It's time to resurrect the ancient discipline of self-control

Donald Trump’s lack of self-control, evident in his Tweeting, prompted some thoughts about self-control. For many centuries, Christian spiritual adepts regarded self-control as an essential and basic step for those who traveled the Jesus path. A similar emphasis on self-control is found in other major religious traditions.
During the last seventy-five years, Christian theologians and ethicists have tended to ignore or downplay the importance of self-control.

In preparing this post, I reviewed what the Bible has to say about self-control:
  • The wisdom literature is explicit. Self-control is a basic virtue:

* Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control. (Proverbs 25:28)
* And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these. (Wisdom of Solomon 8:7)
  • Self-control is also a theme in Sirach as well as several other books in the Apocrypha.
  • Paul emphasized self-control in his discussions with Felix (Acts 24:25) and in his first letter to the Corinthians (9:14-27). Paul also utilized the concept of self-control more narrowly with respect to sexual behaviors.
  • Titus 1:8 advocates self-control as a virtue of bishops and, by implication, for all clergy; Titus 2:12 expands the expectation of self-control to include all Christians as does 2 Peter 1:6.

Self-control is an important virtue for several reasons:
  • Divulging one’s thoughts and feelings can hurt others, will often not achieve any productive results, and can actually interfere with the divulger achieving his/her own goals. Trump’s tweets illustrate all three of those problems. In sharp contrast to total openness, Jesus calls us to love one another, to do good, and to care for ourselves.
  • Self-control requires mastery over one’s thoughts and actions. Feelings are often beyond a person’s control. Nevertheless, the Bible assures us, as the lives of the saints exemplify, a person can master her/his thoughts and actions. For example, if a person regrettably finds him/herself in the midst of a terror attack, courage through the exercise of self-control can master one’s fear and avoid panic. In the stampede to exit the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester after the terror attack, televised videos showed some people calmly remaining in their seats.
  • Consistency is impossible without self-control. Everyone is buffeted by changing emotions and events. Self-control enables a person to keep a steady hand on the rudder of her/his life, maintaining a constant direction, e.g., without self-control few relationships would endure for very long.

Bruce Bower in his article, "Mastering the art of self-control" (Science News, Nov. 3, 2014) identified three scientifically supported secrets to self-control:
  1. Distract yourself. Kids who wait for two marshmallows often make up stories in their heads, sing songs or invent games to play.
  2. Make if-then plans and stick to them. Examples: If there is a dessert menu at the restaurant, I will not order chocolate cake. When the clock hits 5 p.m., I will read my textbook.
  3. Shift your time perspective from immediate desires to future negative consequences. A smoker pining for a puff can visualize himself as a cancer patient being wheeled into radiation treatment.

Research supports religion as an aid in developing and using self-control (Michael E. McCullough and Brian L. B. Willoughby, “Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications,” Psychological Bulletin, 135:1 (2009), 69-93). Some religious motivation is psychologically suspect. Feeling guilty because one has failed to exercise self-control or exercising self-control to avoid feeling guilty may work in the short-run but guilt is an ineffective long-term motivator. Similarly, concerns about what might happen after death is unlikely to be an effective motivator for self-control in the twenty-first century.
Conversely, religion can provide helpful motivations for developing and exercising self-control:
Religiously based motivations for moral behavior may also include desires to show gratitude to God, to promote one’s religion to others, or to accomplish other goals. In general, because religion allows people to base their everyday behavior upon high-level principles, it can sanctify and imbue the most mundane of activities with meaning and importance (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009). (Harold G. Koenig, Michael E. McCullough, and David B. Larson, Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.508)
Developing and exercising self-control constitutes at least one intersection between science and religion where the insights of each are mutually reinforcing. In an era in which our attention is constantly drawn to the adverse consequences of individuals having an apparent lack of self-control, I suspect that the time is ripe to again focus on the virtue of self-control.


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