Tag Archive: self-control


No topic in the book of Proverbs more clearly illustrates the way of God and the way of fallen man, or the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness, better than the subject of the tongue. The Proverbs address the incredibly diverse effects that can be accomplished with our speech. The tongue can bring life or it can bring death. It can cheer or it can cause despair. It can guide or it can mislead. It can bless or it can curse. It can honor God or it can be the instrument of blasphemy. Due to the tongue’s potential for both good and evil, it receives some of Solomon’s most precise analysis.

You don’t have to live too many years before you learn first-hand about the potential for good and the potential for harm that resides in our tongues. Generally speaking, we are so very careless with our words. Some of our most bitter memories are not of being struck by another person, but of being spoken to or spoken of harshly by another person. Most of us can recall episodes when we felt crushed by the words of another, or when we felt the keenest sense of betrayal due to words spoken by another. Set against these experiences are those times when someone has spoken kindly to us or about us and that has brought us satisfaction. And we all have known the comfort that comes from words of encouragement and support during a time of trial.

Our words are the most effective weapon we possess for destruction and the most effective means we possess for building up. The difference between these two extremes is the words we choose to utter and the manner in which we choose to utter them.

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Pro. 10:19)

This is a verse that serves as one of the foundational principles when it comes to understanding the Biblical doctrine of language, in general, and the use of the tongue, in particular. Solomon doesn’t say what we might expect him to say. He doesn’t say “when there are many bad or hurtful or hasty or negative words, transgression is unavoidable, he simply writes that when there are “many words,” transgression is unavoidable. This should tell us something about communication immediately; it should tell us that much talk tends to result in a negative outcome. Our words, when they are prolonged, tend to degenerate in character and that means that transgression is always a potential product.

Because of our fallen natures, if we speak a lot, we are going to sin. This is a simple formula that Solomon sets before us. Consequently, the second half of this verse makes complete sense: “but he who restrains his lips is wise.” If, because of our sin natures, much talk is likely to produce transgression, then the person who wants to please the LORD and not cause offense with words will be the person who governs the tongue. Much talk leads to sin, so less talk eliminates the opportunity for sin.

Let’s consider some of the vocabulary Solomon uses in this verse. First, there is the word “transgression” (pesha). What exactly does Solomon mean when he says that when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable? This term is a basic Hebrew word meaning “trespass” or “sin.” There’s no mystery here. Solomon says that many words lead to sin—that is, the violation of some aspect of God’s Word. In fact, you’ll notice, he says that sin is unavoidable when we speak many words. The phrase Solomon uses refers to something that cannot be stopped, something that must occur given a set of circumstances. In this case, sin is that which cannot be stopped or that which must occur when this circumstance—many words—is present.

Solomon sets before us the opposite of speaking many words: “but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Here, the word translated “restrains” (chasak), of course, is significant. This term means “to spare, to keep back, to withhold, to hinder, to hold in check.” This notion is clear enough. This word describes an act of self-discipline or self-control by which the words that are spoken are few and do not, therefore, lead to transgression.

Solomon teaches that the preferred alternative to the use of many words is the use of controlled speech. If speech is controlled, and we’re talking about quantity as well as quality, we are less likely to commit a sin with our tongue. Therefore, since avoiding anything that violates God’s will is a chief mark of a wise man, Solomon pronounces that man who governs his mouth as “wise.”

This is, once again, a foundational verse because it deals with words, in general, not just “bad” words or inflammatory words. This text warns us that if we talk too much, we are going to sin—and I would point out that Solomon says nothing about our motives or our sense of justification for speaking many words. He flatly warns us that if we talk a lot, we are going to sin and he says that this outcome is unavoidable. Only a fool will hear what Solomon says in this verse and think he is immune or think he can still talk much about people or circumstances without falling into sin. If we take this verse seriously, we should be people of measured speech; we should be people who are known for their reserve when it comes to talking.

In terms of a practical response to this teaching, I would say be aware of the tremendous power of language. We need to give attention to this aspect of how God has made us. We are made in such a way that words have deep and lasting impacts on us. We cannot control how others use words, but we can control how we use them. And in recognizing the power of the tongue, determine that you will use it in a God-honoring manner. Discipline yourself to speak responsibly and in a controlled fashion. Make it your goal to build up others by your words—not through false flattery, but through words that edify.

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The issue of self-control is much more extensive than we might think initially. We normally think of self-control in conjunction with anger. Typically, we consider a person who is easily angered to be a person with a lack of self-control. But the topic of self-control takes us to the heart of one of the main themes in Scripture, which is our sanctification.

The process of sanctification is largely about self-control or about learning to think, speak, and act according to God’s principles rather than according to what comes “naturally,” which is some manifestation of our fallen natures. Self-control, then, has to do with subjecting our fallen natures—our sinful impulses—to the Word of God.

 

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Pro. 16:32)

The importance of this issue is clearly established in this single verse in which we find Solomon’s opinion regarding self-control or self-rule. Note the extreme comparisons he draws. One who is “slow to anger” is compared to “the mighty” and one who “rules his spirit” is compared to “he who captures a city.”

Initially, we would assume there would be no beneficial comparison to be made between a man who is slow to anger and those labeled “mighty.” The word Solomon uses is gibbor, which refers to a man of great strength or a man of great courage. This word conveys the sense of the heroic, the kind of person legends are made of, the kind of person who accomplishes seemingly impossible feats and faces dangers and threats that would make most others tremble. But Solomon says that the man who is slow to anger is better than such a man. He does not simply say that a man who is slow to anger is like a mighty man or similar in constitution to the mighty man; he says that a man who is slow to anger is superior to the man of great strength or the man of great courage.

