In Praise of Self-Control

Read: Proverbs 25:28

Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control (Proverbs 25:28, NRSV).

When was the last time you crumpled to the floor in a heap after being gently corrected? (Not since graduate school….) Have you ever sulked behind the couch during someone else’s birthday party and declared it to be, “THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE!”? (Not that I’m willing to admit….) Who of us hasn’t stormed back into the oval office to plot a coup when we found out we’d lost the election? (Oh, right. Only one of us has done that….)

When a 3-year-old gets the sulks over one of life’s disappointments, we often smile—albeit behind our hands. But when an adult greets disappointment by pitching a fit, it’s not so funny. We expect adults to be better at self-regulation.

Parents work hard at teaching their children self-control. This isn’t easy, since part of what motivates self-control is the ability to imagine negative consequences. Let’s try this out on the examples used above.

“If I crumple to a heap after my mom has suggested that I not hit her on the nose…I may delay the fun thing we were doing before I hit her.”

“If I sulk behind the couch at my little brother’s birthday party…I may miss getting any cake.” (Points to that child for her gift for hyperbole, though!)

“If I plot a coup to stay in office…I may get arrested and/or imperil democracy.” (Oh, that’s right. The person I’m thinking of is a narcissist, so only the getting arrested part would work as an incentive. And since he assumes that “NO ONE WOULD DARE TO ARREST ME!” that wouldn’t work either. Does he get a free pass because he is a narcissist? Of course not, but it does explain a few things. It might even make it easier to pray for him—even as we pray for the survival of our democracy.)

So, barring a bad case of narcissistic personality disorder, consequential thinking is key for developing self-control. But since consequential thinking doesn’t develop fully until we are in our 20’s, this means that parents have their work cut out for them. Still, God help the child, the parents, and the community if the parents don’t take that work seriously.

This, I think, is the point that our proverb is making. In the ancient world, the wall around the city meant the difference between life and death. A breach in that wall would put everyone at risk.

In Galatians 5:22-23, self-control is listed as a “fruit of the Spirit,” along with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness. In fact, self-control is listed last. Current events make me wonder if that New Testament writer saved the best for last. But wherever self-control falls in the list, it’s clear that our “city” is not safe without it.

Ponder: Is fear of negative consequences the only thing that motivates self-control? What works for you?

Pray: Give us the maturity to control our negative impulses, and deliver us from those who don’t.