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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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SELF-CONTROL.—The Scripture term for self-control is ἐγκράτεια, which with its cognates occurs several times in the NT; but in the Gospels only the privative ἀκρασία is found, with the rendering ‘excess’ (Matthew 23:25). The English word is not used in Authorized Version , and in Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 is confined to the margin, with the single exception of 2 Timothy 3:3. It denotes (see Chrysostom Hom. Titus 1:8 τὸν πάθους κρατοῦντα) the exercise of dominion by man over the constituents of character within, as well as over external influences that would tend to baffle or frustrate him. It may be distinguished from self-denial as discipline is from destruction, the one making the self the centre of purpose and effort, the other aiming at its extinction or suppression. The one reduces the self, or certain of its elements, to zero; the other directs and uses it, turning all its powers into the channel of some activity, viewed as advantageous or benign. Mastery within the living organism of man is the principal suggestion of both; but self-denial gives greater prominence to the possible inherence of evil and to the ascetic processes by which it must be purged, whilst self-control implies rather freedom and strenuousness, and involves no depressing view of man or of life (see art. Self-denial). More particularly, self-control means the control of the temperament, the instincts, emotions, and will, both in themselves and against the various appeals that are made to them in daily life, with a view to the accomplishment of some purpose or the maintenance of some phase of character. In the Gospels it is exhibited in the Man Jesus Christ in a perfect degree, and by Him commended to His disciples, together with the secret of its attainment and retention.

1. Self-control on the part of Christ.—(1) It is rather doubtful whether, in the current, though vague, sense of the word, temperament can be predicated of Christ. Strictly the word denotes a certain general characteristic of a man’s temper and moods, by which his progress in intelligence and morality is in various ways promoted or hindered. It means the set of the inner life towards some specific expression or action, and implies both a disproportion in the constituents of character and a consequent degree of imperfection and disapproval. From a very early time the typical temperaments have been classed as four—sanguine, sentimental or melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic; and in each of them is found in varying measure a surplus of some quality which, by reason of its excess, spoils the proportion, and makes self-control under certain conditions specially difficult. As the humanity of Christ is perfect, and in Him all the virtues meet and harmonize, an excess in any direction is out of the question. He had moods of unbounded hope (John 12:32), of depression and shrinking (Matthew 26:38, John 12:27), of indignant anger (Matthew 23:13-36), of equanimity and comparative insensibility to passing impressions (Luke 13:32, John 19:11); but there was no such long-continued pre-eminence of one good quality over another as would allow the placing of Him, in regard to temperament, in any of the ordinary categories. If He is to be placed at all, a new class must be formed, and He may be regarded as the type of the religious temperament (Luke 2:49, John 6:38), with the right principles of self-control in action from the beginning. In the same group, though by no means on the same level, may be put all the animœ naturaliter Christianœ, amongst whom the obligation of self-control, if rendered easier of discharge by their disposition, should be more quickly and actively met (Matthew 13:12; Matthew 25:29, Luke 12:47 f.).

