What Does Self Control Have to Do with Loving God?

Drew Dyck
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The fourth-century theologian Augustine knew a lot about sin. He’s the one who uttered the highly questionable prayer: “Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.”[1] Even as he cried out for freedom from sin, he could still feel its pull.

Disordered Loves

Ultimately, though, Augustine concluded that sin wasn’t merely about individual acts. It was about the heart. He believed that what you love is the most important thing about who you are. But he observed that we tend to have “disordered loves.” In other words, we love some things more than we should. And we love other things less than we should. We should love people more than possessions, but often our hearts prize the latter more than the former. We should desire God more than His gifts, but we get that mixed up too.

These disordered loves cause all kinds of problems. Pastor Tim Keller offers this example. “There is nothing wrong with loving your work, but if you love it more than your family, then your loves are out of order and you may ruin your family.”[2] Loving career more than family is just one example of disordered love. From a Christian perspective, not even family should command our highest devotion. That spot is reserved for your Creator. Keller explains: “The ultimate disordered love, however —and the ultimate source of our discontent—is failure to love the first thing first, the failure to love God supremely.”[3] There’s a cruel irony that comes into play whenever we value something above God. If we prioritize happiness above all else, we will never find happiness. If we grant marriage or family or work the highest place in our hearts, we will end up hurting those too. These are all good things, but they were never meant to bear the full weight of our ultimate allegiance.

Lavishing our highest love on something other than God leaves us empty, dissatisfied. We have a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts. Only when we grant God our highest love do we find the contentment we crave. As Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[4]

The first job of self-control is resisting the temptation to put yourself first.

Biblical self-control is about keeping our loves in the right order. In a sense, we can only do what we love. When we succumb to sin, it’s because in that moment, we loved something else—pleasure, pride, comfort—more than God. We will always operate out of our loves. That means we must rightly order our hearts, taking special care to ensure we are not worshiping anything or anyone other than God. Doing so will also help us fulfill the second greatest commandment: loving others.

What Does Self-control Really Mean?

Loving others doesn’t come naturally for us. We’re selfish creatures; we tend to put our needs and interests first. The needs of others? We’ll get to them . . . if there’s enough time. It takes discipline to resist this selfish impulse and serve others. It’s hardly a natural thing to do.

It’s no coincidence that the fruit of the Spirit Paul lists (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) has a communal dimension. In fact, most aren’t virtues per se. They’re more like states of being designed to promote interpersonal harmony. By placing self-control at the end of this list, I believe Paul is emphasizing its value for relationships. Being self-controlled enables us to suspend our interests enough to truly love others. As Sir Alec Paterson prayed, O God, help us to be masters of ourselves that we may be servants of others.”[5]

Once you understand self-control in this way, the very idea of using it for selfish reasons becomes a contradiction, an absurdity. The first job of self-control is resisting the temptation to put yourself first. There’s a certain pain in loosening your grip on self-centeredness. Like Augustine, you feel like crying out for God to free you from the slavery of sin—but please not yet.

Of course loving God and others ends up being the best thing for you. Paradoxically, that’s how you discover true joy and fulfillment. But you can’t do it by placing yourself on the throne of your own heart. You will indeed find your life, but only once you’re  willing to lose it. Once you surrender, however, the true adventure begins. Self-control becomes a powerful tool for living a life that glorifies God and blesses others. Ultimately, self-control isn’t about you. It’s about surrendering to God’s purposes for you. And it’s not about getting success or money or power. In the end, it’s about love.

[1] Augustine, The Confessions: With an Introduction and Contemporary Criticism, trans. Maria Boulding, ed. David Vincent Meconi (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 213.

[2] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 89.

[3] Ibid., 90.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.

[5] Sir Alec Patterson, Leadership Journal 1, no. 2, http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1996/april/1399.html.

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