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Self-Discipline as a Strategy for Self-Control
Self-Control Word Study, Lesson 9
In this study, we’ve talked a lot about self-control—being able to moderate your own actions based on what you know is right. We also talked about self-denial; self-denial takes self-control one step further and completely abstains from anything that becomes a barrier in our relationship with God. In this lesson, we’ll talk about another strategy for self-control: self-discipline.
As we’ve learned in this study, self-control is a way to keep yourself from doing things you shouldn’t. In contrast, self-discipline is when you intentionally practice doing things you should. These are two sides to the same coin. Often, when you are trying to implement self-control or self-denial in a certain area of life, you can use self-discipline to substitute something “good” for the “bad” thing you are trying to avoid.
For example, in my struggle with food, a self-discipline substitute might be drinking more water whenever I feel like I want a snack (especially when I’m not really hungry). For someone who likes to gossip, self-discipline might include asking yourself, “Would I want someone to share this about me?” If the answer is “No,” then don’t spread the latest news. For someone with anger issues, self-discipline might be counting to 10 or doing deep breathing exercises before responding to a trigger. For someone who likes to drink alcohol, self-discipline might be drinking a nonalcoholic drink between each alcoholic drink.
To help you process your thoughts as you go throughout this lesson, a reflection journal sheet is available. You can access it by clicking here.
The Bible has a lot to say about discipline in general, but this is often external discipline, for example, discipline that comes from a parent or from God. An example of this is given in Proverbs 3:11-12:
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.
Although external discipline is vital to our growth, in this lesson, we want to focus on self-discipline—the discipline that comes from inside as we develop the wisdom and fortitude to correct our own behavior. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about self-discipline.
The Power for Self-Discipline Comes From God
The Bible doesn’t use the term “self-discipline” very often, but it does have several passages that get at this same idea. The one verse that does use the term self-discipline tells us clearly that the power we need for self-discipline comes from God (more specifically, the Holy Spirit):
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)
Interestingly, the Greek word used here for self-discipline is sōphronismos. Recognize any part of that word? It has the same root of sōphron that many of our self-control words had back in Lessons 3 and 4. This word has the implication that self-discipline demonstrates prudence and wisdom. We learned in our Characteristics of God study that God is the source of all wisdom:
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:6)
Just like with self-control, if you are struggling with self-discipline, your first task is to ask for wisdom from the Lord and for the power of the Holy Spirit.
Self-Discipline Requires Training
For those of you who don’t know this about me, I’m a runner. To be a runner as an adult, you have to have self-discipline. It’s up to you to get out there each day and do the thing that you know is good for your body even if it might make you uncomfortable for a while. That’s why I always appreciate verses like 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
The Greek word for training here is enkrateuomai, the same word we saw in Lesson 5 when we were talking about the unmarried having self-control to not have sex. It has the connotation of practicing abstinence from the things you know are harmful, replacing that with the practice of things that are beneficial.
In this case, training goes beyond simple instruction or teaching. Training is hands-on. You have to practice whatever that good thing is that you want to learn or get better at. This parallels what we saw in Lesson 7 with self-control. There, we saw that self-control requires the Holy Spirit, it requires someone to teach us, and it is a process that develops over time. With self-discipline, the same holds true, but we are both the teacher and the student. We must do the work ourselves in order to get the benefit.
The Bible gives us a couple examples of why training is important in our spiritual lives. First, Hebrews 5:13-14 talks about the importance of learning God’s word to be able to distinguish between good and evil:
Anyone who lives on milk [the elementary truths of God’s word], being still an infant [in their faith], is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Note that the training mentioned here isn’t a “once in a while, whenever I feel like it” kind of thing. Hebrews 5:14 uses the words “constant use.” Self-discipline is something we must do consistently in order to be good at whatever it is we are training for. In this instance, as we constantly grow in our faith to distinguish good and evil, we can train ourselves to be godly, as we find in 1 Timothy 4:7-8:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
The Greek words used for “train” and “training” here are gymnazō and gymnasia, respectively. Look familiar? These words are related to our words gym or gymnasium, where we go to get physical exercise. These words can also be extended to mean getting exercise in anything. In these verses, we use self-discipline to exercise being godly, which should be our ultimate goal.
Self-Discipline is the Mark of a Leader
In another parallel to self-control, self-discipline is the mark of a leader. In Titus 1 when Paul is teaching about the characteristics of an elder, in the same verse that talks about self-control, Paul mentions that the elder must be disciplined.
Rather, he [the elder] must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. (Titus 1:8)
Similar to the word ktaomai that we saw in Lesson 5 that talks about having mastery over something, the word for discipline here is enkratēs, which refers to the mastery of self. So in this verse, elders must be both self-controlled (sōphrōn, of a sound mind) and self-disciplined (enkratēs, have mastery over self). When we choose leaders for our churches, we should choose someone who has constantly spent time in the Scriptures in order to distinguish good and evil and to become more like Christ.
The practice of self-discipline for things such as exercise and eating right is important. We see in 1 Timothy 4 that this physical training does have value. However, the more important value for self-discipline is that it can help us become more like Christ. We can use the same strategies that we use to make improvements to our physical self to help us make improvements to our spiritual self. Just as we can be intentional about making it to the gym every day, we can be intentional about practicing love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, and other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). What fruit do you need to start practicing more today?
To help you process your thoughts as you go throughout this lesson, a reflection journal sheet is available. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically.
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