We may be tested in dramatic moments, but the fabric of life is stitched slowly, through a thousand tiny choices that end up defining our lives.
For the past year, the news has been crammed with instances of high-profile moral failings. For a while it seemed every day brought new revelations of a Hollywood executive or politician accused of sexual assault or harassment. If the allegations are true—and most of them sure seem to be—it’s hard to imagine what these people were thinking. Not only did their actions degrade and traumatize other people, they boomeranged back on them and destroyed their reputations and careers.
It’s easy to dismiss these issues as secular problems. Many Christians experienced an acute sense of schadenfreude as we watched “godless” Hollywood consumed by the scandals. But sadly, the church has been home to similar behavior. For years, I edited a prominent ministry magazine, which brought me into close contact with many of the top church leaders in the country.
I remember one up-and-coming leader I got to know. Charismatic and talented, he led a megachurch, headlined conferences around the country, and wrote bestselling books—and then lost it all when he was caught having extramarital affairs. I wish I could say his story was anomalous, but I lost count of how many leaders and friends torpedoed their ministries by succumbing to lust or greed.
In the midst of the scandals unfolding in 2017, theologian Owen Strachan took to social media to share this leadership lesson with his followers:
Now more than ever, one moment can destroy—in one day—your life’s work. The essential virtue: self-control. You can have all the talent in the world, and draw a ton of attention for it, but if your ability is not matched by strong character, you are in a precarious place.
As Strachan observed, a lack of self-control has dire consequences. And it’s not just politicians and pastors who need to heed his warning. For all of us, even a momentary break in will power can cause irreversible damage. Yet preventing these kinds of dramatic failings is just one function of self- control. It also plays a central role in the thousands of small decisions we face every day.
Social scientists define self- control as the ability to resist negative impulses. But when the Bible mentions self-control, it usually has something bigger in mind. Yes, it involves the ability to resist doing something you shouldn’t. But it also has a proactive element. It refers to the ability to do something you should. In theological terms, it’s about guarding against sins of commission (bad things you do) and sins of omission (good things you fail to do). It also involves resisting the entire range of unwelcome impulses: from the instinct to eat that second piece of chocolate cake to the temptation to look at pornography.
When you think of self-control in these terms, you see how it impacts every facet of life. Just think of an average day. It starts before you even open your eyes. Your alarm goes off and you’re faced with a decision. Grab some extra sleep or use the extra minutes doing something useful.
Sometimes it’s fine to grab the extra Zs (you probably need them). But usually you’re better off using those precious before-the-craziness-of-the-day moments to spend some time with God or get some exercise. So do you linger in bed or do something productive? Depends on self-control.
Next comes breakfast. Do you grab a donut and coffee on the way out the door? Or opt for a healthier option, which, in addition to not tasting as good, likely takes more time to prepare?
On the way to work, you get cut off. Then you hit gridlock traffic. Another decision: lose your cool and cuss, or take a deep breath and let the incident roll off your back? More self-control.
At work you face a jungle of dilemmas. Do you spend the first hour at your desk surfing the web? Or dive straight in and make some progress on that important report? When people start gossiping about that annoying coworker, do you join in or defend him? When you notice that someone seems discouraged, do you risk a little awkwardness by walking into their office and showing concern? Or do you just ignore it and stick to your routine? Do you gripe about the boss? Do you look a little too long at that attractive coworker?
It’s all self-control.
When you return home, the challenges continue. And now you’re tired, making self-control even harder. Do you just melt into the couch and let the cable TV wash over you? Or do you spend some quality time with your kids? Do you eat too much at dinner? Or drink too much after it? Do you spend the meal staring at your phone or conversing with your family? After the kids go to bed, do you watch Netflix or take the opportunity to spend some meaningful time with your spouse and deepen your marriage?
It’s not just 9–5 workers who face such choices. They come at every stage of life. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, do you park the kids in front of the TV? Or do you lead them in constructive activities that demand more of your attention? Do you routinely feed your children sugary snacks or push nutritional meals (even when they act like you’re torturing them)? If you’re a retiree, do you live for your personal hobbies or pour into members of the next generation? If you’re a college student, do you start on that essay early in the semester or cram the day before it’s due? Do you Snapchat with friends during class or listen to the lectures?
There are times where it’s perfectly okay to just veg out. We need down time. But too often we choose the easier, and sometimes sinful, option rather than doing things that would ultimately enrich our lives, help others, and foster growth. And typically, the difference doesn’t amount to ignorance of what choice is better; it’s usually a matter of self-control.
It’s easy to imagine your life’s outcome as the product of a few big decisions. We envision a lone hero showing extraordinary courage at a climactic moment. Or a tragic figure losing control at a critical juncture. That might be how things work in the movies.
In reality, our destinies are determined in a more mundane manner. While we may be tested in dramatic moments, the fabric of life is stitched slowly, through a thousand tiny choices that end up defining our lives. The difference of those accumulated decisions is dramatic. They can add up to a life crippled by sloth and sin or to one characterized by freedom and flourishing.
This post is adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self Control from the Bible and Brain Science. Order here!