(2) Control over instincts and the entire appetitive life, wherein the ethical rule is indulgence with restraint, is traceable in Christ both in the particulars of His historical manifestation, and as sustained with completeness in times of special temptation. By ‘instinct’ is meant the impulse and faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain results, without deliberate or even conscious foresight. Some of these impulses are rooted in the body and aroused into activity by its uneasiness and recurring needs. Christ, for instance, knew weariness and its massive appeals for physical rest, but was so completely master of Himself as to be able to postpone, if not to withhold, the response (Matthew 8:24, John 4:6 ff.); and of sluggishness on His part there is no record in the Gospels. During the week of the Passion the nights were spent at Bethany (the village or its neighbourhood: Matthew 21:17, Mark 11:11), in part probably with a view to bodily rest after the busy days. So, too, with hunger and thirst, whose importunity was sometimes clamorous, yet easily silenced or put off (Matthew 4:2, Mark 3:20; Mark 6:31, John 19:28). In regard to the physical nature, Christ neither practised nor enjoined its suppression, but only the maintenance of its proper relation amongst natural promptings and activities. To this rule there were no exceptions, the apparent ones proving on closer examination to be designed each for a special didactic or ethical purpose. The cursing of the fig-tree was not done unthinkingly under the stimulus of a disappointed appetite (Mark 11:12 ff.), but in illustration of the doom awaiting Israel, emblem of all who abound in leaves but fail in fruitfulness (cf. Luke 13:6-9), and of the power of faith in dealing with evil (Matthew 21:20 f.). ‘A gluttonous man and a wine-bibber’ (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34), on account of its very difficulty to some expositors, must not be rejected as an interpolation. It is not meant to indicate Christ’s real habit; but it is an almost amused comment by Him on the equal readiness with which certain types of men protest against the severity of one teacher and the graciousness of another. A professed neutrality which is really childish and angry self-will deals of necessity in exaggeration; and in this case its evidence proves no degree of self-indulgence on the part of Christ, but merely magnifies His geniality, and the gentle way in which He moved amongst all innocent forms of human life, into a charge against Him of excess.

Of the mastery exercised by Christ over His emotions the characteristics appear to be a recognition of the legitimacy of emotion, sometimes even of free and unrestrained emotion, with the avoidance of all such qualities and extremes as the world has learned to condemn. Sympathy was full at Bethany (John 11:35) and on the approach to Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), but not allowed to become so sentimental or overwhelming as to interfere with service. The anger of just indignation finds expression and becomes even torrential in Matthew 23:13-36; but there is nowhere any trace of personal rancour. In Gethsemane the sacred anguish transcends analysis, for the vicarious Passion was begun; but if any influence of fear or regret or intolerable burden (Luke 22:40) is to be acknowledged, the shrinking is quickly mastered, and the Saviour goes forth calmly to die (Matthew 26:45 f., Mark 14:41 f., Hebrews 5:7 ff.). Similarly the cry on the cross (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34) is no sign of a temporary loss of control, the collapse of the human spirit of Christ in the bitterness of approaching death. It should be connected with His work of atonement rather than with His personal experience, and marks the culmination of the pressure of the world’s sin (Galatians 3:13). For man Christ passes through the deep valley of sin’s doom, and at the supreme moment is compassed about by darkness unrelieved; but He did not falter, nor was the ordered unity of His inner life in His oneness of purpose with the Father broken. At the other extreme of emotion are the sense of relief after long strain, with its associated perils of ‘letting oneself go,’ and such an exultation of joy as is apt to cause a lapse in vigilance. The relief and the joy are traceable in Christ (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21, John 17:1; John 17:4), who on the earlier occasion immediately proceeds, according to the one tradition, to offer rest to the weary, and, according to the other, to pronounce a benediction upon His disciples. Joy that becomes exuberant and beyond control, and wastes itself in moods of sheer ecstasy, is nowhere recorded of Him. He preserves consistently the wise mean, well removed from the ordinary dangers, on either side, of excess and of defect. His self-respect was complete, never degenerating into immodest vanity or giving place to servility (John 6:15; John 12:12-15; John 18:21; John 18:37). Fear could not be excited in Him by the antagonism of the people or by His apparent powerlessness in the hands of the authorities (Matthew 12:14 f., Luke 4:29 f., John 18:23; John 19:11). He was sociable yet free, interested but not absorbed in nature and in man, subject to every pure emotion but possessed and mastered by none. And the sensitive life of Christ is most correctly viewed as an organized comity of well-graded sentiments and feelings, amongst which due order was maintained without either difficult effort or occasional failure.

