Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Self-Control: The Virtue Among Virtues

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"A man without self control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28).

The book of Proverbs 25:28 likens a man without self control to a city broken into and left without walls. This description shows how important self control is, since it acts like a guard to our life. As the verse says, a man without self control is like a city broken into and left without protection, easy for thieves to break into, steal and destroy. Likewise, if we leave our soul and spirit without self control, Satan can easily enter and spoil our lives. Self Control is therefore important and recommended for everyone without exception or exemption regardless of gender, age or position.

What is Self Control?
Self Control is dominance over all desires. It is one of the most important spiritual virtues that are essential for growth in the knowledge of God, pursuit of the Truth, and attaining of our future destiny.

Importance of Self Control
As human beings, our flesh is driven by its physical desires such as the desire for food, sex; or psychological desires such as the love of fame, praise, to name a few. St. Paul describes the struggle to obtain and maintain these desires as an ongoing war between the flesh and the spirit which also has its desire to obtain what is beyond food and fame. When we allow our desires to control us, we become similar to animals, which are driven by their instinctive desires with neither dominance nor control. On the other hand, when we subject our flesh with all its desires to the leadership of the spirit we will have exercised what we call Self Control which differentiates us human beings from animals.

Self Control in the Chain of Virtues
Self Control is not attainable in isolation from other important basic Christian fundamentals. Like links in a chain, St. Peter expresses this interdependence and interrelation of virtues in 2 Peter 1:3-8 "as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self control, to self control perseverance to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abundant, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ".

  • Faith
    Is supported with virtue. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). God has promised us great things among which are eternal life with Him and partaking in His Divine Nature. We, through faith, look forward to the fulfillment of these promises; and while doing so, we support our faith with virtue and good deeds. For "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26).

  • Virtue
    Is supported with knowledge. This knowledge comprises the capacity to discern between good and bad, right and wrong. Such discernment is achieved only through knowledge of the Holy Scriptures "Your word is a lamp to my feet" (Psalm 119:105).

  • Knowledge
    Is supported with Self Control. Self Control is necessary for the Word of God to become real and applicable in our life.

  • Self Control
    Is supported with perseverance. He who endures to the end will be saved (Mark 13:13). These are our Lords Words concerning the significance of perseverance in salvation. In order for one to control oneself and have dominance over ones desires, one needs to practice patience and endurance without which self control will avail nothing.

  • Perseverance
    Is supported with godliness. Sufferings and hardships can never be endured without the aspiration for godliness. Why does a student endure the long hours of studying except for the love for success. Likewise it is for the sake of godliness that we persevere in our pursuit for self control which in turn supports knowledge which in turn supports virtue which in turn supports faith. Mistaken are those who think of godliness as an austere, extreme style of living that does not befit existing in our physical world nor enjoying our life. Such people are cheating themselves and will end up in great sorrow. Solomon in the book of Wisdom 8:7 says, "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." Love of righteousness will develop virtue in us which in turn will help us acquire, prudence, justice, and courage. Nothing in life is more profitable to humanity than those qualities.

  • Godliness
    Is supported with brotherly kindness. According to Ecclesiastes 4:9, "Two are better than one." Fellowship in prayer, Bible study and other church activities and brotherly kindness will support our Godly life. In the book The Paradise of the Fathers there is a story about a monk, a beginner in the monastic life, who wanted to live in solitude in a cave away from the monastery. His spiritual father, not in favor of the idea, asked him to dedicate a three day fast and prayer in order to know Gods will. After the three days the monk, in a vision, saw a small flame besides a pillar of fire ascending to heaven. On asking the angel, he learned that the small flame was his single prayers while the pillar was the sum prayers of the other monks put together. He then knew the power that exists in the life of brotherliness. So he learned the lesson that it was too early for him to go and live in complete solitude.

  • Brotherly Kindness
    Is supported with love. Love for God and for one another. St. John states it clearly that we cannot claim to love God whom we do not see if we do not love our brother whom we see.

