Sunday, March 13, 2011

Self-Control: Why does it matter?

My biggest problem with school isn't that the work is too hard, or that I don't have enough time to do it: the problem is that I'm still working on self-discipline to do boring things like homework.

How does that relate to this blog or the gospel of Jesus Christ? Let me explain some thoughts I had.

...and see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; 
                                                                 Alma 38:12
This scripture from the Book of Mormon is usually quoted with reference to lustful passions because of the context (Alma was preaching to his son, who had committed sexual transgressions). When I was younger, I thought that "bridle all your passions" meant to cut them off, and to not be carried away by passions. But then someone corrected me with the illustration of a riding a horse. A horse's bridle doesn't stop it from walking - it's used to control the horse's movement. Thus, we are commanded to be in control of our passions, not to kill them.

We are creatures of many passions: love, anger, physical attraction, desires for good things, etc. As we gain and maintain self-mastery over our passions, we will refine ourselves and be filled with the best ones.

The Biblical story of Amnon and Tamar is an example of how lacking self-control is destructive. In the first half of 2 Samuel 13, we learn how Amnon loved Tamar, and when he didn't control his feelings, he ended up hating her. Instead of exercising restraint (Tamar tells Amnon to talk to their father, and urges him to wait for the right circumstances - marriage), Amnon forces her into premarital sex. This is the result:
Then Amnon hated her exceedingly; so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her. (verse 15)
There was a study done (released in Dec 2010) which revealed that couples who delayed sex until marriage had benefits such as increased relationship stability, relationship satisfaction, communication, and, surprisingly, increased quality of their sexual relationship. It takes self-control to wait that long for something you both want, and I think you can say that by bridling their passions, these couples were "filled with love," like the scripture in Alma says.

Consider a more common example. Say you're a parent, and your young son or daughter just wrecked something important that you had repeatedly told them to stay away from. My initial reaction would be dismay and anger. Why didn't they listen? Now it's ruined. What do you do now? You might get angry and lash out, saying something hurtful, or spanking your child. Or you can hold your tongue until you regain composure and a little perspective; yes, your project was important, but is it more important than your son or daughter? Getting angry would vent your negative feelings in the moment, but it could cost a loving, secure relationship with your child. On the other hand, calmly explaining what happened and the consequences would teach them to be accountable, and reassuring them that you still love them teaches them that their self-worth isn't dependent on how much they mess up. The best response may be obvious now, but what makes the difference between the two paths? It's the split-second decision you make - to allow your angry feelings to govern your actions, or to retain self-control and manage your emotions in a healthful way. 

I can't tell you exactly how it works that restraint of our passions allows us to be filled with more. But I know that like other paradoxes in the gospel, it does work.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
                                                                  1 John 4:7-8 
This is a great chapter in the New Testament about love. God loves us, His children, and that's His motivation for all that He does. If we want to become like Jesus Christ, then unconditional love is an attribute we need to strive to develop. Charity is the pure love of Christ, the "greatest of all" gifts or attributes, and we receive it as we work on our self control and do the things that cultivate love.

I know that as I've worked on self-mastery, it's helped me to become more Christ-like: patient, full of love, temperate, enduring, and less self-centered. We can draw closer to God and become happier people by living these principles of self-control in everything we do :)

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