(3) To this, the negative side of self-control, the subjection of the various instincts and sensibilities, must be added the positive introduction of some controlling end or purpose, without which the main factor in determining the merit of self-control and the moral quality of the life will be absent. Self-control by itself may be simply a tribute to strength of will, neutral in regard to quality, and capable of being turned to bad uses. As exhibited in Christ, it means not only steadiness and freedom from irritability, a calm temper unruffled by influences from without, but the inflexible direction of the spirit and will upon the accomplishment of purposes than which neither ethics nor religion can disclose any worthier. This superiority to disappointment, difficulty, apparent disaster, is shown in many lights; and if there are times when it appears for a moment to be obscured, it is recovered in another moment, and unflinchingly held. The atmosphere in which Jesus lived was often impure, vitiated by the influence of successes that were won by insincerity as well as by the prosperity of many vices; yet by men who are competent to judge, no moral fault or compromise with wrong has ever been charged against Him (John 8:46). There is no instance of His having been diverted from His purpose by the ‘gainsaying of sinners’ (Hebrews 12:3), the blundering clamour of the people, or their unbelieving disavowal of His mission (Mark 14:58); and even widespread alienation amongst His followers was turned into an occasion for deepening the convictions and strengthening the loyalty of the others (John 6:67). Neither the bitter craft of the religious leaders with their emissaries dogging His footsteps (Matthew 22:15 ff., Luke 11:53 f.), nor the jealousy or fear of the petty overlords (Luke 13:31 f.), could break the inward unity of His spirit or the stability of His will. In the select group of His disciples were dispositions to protest or interfere (Matthew 16:22, Luke 9:54), sometimes ignorance and unwillingness to learn (Matthew 20:20 ff., Luke 17:20; cf. Acts 1:6), tempers and views that were discordant and unseemly, with a traitor lurking in the midst; yet Christ never allowed the strain of His work, or the uncongeniality or impotence of the men who were nearest to Him, to divert His sympathy or to ruffle the settled quiet of His demeanour. Death itself, rendered inconceivably horrible by the concentration upon Him of every man’s sin (Hebrews 2:9), was anticipated without alarm, and undergone in all its shame without loss of personal dignity or any weakening of His loving resolution to save. He set His face steadfastly (Luke 9:51) in no sudden bracing of His will in the presence of an unexpected peril; but the perfect self-control, which made it possible for Him to become incarnate, was maintained through all the incidents of the historical manifestation, and even on the cross itself. In the freedom of His contact with nature and man, His heart never more than momentarily failed, and His self-control in times of confusion and danger helped to make Him the most consummate Leader of sinful men, serene and strong, and always confident in God and in the issue.

(4) Beyond the action of Christ’s own will, two further causes of His self-control may be distinguished. The one was His personal trust in God the Father, and the other the influence of the Holy Spirit in response. (a) At the beginning of His career the part played both in His practice and in His inner life and thought by the recognition of His Father’s claims upon Him, against the attractions that appeal to youth, and the dependence and clinging that earthly parents naturally desire, was indicated in His reply in the Temple (Luke 2:49), and on later occasions (John 4:34; John 5:30 b, John 6:38, John 14:31). A sense of security in the remembrance of the Father’s power and purpose is part of the secret of Christ’s complete self-possession in the final crisis (Matthew 26:53). He entered upon His Agony with bitter forebodings, which in solitude became almost unendurable (Luke 22:44); absolute acceptance of the Father’s will (Mark 14:36) enabled Him to press down any reluctance to die (Hebrews 5:7 ff.)—‘made perfect’ Himself thereby, and fitted to be ‘the author of eternal salvation.’ So important was His consciousness of this relationship with the Father, that in it lay for Him the kernel and germ of all truth, and in its revelation to man the sum of all duty and pleasure. (b) The action of the Holy Spirit in sustaining the self-control of Jesus against appetites and evil appeals is conspicuous in the records of the Temptation (Matthew 4:1, Mark 1:12, Luke 4:1), and referred to by each of the Synoptists (see Temptation). But it also appears elsewhere. From His childhood ‘the grace of God was upon him’ (Luke 2:40); and that communicated grace of the Spirit wrought in Him (Luke 2:52 b (Revised Version margin) ) all that He as a man accomplished or became. The unction or illapse at His baptism was not temporary, but the Spirit permanently abode with Him (John 1:32 f.); and if Acts 10:38 refers primarily to invigoration for service, St. Luke elsewhere represents Jesus as ‘full of the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 4:1, cf. John 3:34), and as thereby prepared for personal testing and discipline as well as for His mission of mercy and redemption. For Him, as for His disciples, the soul’s thirst for unity and self-mastery is assuaged, and all needed resources are obtained, in the same way and from the same fountain (John 7:37-39).