    The martyrs offered their lives on the alter of love for Christ. In these modern days, the chance for us lies in offering the desires for an easy luxurious life on the same alter. When teaching their children Self Control, parents should start teaching them how to love God and enter into a personal relationship with Christ before they can take leadership over their desires. St. Paul says, "But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him" (Philippians 3:7-9). St. Paul did not care about what he had lost because he knew he had gained what is more precious and everlasting and that is Christ. It is the love of God which supports brotherly kindness which in turn supports godliness which in turn supports perseverance which in turn supports self control which in turn supports knowledge which in turn supports virtue which in turn supports faith.

What Motivates Self Control
There must be a strong reason for enhancing our motivation to cultivate self control. "As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Peter 1:3-4). That is how St. Peter in his second epistle sums up the reason for developing self control. The cause of corruption comes from within us because of our earthly desires. However, the cure from it lies in the love that we develop for God. We can then say that the biggest motivation to exercise self control, which is not an easy task, is mainly love for God. If we really love God from all our heart, we will be ready to sacrifice all desires even the desire to live. An instance of sacrificing life for the love of God is what the martyrs did and are still doing following the example of St. Paul who professed "nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24).

The best analogy that well describes the marathon spiritual journey of a Christian is what St. Paul offers in 1 Corinthians 9, comparing a believer to an athlete who in his desire to win a race sets before his eyes a clear goal and that is winning the race. To achieve that, he controls his food, sleep, and amount of exercises. While an athlete does it for a perishable crown, we as Christians have our spiritual goal for an imperishable crown. "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown" (1 Corinthians 9:24,25). Self Control is clearly a prerequisite for winning that imperishable crown lest we become disqualified.

How to Develop Self Control

  1. Submit to the Holy Spirit
    In order to develop Self Control we have to find out about its source. Self Control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, obtaining the former entails submission to the latter. When I submit my flesh to the spirit and my spirit to the Spirit of God, I will have set my foot on the threshold of Self Control. Henceforth the Holy Spirit will have leadership over my life and His fruit and actions will become mine. That is why it is essential to let the Holy Spirit control every aspect of our lives in order that He may direct our minds and actions changing us and transforming us into the likeness of Christ. Double mindedness or half submission will only grieve the Holy Spirit and quench His work in us and will not lead to developing Self Control in us.

  2. Develop the chain of virtues
    In the chain of the eight prerequisites mentioned in 2 Peter 1:5-7, Self Control falls predominantly at the center acting as a pivotal point for all the other Christian fundamentals which are placed in a strictly orderly, interdependent, interrelated manner. This is because our faith will not be manifested nor proved without virtue which in turn will require faith to stand before all challenges and adversities. To exercise virtue, we need knowledge and appreciation of Gods Word and His will in our lives. This knowledge is only attainable through the exercising and practicing of virtues. The most important of these virtues is self control over our senses, habits and desires. However, Self Control takes time and effort which is called perseverance. This perseverance however, should by no means be mere stoical endurance, but flowing from and supported by God Himself. Once God supports us, we will be in a position to achieve godliness. Having set our foot on the road of godliness, brotherly kindness will be a by product of it and an offspring of the Love of God which the Holy Spirit will have poured in our hearts "because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:5).

    Thus the chain of requirements or Christian fundamentals has no end and no beginning; for it ends where it has seemingly started and starts where it has seemingly ended with no definite end nor definite beginning.

    Faith Virtue Knowledge Self Control Perseverance Godliness Brotherly Kindness Love.

  3. Acquire Spiritual Friendship
    Spiritual friendship has its roots in brotherly kindness. When we surround ourselves with friends who have spiritual maturity, they will become a source of support and enhancement for spiritual growth and maturity. Married couples can become spiritual friends to each other so that any time any of the two weakens or falls away, the other member will help restore his/her partner. Those who are not married can still have spiritual friends with whom they may hold prayer and fellowship meetings during which they pray, read the Holy Bible, and support each other emotionally and spiritually. St. Paul stresses the importance of spiritual friendship in Galatians 6 where he explains the importance of living by the spirit, crucifying the flesh, without self conceit, nor envy of one another. He stresses the importance of a support system; "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness" (Galatians 6:1) not neglecting the importance of vigilance over oneself, "considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1).

