Life, Hope & Truth

From the May/June 2019 issue of Discern Magazine

Self-Control and Overcoming Sin: Restraint vs. Constraint

Resisting the constant influence of this Satan-inspired world as well as our own human weaknesses can make overcoming sin a daunting task. Are we approaching some aspects of this process the wrong way?

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Would you describe yourself as a person with a high level of self-control? I suspect we would all like to say that about ourselves. And perhaps in some areas we can, but in other areas we seem to fail.

For example, perhaps you’ve made it a goal to be healthier, so you’ve decided to stop drinking soda (soft drinks) entirely, and you’re doing well. But chocolate is another matter entirely. You may resist for a day or two, but then that Snickers bar calls your name, and before you know it, you’ve purchased the jumbo-size bar and have nothing left but the wrapper!

Is it just a matter of self-control?

Many of us have concluded that people who are good at resisting temptations are just very good at exercising self-control—they have a lot of willpower, and they know how to use it—while people who don’t do so well at resisting temptations, well, they must have weak self-control and need to work on that aspect of their lives.

The need to have and exercise self-control is real and invaluable to living the Christian life. There are elements we need to entirely remove from our lives because they are sinful, or because of the effect they have on our health, career and relationships. We can’t do that without self-control!

Restraint vs. constraint

But there is another element in the struggle to resist and overcome that we should consider. Think of it in terms of restraint vs. constraint.

Restraint is the ability to exercise self-control, check an impulse, hold yourself back from doing something.

Constraint, on the other hand, is a limitation or boundary you build into your life in advance.

Let’s explore this a little further.

Michael Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychologist, has been studying the subject of self-control, and trying to determine why some people are better at it than others. While he did not approach his research from a religious perspective, his findings provide some food for thought for us as Christians.

When undergoing rigorous testing and “brain twisters” to test their “powers of inhibition,” people who claimed to be rather self-controlled scored little different from those who did not feel they were. That was not the result that researchers expected.

But a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shed some light on this paradox. A study of 205 people who were tracked for a week discovered that those who said they were good at self-control reported far fewer temptations—in other words, they rarely had to use their willpower at all!

A key is in how we structure our lives

What can we learn from this? Psychologist Brian Galla said, “People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.” Author Brian Resnick added, “And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.”

So it seems a powerful tool to overcoming is to practice constraint—deliberately structuring our lives so we eliminate or minimize our time around those things that tempt us.So it seems a powerful tool to overcoming is to practice constraint—deliberately structuring our lives so we eliminate or minimize our time around those things that tempt us. If we want to cut out chocolate, we avoid the candy aisle at the store and don’t look longingly at the Snickers bars. It means thinking ahead and making concrete plans to avoid and overcome temptations.

The Bible encourages us to think this way

Twice in the book of Proverbs Solomon spoke of this important principle:

“A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished” (Proverbs 22:3 and 27:12). Solomon understood the importance of looking ahead and making plans to avoid the temptations to sin that would come his way.

Everyone’s life is filled with potential traps, temptations and sins. We each probably know our personal weaknesses, and we know we have to overcome for the sake of health or righteousness. We want to have more self-control, and we pray for God to give us more. But do we also take active steps to hide ourselves and guard our minds as well?

To do so may require a big change in our lives. An alcoholic may need to drive another way home to avoid going past the liquor store, and to pour out everything he or she currently has in the house.

It may require a change in the people with whom we socialize. If our current friends are involved with sinful or harmful practices, the association alone will pressure us to become involved too. It is much easier to say “no” to an illicit relationship if you don’t allow yourself to get in the situation to begin with.

Another tool for overcoming sin!

Where does this leave us? This does not negate the need to exercise self-control, but it does give us another powerful tool to use in our efforts to overcome.

The Bible encourages us to examine ourselves, looking for sin and focusing on the need to repent and change (Lamentations 3:40; 1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 13:5).

As we go through this process, we would be wise to consider structuring our lives in such a way that we practice constraint as well as restraint.

We could say that one of the best ways to avoid being drawn in by the temptation to sin is to steer clear of the temptation to begin with!

For more about overcoming, see our online article “Seven Steps for Overcoming Sin.” For more about self-control, see “Fruit of the Spirit: Self-Control.”

About the Author

Tom Clark

Tom Clark

Tom Clark married his lovely wife, Mary, in 1985. They have three grown children and four grandchildren. Tom was ordained a minister in 1989 and has served congregations in Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota. He currently pastors the Bentonville, Van Buren and Mena, Arkansas, congregations of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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