It’s no secret that we live in an age where advertising is geared towards appealing to our every desire and appetite. “Go ahead and indulge yourself” we are told, either explicitly or implicitly. Self-indulgence is the spirit of the age, with the result that many people lack self-control in many areas of their lives. But the price tag of self-indulgence is that we become slaves to our own drives, impulses, and desires. For the growing disciple, allowing oneself to be controlled by one’s desires is a recipe for disaster. Countless lives and ministries have been destroyed because of a lack of self-control.
Self-control is the character trait that allows us to say “no” to harmful or destructive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The self-indulgent person lives for the moment, to gratify whatever urge their body and emotions instructs them to. The self-controlled person lives for the long-term goal. Whether the goal is temporal or eternal, self-control is necessary for achieving anything of real value. Many people exercise self-control for achieving personal success. The goal of biblical self-control, however, is to live a life that is pleasing to God, and to make a difference in the lives of others.
The apostle Paul compared self-control in the spiritual life to athletes who competed in the Olympics (yes, the Olympic games were around in Paul’s day, too!). In 1 Cor. 9:24-27 He writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Self-control is saying “no” when we would rather say “yes.” On the one hand, it is obvious that we need to say no to sinful desires and temptations that would cause us spiritual harm. But beyond that, it is often the case that we must be able to exercise self-control in areas which may not themselves be sinful in order to make progress spiritually.
A practice which is particularly helpful in developing self-control is fasting. In fasting we set aside normally scheduled meals in order to seek God. This ancient spiritual discipline has been a means of spiritual growth for believers for centuries. Jesus himself assumed in his teaching that his followers would make this a regular practice. In Mat. 6:16-17 he gives instructions for fasting, prefacing it by saying “when you fast . . .” Notice he says “when,” not “if”. In answering why his disciples did not fast with him, he replied, “But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast” (Luke 5:35).
Fasting has a way of focusing our spiritual attention on God. Also, fasting has a way of bringing our character flaws into stark relief. It takes more effort to be kind and patient when you are hungry than when you are well-fed! Fasting helps us to follow the apostle Paul’s example in making our bodies our servant rather than our master. If this is not a regular part of your spiritual disciplines, you might want to start by fasting one mid-day meal a week. The early Christians often fasted on Friday in memory of Jesus’ death on the cross on Friday afternoon. Longer fasts can also be periodically used for special seasons of focused prayer.
It is also recommended that if fasting is a new discipline for you that you learn more about it. A book like Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline contains valuable material for the beginner. Also if you have any kind of medical condition which would make fasting a health issue, please consult a qualified medical expert. In some such cases fasting may not be recommended.