Talk of “inner power” sounds a bit New Agey. Google the term (or don’t, rather) and you’ll find tips on harnessing a hidden force that dwells in the recesses of your soul. Though co-opted by a humanistic religion, “inner power” is actually a biblical concept, though in the Scriptures it goes by the more vanilla name “self-control.” The word translated as self-control is egkrateia, from en for “inner” and kratos for “power” (we hear kratos in our English word democratic, which means power of the people).
This inner power is something we’re called to manifest in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). What is it, exactly? Self-control is the power to manage our wants and desires. The self-controlled individual isn’t a glutton but can keep his appetite in check. The self-controlled individual doesn’t fly off the handle in a furious rage every time something doesn’t go her way—she has mastery over her emotions.
Sometimes the things we must curb or control aren’t bad; it’s just there are better things in store if we wait. Is it wrong to check a text message on your phone? No. But self-control will tell you it’s better to do it when you’re not driving. Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.
Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.
Why is self-control a distinctly Christian virtue? Why are Christians called to display this inner power? Why not just listen to every voice in our heads, bow to every impulse, and satisfy every want? Because ever since the fall, our hearts are wicked and the impulses we feel will send us to hell if pursued. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve knew what they were supposed to do, but they were driven instead by what they wanted to do. We’ve been doing the same ever since.
The post-fall condition of humanity is such that lust now rules the heart, overpowering the ability to be spiritually disciplined. If we no longer have that inner power, what are we? Nothing other than slaves to our lusts and sinful desires (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 6:16–23). Paul says the natural man is one who lives “in the passion of [his] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3). Humanity apart from God is obsessed with the world, which John describes as being filled with “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life,” and those who are enslaved by those desires are “passing away” (1 John 2:16, 17).
In Luke 22, a scene with remarkable parallels to Eden in Genesis 3, Jesus meets with God in a garden. He knows what he’s supposed to do, but there’s something he wants to do instead. His human desire is, understandably, to shrink away from the thought of death, especially a death as grueling as crucifixion. But he knows this is why he came. So he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
This is the prayer of self-control. Jesus recognizes something that would be an immediate good: not having to endure the cross. But he can say, “Your will be done, Father,” because in God’s will he knows there’s something much better guaranteed than relief from pain. There’s redemption and glorification.
What would’ve happened if Jesus had no self-control? What if he’d said, “Father, let this cup pass from me. And if not, then I’m going to run”? There would have been no cross. With no cross, no death. With no death, no grave. With no grave, no resurrection. And with no resurrection, no hope. It’s in no way an exaggeration to say we’re saved because of Jesus’s self-control. We’re saved by the One who came in our place and did what we never could: he said no to sin and to self.
Christians aren’t only saved from a lack of self-control; we’re sanctified to show self-control (Rom. 6:17). When we have Jesus, we can start living the way we were meant to live. The power we forfeited in Eden is restored to us: “The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11–12 NIV).
The true believer, endeavoring to live a life marked by faith, repentance, and the mortification of sin knows how wonderful this word from Paul is. We can now say no to sin.
But this only comes by faith in Jesus Christ. We only get the spiritual fruit of self-control in connection to the Vine, Jesus himself (John 15:5). We need Christ’s life, and we must respond to him in faith. When we do, we’ll be fueled by the Vine and begin to respond as he did: not by conceding but by conquering. Self-control, therefore, isn’t only something Christians must do; in Christ, it’s something only Christians can do.
Control for You
Where is self-control most tested for you? Is it in the privacy of your room while on your computer, or around the buffet at a party? Perhaps it’s your propensity to waste an entire Saturday bingeing Netflix. Maybe it’s on the treadmill, pushing yourself beyond your limits. Maybe it’s in the obsessive minutes you spend in front of the mirror. Do you find it excruciatingly difficult to curb these habits and trust God? Know this: “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lam. 3:25).
We only get the spiritual fruit of self-control in connection to the Vine, Jesus himself.
Be encouraged, dear believer. Self-control is a wonderful gift God gives us by his Spirit: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). In Galatians 5:16, Paul declares, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When you feel sin’s powerful pull, remember you have a greater power.
Our lapses into sin are instances where we neglect the Spirit of power within our hearts. So repent of these instances and renew your desire to be strong in the Lord’s strength. The best use of your power is yielding it to Jesus. In submitting to him, you’ll find your greatest power (Phil. 2:13).