Who do we admire most—the person who controls his anger or the person who demonstrates unusual strength and bravery? Who should we admire most? The first question is answered by what we observe in this world and the second question is answered by the Word of God. A man who rules his spirit is considered of better character and is considered a better man than he who captures a city.

Implied here is insight regarding the nature of man. If control of our initial impulses is defined as a good thing, then that must mean that those initial impulses are bad things; and that tells us something, therefore, about ourselves. It tells us that we are, by nature, given to reactions and responses that are negative in character. So this verse reflects the Bible’s teaching concerning the nature of fallen man.

Additional Verses

A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated. (14:17 )

Solomon says that a man who is “quick-tempered acts foolishly.” Notice that this description is the opposite of the man in 16:32 who is described as “slow to anger.” There you’ll recall, Solomon uses a word that refers to having patience. Here, two words are used that are translated “quick-tempered” and one of them (qatser) refers to a lack of patience.

This is interesting. In just two verses, we’ve discovered that patience (or the lack thereof) is one of the core elements of self-control. This implies that one of the keys to self-discipline is learning to be patient with circumstances and people. And patience is one of the hallmarks of spiritual maturity in the Scriptures. This is true, I think, because patience implies trust in God and contentment with what He has ordained.

A man of great anger will bear the penalty, for if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again. (19:19)

Briefly, this verse speaks of habitual lack of self-control. There is a danger in failing to exercise self-discipline. The danger is that your impulsiveness, which is nothing more than an immediate expression of your fallen nature, becomes your pattern of conduct. You will rarely find a man who loses his temper in a significant way only once in a while. Normally, if a man is easily provoked by circumstances or words, you’ll find that he is frequently provoked by circumstances or words.

Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel. (20:3)

Solomon sets before us two kinds of behavior, two kinds of people, two descriptions of character. Self-control may manifest itself in avoiding a circumstance, not simply in reacting patiently to a circumstance. That’s the idea in this verse. If he can avoid it, a wise man will not put himself in a position where there is likely to be strife. This phrase takes us in yet another direction in our understanding of self-control. Here the notion of discernment comes into play.

When a man avoids strife, Solomon teaches, he has done an honorable thing. How different this is from the way we operate so often! We sometimes think that we must enter into strife in order to make our point and so that we make sure our opinion is heard. Our natural tendency is to create strife, not avoid it.

Practical Responses

I would offer three short suggestions:

One, make sure you understand how fundamentally important this issue is. As I tried to make clear, self-control deals with the very heart of who we are, how we think and behave; self-control is self-discipline and that is what we are concerned with when we think of our sanctification. This is not just a matter of controlling our tempers, it is a matter of determining that by which our lives will be characterized.

Two, understand that self-control, as fundamentally important as it is, begins with our temper or our handling of those natural impulses that rise up in us in response to circumstances. Yes, there is much to the topic of self-discipline because it is such an essential aspect of our existence, but it begins with simple, everyday situations in which we have opportunities to give way to expressions of our fallen natures or subdue them for God’s glory.

Three, every person, from children to adults, has room to improve in this matter of self-control. Don’t think that because you don’t lose your temper often that you have no problem with self-control. Self-discipline touches many aspects of our lives. There are obvious examples where self-control is needed, and then there are some not-so-obvious examples where self-control is needed. Some examples are seen by many people, and some examples are known only to you and God. Therefore, meditate on these proverbs, memorize them, pray that God will cause the characteristics commended in the proverbs to be true of you.

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

In the Hebrew mind, the heart was the control center and the condition of the heart determined how a person lived. The heart is what we are in reality, as opposed to what we sometimes appear to be or want others to perceive. The heart is where information is processed and decisions are made. This is where self-control begins—it begins with giving attention to our motivations and desires. What does it mean, therefore, to “watch over” my heart?

The word used here (natsar) means “to keep, preserve, guard.” This word is used often to describe God’s behavior. He keeps His word, He preserves His people, He prevents something from happening. In the same manner, the word is sometimes used in reference to people. The main idea is that of maintaining something—making sure the object, whatever it is, remains in the desired condition.

In our Proverb, the word translated “heart” (leb) means “the inner man, the mind, understanding, that part of a man where contemplation takes place.” This proverb tells us to preserve our mind and keep it free of contamination because it is the source of our actions and communications. If the mind is polluted, actions and communications will reveal it. If the mind is well-kept, on the other hand, actions and communications will show that, as well.

Self-control begins with how we think, what concepts we allow into our head, what thoughts we dwell on and so forth. This immediately points to the Word of God as essential to self-control. As sinful creatures, we need a sure source of morality and direction. Self-control is not just a matter of subduing ourselves at the moment when an angry outburst, for example, seems to come so readily. It is a matter of keeping our minds free of those ideas and beliefs from which anger springs by filling our minds with the holy Word of God.

Let’s consider two matters in which self-control is crucial:

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Pro. 10:19)

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Pro. 16:32)

In the first verse, the writer does not say “when there are many bad words…” but just “when there are many words…” So the person who is exercising self-control will be the one who, as the writer says, “restrains his lips.” Our tendency is to talk and to talk too much. Self-control manifests itself when we stop talking even though the issue hasn’t been entirely settled.

In the second verse, the writer states that control of anger is a more desirable quality than power. Self-control is viewed as a more useful asset in the eyes of God than tremendous strength, which implies it takes more to control anger than to unleash great physical power. In parallel fashion, the writer goes on to say that the ability to rule one’s spirit is to be valued more than the ability to capture a city.

Establishing self-control is one achievement that brings with it manifold blessings to ourselves and others. It is not easily done because our flesh resists any type of restraint. By nature, we are inclined to declare whatever is on our minds and expose whatever emotion happens to be rising up inside. Filling our hearts with the Word of God, however, is the only truly effective correction we have at our disposal.