Read through Paul’s letter to Titus, and you’ll notice that one word pops up several times (1:8, 2:2, 2:5, 2:6). The English word varies with translations: discreet (KJV, NKJV), sensible (NASB), or self-controlled (ESV, CSB, NIV). Usually when a word in Scripture has several English renderings, the word in the original language has a breadth of meaning that no single English word can adequately convey. In this case, the Greek word is sophron, a compound word meaning “sound mind.” But, not surprisingly, the English words from the different translations show up in the word’s range of meaning: discreet, sensible, self-controlled.1
The self-control to which Paul is referring deals with more than denying yourself a second (or third or fourth) cookie. While it does include that, sophron is first a battle of the mind and heart. Rather than allowing thoughts to cruise from one anxious thought to the next, a sophron mind puts on the brakes and focuses on what is true, honest, just, pure, and lovely (Phil. 4:8). It takes thoughts captive and reminds itself of Gospel truth.
But if sophron means being self-controlled, how do I apply the Gospel in this area? And how is a sophron heart different from the secular idea of will power? Let’s think through these questions together.
How does the Gospel apply to self-control?
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jhn 12:24)
Dying to Self
At the heart of the Gospel is the concept of death. When I talk to my two-year-old about the Gospel, I usually talk about Jesus’ death. Theologically I know that there are other essential components to it, but the boiled-down, toddler-sized version of the Good News is this: Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins. While it may be about more than that, it’s never about less.
The Gospel is all about dying. And so is self-control. A sophron mind is a picture of the death in which I partake through Christ. When I deny myself the pleasure of indulging in an angry, anxious, or lustful thought; when I say no to a book, movie, or TV show that will do me no spiritual good; when I wake up early to exercise instead of hitting snooze (again); when I choose carrot sticks over cookies, I am choosing the way of the cross—the way of death leading to life—rather than “life” (what I want) leading to death.
In this way, I demonstrate the Gospel with a sophron mind.
Union with Christ
Union with Christ means that Christ is in me and I am in Christ—that all that is Christ’s is now my own. That idea, when it begins to sink into your mind and take root in your bones is an absolute game-changer when it comes to our spiritual lives. No surprise, then, that it answers the question at hand.
Perhaps nowhere else in Scripture do we find a clearer picture of a sophron heart than in Philippians 2, in which Paul says this about Christ:
[Christ Jesus], existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. (Phl 2:6-8)
Christ chose not to cling to the rights and glory of heaven that belonged to Him. Instead, without losing a shred of His deity, He took on the fullness of humanity. Consider what that means. For all of eternity, the Son of God had known no limits. Now, inside a corporeal body as real as yours and mine, He knows limits of all kinds: fatigue, sickness, hunger, thirst, incompetence, weakness, and ultimately death. He chose this. Knowing full well the weight and consequence of His choice of “obedience unto death,” He cried out to His Father to let the cup pass. Yet, when the Father denied that request, the Son still drank willingly of the cup, denying Himself the comfort and glory which He rightly deserved. Instead, He endured the infinite weight of the wrath of God against sin.
When you embraced that sacrifice as your own, you experienced union with Christ.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the [life] which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Gal 2:20)
For if we have become united with [Him] in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be [in the likeness] of His resurrection, (Rom 6:5)
“So what?” you may be thinking. “What does this have to do with me?” Everything. How does the Gospel (and union with Christ) apply to a sophron mind? I’ll tell you.
Because of your union with Christ, self-control doesn’t mean “just do it.” Now, you can be it. You can be sophron, you can be self-controlled, because you have been united with Christ and His self-control, displayed in the incarnation and on the cross is now yours. You don’t just control your temper through gritted teeth and sheer will. Because you’re united with Christ—and, of course, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—you have the power of the Resurrected Savior to choose a gentle response.
How does being “sophron” differ from secular will power?
Though you probably won’t hear the word sophron much, the secular world has a lot to say about self-control. Every diet and exercise plan hinges on this concept. Ask any professional or Olympic athlete, and I’m sure they’ll have much to say on the topic of will power. But is this the same as the biblical concept of self-control?
The short answer, you may have guessed, is no. That’s not to say that secular will power is bad and has no merit. It’s not and it does. Gritting your teeth to get through a workout or denying yourself a sugary snack in favor of a healthy one, is good. However, that’s not exactly the picture of a sophron mind.
A key difference between a sophron heart and will power is motivation. Will power is primarily motivated by self-glory, survival, or worldly benefit. When I choose working out over sleep, I’m exercising will power—if I’m doing it only for the physical gain. The same, by the way is true, if I choose reading the Bible over sleep if I’m doing it only for a checked box on my to-do list. If Christ and His kingdom don’t enter into the equation, it’s not sophron, but it is will power. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do those things, but it does indicate that I’m not perfectly sophron yet.
Let’s go back to the Garden of Gethsemane. As Christ anguished over what He would endure in the next twelve hours, He asked the Father if there was another way. But He finished by saying, “Not my will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). In this moment, we see a boots-on-the-ground example of the request in the Lord’s model prayer: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
A sophron heart sets its affections on things above, not on things on the earth (Col. 3:2). It consumes itself with the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of self (Matt 6:33). It says, “It’s not about me anyway, so I don’t have to have my way in this.”
Will power is easy by comparison, but its reward is fleeting. Sophron requires a daily Gospel-driven dying, but it will reap eternal treasure.
So, how can I be self-controlled to the glory of God? Dive ever deeper into the Gospel and your identity in Jesus Christ. As you grow in your understanding of those truths, you will begin to choose His kingdom over your own. In short, your mind will grow in becoming sophron.
1Spriros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, “sophron” definition.