Leaders face challenging situations where self-restraint is essential. In the Bible, Peter failed an early test on this issue. After praying all-night prior to his crucifixion, a mob arrested Jesus and took him into custody. Peter was outraged and panicky. He drew his sword and slashed at the crowd, cutting off the right ear of Malchus (the high priest’s servant). Peter impetuously tried to solve the wrong problem the wrong way at the wrong time and in the wrong place. He was tired (having slept fitfully the previous night), probably hungry (the mob arrived near daybreak), and intimidated by what was happening. Jesus being attacked was too much. It was time to put a stop to all this – so out came the sword!
Jesus rebuked Peter, restored Malchus’ ear, and condemned the violence. He told Peter to put his sword away lest he die by the same means. Jesus then asked three rhetorical questions: “Do you think I cannot call on My Father, and he will provide me with more than 12 legions of angels?” and “How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen that way?” and “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?” Peter, accompanied by the remaining eleven disciples, then made his second rash, spur-of-the-moment decision that night. He deserted Jesus.
Impetuosity is a common quality of younger leaders. Many haven’t yet learned the discipline of self-restraint. It’s difficult when God seems slow to act to wait for his timing to be revealed. Peter thought Jesus’ situation was desperate. Jesus had a different perspective. He understood God’s plan, timing, and purpose in the events. Peter’s limited perspective, physical fatigue, spiritual dullness, and impulsive personality all contributed to his choice to whip out his sword and start fighting. No matter the reason, when a leader acts impulsively, the result is almost always bad.
While Peter’s dilemma in Gethsemane was unique, the principle of practicing self-restraint in the face of troubling circumstances when God seems slow to act applies in many leadership situations. Practicing self-restraint requires spiritual motivation and personal choices, often under pressure. It’s hard to hold back when everything within you wants to lash out or move forward. Taking charge of your emotions and measuring your response in heated moments is an essential leadership skill.
Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. There are seven Greek root words – used in various forms – which are translated as self-control or one of its English synonyms. These words weave a prominent theme about the importance of self-restraint throughout the New Testament. Self-control means to throttle your desires, impulses, and actions. It can also mean being sober-minded, sensible, or moderate.
The concept of self-control being a fruit of the Spirit introduces an interesting paradox. Control is described as coming from “self,” but the originator is the “Spirit.” The interplay is significant and mysterious. Leaders must practice self-control, but only by yielding to the Holy Spirit’s control and, in return, becoming capable of self-control.
Self-control is a significant challenge for leaders. As leadership and personal pressures increase, feelings can drive counterproductive decisions and actions. The two most troublesome emotions for leaders are fear and anger. Fear makes you timid – afraid to do the right thing, the right way, at the right time. Making decisions (or not making decisions) based on fear leads to short-sighted, least-common-denominator results rather than bold, innovative, visionary actions. Angry decisions have the same result, only from different motives. Anger prompts rash decisions, also producing immediate relief but without long-range profitability. When a leader responds in anger, the result usually damages relationships – the hard currency of Christian leadership.
Self-restraint doesn’t mean you deny your emotions or ignore them. It means you own them. You admit you are afraid or angry – owning the emotion – but not allowing it to control you. Like a cowboy, you brand the emotion for what it is and then pen it up until you get the decision made. While emotions buck and jump, trying to get your attention, decisions are made outside the corral. Self-restraint acknowledges the emotional variables at play in any decision but decides every matter based on the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Leaders must make mission-disciplined decisions, not those driven by fear or anger.
Self-restraint in the face of challenging circumstances is your leadership responsibility. Put the sword away and do what’s right – not what feels good in the moment.