  4. Set a Clear Goal
    Any successful endeavor is unequivocally preceded by a clear goal. Our Lord Jesus Christ had a clear goal before Him which was our salvation. The clarity of the goal has facilitated the means (the Cross) and procured the joyful end result expressed in His Words of triumphant accomplishment: "It is finished" (John 19:30). Likewise, St. Paul had his goal clear before him: "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Not wasting his time aimlessly, and eliminating any confusing factors, he declared, "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air" (1 Corinthians 9:26), until he could boldly and successfully say: "Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness" (2 Timothy 4:8).

  5. Exercise Spiritual Practices
    "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27). How has St. Paul set about doing that? By:

    • Fasting is a very beneficial exercise and powerful tool for developing Self Control. Fasting is the ability to say NO to the desire for food. This ability will eventually develop Self Control and strengthen the will to say NO to sin. Our Lord instituted fasting by practicing it Himself. The need for fasting is equivalent to the need for Self Control. God does not benefit from our fasting, nor is it a law to fast. It is us who benefit from fasting. Fasting and prayer are those which the righteous pursued and they lived in the mountains, desert and holes in the ground because of their great love for the king (Fraction of the Holy Great Fast). Fasting should also be carried out in the proper way and not according to our convenience. When we fast according to our own rules, we are exhibiting lack of Self Control. Three important corners of fasting are:

      (a) Abstaining for some time (at least till noon or according to the spiritual fathers direction).
      (b) Controlling the quantity of food.
      (c) Controlling the quality of food

      Establishing these three cornerstones of fasting will definitely lead to discipline and to bringing the body to subjection which is, in essence the core of Self Control. Nobody is exempted from fasting except the very sick. In such cases, the church does give permission to those who cannot fast.

    • Abstention from sexual pleasures: St. Paul urged married people not to indulge in their marital relations during the Church fasting in order that the couple may dedicate themselves to worship. However, St. Paul urges that abstention from marital relationship should be done under two conditions;
      (a) by agreement on both sides
      (b) for sometime

      The reason for these two conditions is to not allow Satan to tempt either side because of lack of Self Control. "Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Corinthians 7:5).

    • Prostration: which is an exercise of disciplining the body is also another spiritual exercise. Come let us what we start the Prime Prayers with. Unfortunately prostration has gradually disappeared from our worship. Nonetheless bowing and kneeling to the ground is essential to practice lowliness and subjection to the Holy Spirit. Prostrating, either at the beginning of or in the midst of praying saying: God have mercy on me I am a sinner at least ten times (or according to the spiritual fathers direction) is a good practice. Some people erroneously think that prostration is harmful to the back. On the contrary, it will bring about a lot of blessings and fruit of Self Control.

    • Body posture in prayer: Teach us how to stand before You at the time of praying and offer you the appropriate doxology is what we ask God when we are about to pray the Midnight Prayers. Standing upright in a respectful manner is required while praying. It shows reverence and respect to the One we are praying to "I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting" (1 Timothy 2:8).

    • Serving others: "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). This is our Lords precept concerning true greatness. Serving others helps reduce our self conceit, love of praise, and selfishness. We never read in the Holy Bible about our Lord being served. He said, For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). Whoever wants to be Christ-like has to follow His footsteps, imitate His lifestyle and adopt His mission. Whenever it becomes difficult we need to remind ourselves of the reality that "without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Thus is the importance and place of Self Control in the life of a Christian who has his a clear goal in life, wants to get to know and be liberated by the Truth and looks at this life as a journey that prepares for the everlasting life. Such a person will always seek to control his mind, thoughts and senses knowing that: "A man without self control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28).

Bishop Youssef,
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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