Words to Live By: Self-Control

How long does it take to master something, to truly know you can do it effortlessly and exactly the same every time? According to Malcom Gladwell, a popular social science writer, it takes 10,000 hours—four hours a day, five days a week, for roughly ten years. Other writers have taken this idea to task saying there is more to mastery than just practice and the 10,000-hour rule was applied to reach the top of ultracompetitive, easily ranked performance fields, like professional golf, music performance, or chess. In those fields, the more time you’ve spent in deliberate practice, the better you perform compared to people who have practiced fewer hours.[1]Other writers say mastering something is a matter of deciding what level you want to get to and working your way up to it, something you can usually do in less than a year for most things.

One thing that all these theories have in common is the idea of discipline or self-control as the means of mastering something. The method Linus from the Peanuts comic strip uses of putting a book under his pillow and learning by letting the words seep through his pillow doesn’t work. Not only that, but things like learning to cook or repair cars would interfere with a good night’s sleep. No, in order to master anything, we have to develop the discipline and self-control necessary to develop and master the skills we are trying to learn. Discipline, or the ability to master your self-control, becomes engine at the heart of the matter.

The bible speaks of this trait not simply as discipline or self-control in the way we usually understand it (which sounds like something we do when we diet and are faced with a bowl of candy or plate of cookies) but again, as mastery over or better said, something we develop complete control over.[2] In the passage today, we are presented with the opposite of this in the idea of the undisciplined life. The writer of 2 Thessalonians is saying they have heard of people who are undisciplined, disorderly, negligent of the things they are called to do.[3] In this way, they are without self-control and irresponsible,[4] neglecting their duties and responsibilities. The wayward Thessalonians are aren’t working, but they are meddling in other people’s business (v.11). The writer of 2 Thessalonians was opposed to this for good reason. The normal method for Paul and his friends was not to 

…eat anyone’s food without paying for it. Instead, we worked night and day with effort and hard work so that we would not impose on you. We did this to give you an example to imitate, not because we didn’t have a right to insist on financial support. Even when we were with you we were giving you this command: “If anyone doesn’t want to work, they shouldn’t eat. (vv.8-10)

In other words, when they came to a particular place as missionaries, they were self-sustaining and self-supporting. They could have by custom and tradition asked to be supported financially by the local assembly of believers but chose not to, setting an example for future missionaries of how to care for local churches and how to set up local churches. 

The instructions for dealing with these undisciplined people are Don’t associate with them so they will be ashamed of themselves. Don’t treat them like enemies but warn them like you would do for a brother or sister. I think the general idea here is that maintaining self-control or discipline is something which can be undermined by being around people who are undisciplined. The idea kind of reminds me of the old saying, if you lie down with dogs you wake up with fleas. The passage seems to say if you spend too much time with people who live with a lack of discipline, you may become undisciplined yourself. The writer encourages the Thessalonians to maintain a loose connection with them, let them know there is a way back, but don’t allow their habits to become your habits. 

While there is wisdom here there is also a fine line when it comes to how you treat people in the church you disagree with. Many people in the past have used verses like this as a rationale for shunning people who they disagreed with or disliked or just felt uncomfortable with. Notice this is a specific response to a specific situation. This doesn’t set up a method for dealing with/mistreating others but a proper attitude for carrying out the work of the church, one of discipline and self-control. 

Discipline and self-control are necessary for growth as a follower of the Jesus Way. Paul, in talking about freedom in 1 Corinthians, says, I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful. I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything. In other words, I have both the ability to make decisions about how I live and the responsibility to make sure the decisions I make are disciplined and do not lead to a way of life which leaves me at the mercy of my emotions or circumstances. This mixture of freedom and self-control is a powerful emotional element in the life of the Jesus follower since the Way of Jesus calls us to be a people who choose a way of life and have the stick-to-it-iveness to continue with the journey of faith under whatever circumstances life throws at us.

Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, Go in through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it (Matthew 7:13-14). Most of the time, these verses are used to make claims about salvation. I don’t think Jesus is talking about that. I think this Jesus admonition to us that being his disciples will be a hard task, one that will require much of us, one that demands self-control and discipline. The way of Jesus leads to life—a rich, full, abundant existence if you are willing to walk the road and live out the way until the end. 


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2013/05/30/josh-kaufman-it-takes-20-hours-not-10000-hours-to-learn-a-skill/?sh=2ed4d165363d

[2] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ἐγκράτεια&la=greek#lexicon

[3] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ἀτάκτως&la=greek#lexicon

[4] Malina, Bruce J., and John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Deutero-Pauline Letters. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. pg.64-65

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