—maybe even a month!—but at some point, the pride that’s driving my “loose lips’ will reveal the true state of my heart. I need my sinful pride to be put to death to help me control my tongue. That’s why Ed Welch called it the “realm of hopeless self-reformation.” We can’t transform our own heart.Only the grace of God can truly do that.
James isn’t telling us to try and achieve an impossible task, knowing we’d just fail. He is making us aware of our inadequacies, so that it would drive us to Christ, the One who can truly help.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:7–8)
If you want to grow in self-control, in any area, then James 4:7–8 has the key:
1. Submit to God: His way, not your own.
2. Resist and Flee temptation: Don’t flirt with sin, flee it. I’ve said it before—We flee what we should run to and run to what we should flee.
3. Come near to God: Dwell in and find your satisfaction in Him.
4.: Grieve and mourn: We need to grieve and morn our sin, confessing it to God.
5. Humble yourself: We need to see ourself in the right light. It’s not about you. We need to realign our wills to the father.
Self-control means living within God’s boundaries. Boundaries that He has put in place for our good, our protection and His glory. We underestimate our sin and the pull it has on us. We lie to ourselves saying ‘just one more time and we will be satisfied’. All that happens is that we feed the current desire and end up wanting more.
Sin never satisfies.
It always leaves us wanting more. What we are really saying is God isn’t enough. ”Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” (Prov. 25:28) A city wall protects the people living inside, keeping them safe and secure. It’s the same with self-control. It’s for our benefit and protection. It may mean that we have to think before we act, resist temptation and engage our brains, but ultimately that’s what it’s for—our benefit and protection.
Alistair Begg puts it like this: ‘Freedom isn’t the liberty to do what we like but the willingness to do what is right.’
Thankfully, we aren’t on our own in this. God, through his Holy Spirit, puts the desire in our hearts. Self-control is possible because of the grace given us in and through Jesus Christ, and we need to rely on Him.
One writer says this: “Through the work of the Son, we are made free… God shines the light of truth through his word onto our minds, enabling us to see that what we thought we absolutely needed, was actually only a partial good. Now we can see the whole picture… and therefore our desires are redirected, and new actions follow.”
The choice is simple: God’s way, or our own? Will we continue in that constant realm of hopeless self-reformation we put ourselves through as we try to restrain and control ourselves? Or will we throw ourselves on the hope found in and through the grace of God?
The One who can truly transform, completely satisfy, and enable us to demonstrate self-control in our lives is none other than God Himself. He will help you to do what is needed even when you really don’t want to.
“So, Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31–32)