This virtue is needed in the believer’s life. Without it, we are chaotic.
Let’s get to the root meanings in Greek.
The noun egkrateia (pronounced ehn-krah-tay-ah and used only 4 times in the NT [twice in one verse]) means “self-control, continence, temperance” (Mounce, p. 1131). BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative Greek lexicon of the NT, and it defines the noun thus: “restraint of one’s emotions, impulses or desires, self–control … especially with reference to matters of sex.” The stem krat– is the source of our stem, –cracy (the “k” can be swapped out for “c”), as in theocracy (ruled by God), bureaucracy (ruled by the office), or democracy (ruled by people). The prefix eg (or en) means “in oneself.” So egkrateia means “ruled in oneself” or “self-ruled.”
The basic stem also has a verb: egkrateuomai (pronounced ehn-krah-tew-oh-my and used twice). It means “to possess the power of self-control or continence, 1 Cor. 7:9, to practice abstinence 1 Cor. 9:25” (Mounce, p. 1131). BDAG says of the verb, “to keep one’s emotions, impulses, or desires under control, control oneself, abstain.”
Let’s look at the two verses where the verb appears.
1 Cor. 7:9 uses it with the negation “not” in the context of marriage or singleness. “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:9, NIV). So absence of self-control can be contrasted with burning with sexual desire. The way to channel this desire is in marriage, if self-control without it is impossible. Remember that marriage is sacred, and there is nothing wrong with expressing sexual desire within this God-ordained institution (Heb. 13:4). If God calls you to singleness for a season (or a lifetime), then he will give you the power through the Spirit to control yourself.
Then Paul uses the verb in the context of an athlete who goes through strict training (1 Cor. 9:25). The application is that your body must be brought under control, making it your slave. You are not its slave; it is your slave. If not, you will be disqualified from the prize.
Finally, the adjective of the basic word is egkratēs (pronounced ehn-kray-tayss and used only once). It means “strong, stout, possessed of mastery, master of self” (Mounce, p. 1131). BDAG says, “pertaining to having one’s emotions, impulses, or desires under control, self-controlled, disciplined.”
Paul uses it once: “Rather, he [the elder] must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Tit. 1:8, NIV). It is interesting that the other word, self-controlled, in that verse is sōphrōn (pronounced soh-frohn and used 4 times). It means “prudent, thoughtful, self-controlled, chaste, modest” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:8; 2:2, 5) (Shorter Lexicon). In any case, note how the adjective (egkratēs) is connected to the idea and practice of discipline. And that word in English, incidentally, is related to disciple.
Let’s return to the noun.
In Acts 24:25 Paul spoke privately with Governor Felix and his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. Paul preached faith in Christ Jesus. Felix liked that part. Then Paul started on the subjects of righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come. Felix became afraid and dismissed him. “That’s enough for now! You may leave!” (v. 5, NIV). Yes, preach faith in Christ, but don’t neglect the disciplines that flow out of faith in him, when you preach to unbelievers. Are they willing to count the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33)? They need to know what they are getting themselves into. But if you pile on too much information, they will be scared off, so wisdom is needed case by case.
Finally, Peter builds a virtue list, one virtue coming from or added on the previous one. “Make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self–control; and to self–control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Pet. 1:5-7, NIV). It is not clear (to me at least) how those virtues get added to the next one, except “self-control” to “perseverance” and “mutual love” and “love.” Perseverance means to hang on to your faith, and not to give up during tough times, and that virtue can flow out of self-control.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Some people seem naturally disciplined. They gravitate toward disciplinary religions, like extra-devout Judaism and its rituals and laws, or Buddhism and its self-denial, or Islam, with its prayer five times a day and long fast periods. But most people ignore the discipline required in those incomplete and short-sighted religions or ways of life.
In contrast, in Christianity self-control for most of us has to come from the Spirit. The Christian believer has the indwelling Spirit of God himself living in him, and he helps him to produce the fruit of self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
If Christians do not allow the Spirit to flow in them and out of them, then they can come across as lazy, undisciplined, crass, out-of-control, gluttonous, sexually charged, and so on. They may be saved (let’s hope), but they need more of the Spirit. If they have their prayer language, they should use it, not let it fall into disuse. If they do not have their prayer language, then they can ask God for it. It is a wonderful gift from God himself. It empowers us to live a self-controlled life. Is it fool proof? Not for fools, but it helps the non-fools.
Self-control is a wonderful fruit, so I pray that I let the Spirit grow it in me more and more. How about you?