2. Self-control on the part of man.—For man self-control assumes a double aspect, according as it is a rule of restraint or of activity. On the one hand, it keeps the indulgence of the natural appetites and impulses within the bounds of reason, grading and co-ordinating them all as elements of a coherent rational life. On the other, it concentrates the energies, reversing any original tendency to diffusion, and integrating moral life under the steady pressure of a master conviction and a master purpose. In other words, since Christianity is not an ideal or a theoretical ethic, but a practicable way of living, and since each man’s difficulty does not arise from the impulses generally, but from the predominance of some single group of impulses, self-control as exhibited and required by Christ comes to mean the control of individual temperament, the avoidance of the various evil excesses to which each man is prone, and possibly even the substitution of some form of good for some form of evil as an instinctive besetment. Symmetrical development of each man’s spirit may be said to be the object of the Gospels, which are far from silent either as to the method by which it is to be effected, or as to the pains and satisfactions of the process.

Control of the senses and appetites is to be carried, if necessary, to the point of mutilation, for excess must be prevented, whatever the pain or cost (Matthew 5:29 f., Matthew 18:8 f., Mark 9:43-48); and not even relationships that are legitimate and pure must be allowed to interfere with the interests of the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12, cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32). Inclinations and impulses are to be distrusted, and the Christian should be their master and not their slave (Matthew 5:39-41, Luke 6:29 f.; cf. Romans 12:17 a). The need of integrating the life by giving supreme sway to some right and rightly conceived purpose at its centre is shown in the conversation with the young ruler (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22), where the renunciation of wealth is a necessary preparation for all-absorbing devotion to Christ, the great test of discipleship (as in John 10:27; John 12:26), as well as the secret of perfection. The same is the bearing of the sayings as to the ‘single’ eye (Matthew 6:22, Luke 11:34), the impossibility of serving God and mammon (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13), the necessity of becoming ‘as a little child’ (Mark 10:15), as well as the great law of Matthew 6:33, the observance of which not only safeguards the spirit from the distressing influence of suspicion and fear, but especially keeps it a well-ordered unity, with quiet strength and readiness to act as its prominent qualities. If the control be threatened from without, it is recovered or retained by recognizing God’s superior claims, and counting nothing so important in experience as His good pleasure (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:4 f.). Against opposition and difficulty of every kind the rule is steadiness (Matthew 10:16-26; Matthew 10:34-39), neither purpose nor self-control being shaken, because of the unrivalled constraint of the love of Christ (Matthew 24:9, John 15:18-21; John 16:2; John 16:20-22). ‘For my sake’ gives the secret of a self-control that never breaks down; and the love and devotion are continuously fed by the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20, John 16:14). By the forgiveness of sins Christ sets the will free from bondage to past evil, and His Spirit, ruling in the life because in the heart, becomes an unfailing source of strength and peace, reproducing in mortal experience the self-control of Him who never wavered from duty, or yielded to temptation, or allowed the Kingdom within to be disturbed by a breach of will between Himself and the Father. His self-control, in its completeness and in its means, is the measure and guarantee of what is possible to man. See also art. Temperance.

Literature.—The Lexx. of Grimm-Thayer and Liddell and Scott, 8.vv. ἀκρασία, ἐγκράτεια; Aristotle, Ethiopic bk. vii.; Martensen, Chr. Ethiopic ii. 411; C. E. Searle in Camb. Serm. (ed. Bebb), 1893, p. 70; J. Iverach, The Other Side of Greatness (1906), 109.

R. W. Moss.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Self-Control'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/self-control.html. 1906-1918.