The Unusual Self-Control of John Stott

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

The English preacher lived a disciplined life that benefited others.


When the English cleric John Stott died in 2011, tributes came pouring in.


Billy Graham lamented the loss of his friend, calling him “one of the evangelical world’s greatest spokesmen.” [i]


Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, praised Stott for his “graciousness and deep personal kindness” and life “of unsparing service and witness.” [ii]


Even Time magazine, which had named Stott as one of their 100 most influential people, ran a warm obituary calling him “one of the world’s most influential and popular Evangelical figures.”


Despite living in the same London neighborhood for his entire life, Stott made a major impact on Christians around the world. He was the chief drafter of the Lausanne Covenant, a global manifesto calling the church back to evangelism. He also wrote more than fifty books and ran a ministry equipping Bible teachers in the Global South.


Stott was the quintessential English gentleman: learned, refined, and unerringly gracious. Yet beneath the decorum, was a man of unusual discipline. Arising at 5:00 a.m. every morning, the lifelong bachelor kept a grueling speaking and writing schedule. He was always quick to serve others.


In the wake of his death, the Latin American theologian René Padilla remembered being struck by this attribute.


On the previous night we had arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, in the middle of heavy rain. The street was muddy and, as a result, by the time we got to the room that had been assigned to us, our shoes were covered with mud. In the morning, as I woke up, I heard the sound of a brush—John was busy, brushing my shoes. “John!,” I exclaimed full of surprise, “What are you doing?”


“My dear René,” he responded, “Jesus taught us to wash each other’s feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.” [iii]


Another ministry leader recalled the time he brought Stott in to speak to a group of pastors. The elderly Englishman arrived late at night and met with his host to discuss the format for the next day. The man assured the legendary cleric that the men were expecting a casual affair. He urged Stott “to reflect on what he had already written.”


But that didn’t sit well with Stott.


When I told him this, he was quiet and looked away for about a minute—a long minute. He then said, “That will never do. These men have come long distances and having a free form discussion is a disservice to them. We’ll have to have something for them to discuss.” [iv]


The man reassured Stott that preparing an original talk was unnecessary, but the next morning he found Stott at breakfast preparing his remarks. “He had stayed up most of the night preparing on topics he thought relevant to their ministries. When we convened the group, it was clear they were going to be treated to the fruits of his ‘all-nighter.’”


Sure enough, the pastors drank in the words he had prepared specifically for them.


No one complained. No one interrupted. No one left the room for a full four hours. They knew they were the fortunate recipients of a rare opportunity as John discoursed on topic after topic and they scribbled notes. It was only at the break for lunch that they had a chance to ask questions—and they did!

John kept up that pace for three days, and when we concluded he was going strong while everyone else was dragging. I’ve never seen anything like it since.[v]


Stott’s actions that day were a perfect example of his belief about the purpose of self-control.


“Why do I say that love is balanced by self-control?” he once asked in a sermon. “Because love is self-giving, and self-giving and self-control are complementary, the one to the other. How can we give ourselves in love until we’ve learned to control ourselves? Our self has to be mastered before it can be offered in the service of others.”


That’s what Stott did that night—and on countless other occasions. He exhibited self-control in service of others. In the final days of his life, he gave these last words to his longtime assistant: “Do the hard thing.” [vi]


That’s precisely what John Stott did over and over and over throughout his life. Not for himself, but for others. Not only in his power, but buoyed up and carried along by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Go and do likewise.


This post was adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science.


[i]Everett Rosenfeld, “Fond Farewells: John Stott, Theologian, 90,” Time, 
December 14, 2011, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article 
/0,28804,2101745_2102136_2102268,00.html. 


[ii]Tim Stafford, “John Stott Has Died,” Christianity Today, July 27, 2011, http:// 
www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/julyweb-only/john-stott-obit.html. 


[iii]John Stott, “A Vision for Holiness,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 94, https:// 
www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2005/august/094.html

[iv]Fred Smith, “David Brooks: A Holy Friend,” October 2, 2014, https://the- 
gathering.com/david-brooks-holy-friend/. 


[v]John Stott’s Last Words of Advice,” PreachingToday.com, May 14, 2015, https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2015/may/5051115.html. 


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