Many people are more concerned with present wants than with future desires and have difficulty thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions. The most worthwhile things in life, both temporal and spiritual, can only be achieved by mastering ourselves. Lasting joy and happiness are achieved through self-mastery.
Imagine for a moment that a friend offered you a ride in his beautiful candy-apple red convertible. You are very impressed with the car and can see that it is in wonderful condition. The engine roars, and the tires look brand-new. Just as you are about to enter the car, your friend mentions that the brakes do not work. Are you still interested in riding in the car or do you realize that it is dangerous to ride in a car with no brakes?
Living without self-mastery is just as dangerous as riding in a car without working brakes. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated: "You consist of two parts - your physical body, and your spirit which lives within your body. You may have heard the expression `mind over matter.' …. I would like to phrase it a little differently: `spirit over body.' That is self-mastery" (in Ensign, November 1985, 30).
Self-mastery is the ability of your spirit to control your body, the ability to do what you know you should do even if a part of you does not want to do it. You exercise self-mastery when you do God's will instead of your own.
One of the characteristics of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ is self-mastery. They want us to have control over ourselves because self-mastery brings blessings. Jesus Christ taught us that we must be able to master ourselves if we are to be His disciples.
"Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Matthew 16:24).
The Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 16:24 (see footnote d in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible) clarifies that we are to deny ourselves "all ungodliness." We are to give up unrighteous actions and replace them with righteous ones. Exercising self-mastery involves using our agency to choose to live righteously.
Exercising self-mastery does not mean denying oneself everything that is enjoyable or fun. When we practice self-mastery, we give up some things or experiences in order to receive things or experiences we want more. For example, when we fast, for a time we give up eating, which is enjoyable, in order to receive spiritual strength and growth. On a larger scale, we give up sin (which may sometimes appear enjoyable) in order to have peace of mind and the opportunity to live with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ again.
Consider a man who was carrying a bottle of water. He knew the water was needed to prime the water pump, but he was thirsty. He decided to drink the water instead of priming the pump. He lacked self-mastery and satisfied his immediate desire instead of preparing for the future. His experience would have been much different if he had exercised self-mastery. If he had primed the pump before taking a drink, he would have had all the water he needed.
It is easy for us to see the mistake that this man made, but his experience is comparable to many of the spiritual decisions we face. Self-mastery, like other skills, is developed through practice. In some instances, we practice self-mastery simply by doing the desired action each day and thus forming a habit. Self-mastery in other areas, however, may require more effort.
There are several ways that we can develop self-mastery. 1) We can work to achieve appropriate goals. When we recognize areas in our lives that require greater self-mastery, we can set goals with clear achievable steps to help us. For example, if we need greater self-mastery in getting ready for church on time, we can plan what things need to be done on Saturday in order to achieve this goal.
2) We can replace bad habits with good ones. It is easier to break a bad habit if we replace it with a better habit or activity. We can develop the habit of daily scripture study by setting a goal to study the scriptures at a specific time each day.
3) We can ask friends or family members to help. Sometimes simply telling someone else about a new goal or a habit we are trying to develop can motivate us to work harder. Friends and family members can also give us encouragement and assistance as we work to exercise greater self-mastery.
4) We can pray and read the scriptures. When we pray, we can ask Heavenly Father to give us the strength we need to reach our goals or change our habits. As we study the scriptures, we can be guided by the Lord's counsel and the example of others who have exercised self-mastery, such as Daniel or Joseph of Egypt. If we are receptive to the influence of the Holy Ghost, He can also help us achieve self-mastery.
"Many years ago [Roger Bannister] participated in the Olympic Games as a champion in the one-mile race. He was supposed to win, but he wound up finishing in fourth place. He went home from the Olympics discouraged, disillusioned, and embarrassed.
"He had his mind set on giving up running. He was a medical student at the time, and his studies were so demanding. He decided that he'd better get on with life and devote all of his time in preparing for medicine and forget his hopes about running the world's record in the four-minute mile. He went to his coach and told him, `Coach, I'm through. I'm going to devote all my time to studying.' His coach said, `Roger, I think you are the man who can break the four-minute mile. I wish you'd give it one last try before you quit.'
"Roger … went home knowing not what to say or do. But before the night was over, he had convinced himself that he would develop an iron will before he quit running. He was going to break the four-minute mile.
"He knew what this meant. He would have to set a pattern and live by it. He realized he would have to study seven, eight, or even nine hours a day to get through medical school. He would have to train for at least four hours a day…. He knew he would have to eat the best foods. He knew he would have to go to bed early every night and sleep nine or ten hours, to let his body recuperate and constantly build up for the great day. He determined within himself that he was going to follow the rigid pattern he and the coach knew was necessary for victory and achievement.
"On May 6, 1954, the four-minute-mile barrier was broken by Roger Bannister, … a man committed to a winning pattern which would bring him recognition worldwide…. Roger Bannister set the pattern many years ago and followed it with total commitment, self-discipline, and a will of iron" (Marvin J. Ashton, Ensign, Nov. 1990, 22).
The Savior exercised self-mastery as He did what Heavenly Father wanted him to do rather than what He wanted to do. In the
, the Savior prayed "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup
from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:39-46). Garden of Gethsemane
The results of the Savior's self-mastery was that He suffered for our sins and made salvation possible for us when we repent. As we develop self-mastery, we develop a greater ability to say, as Jesus did, "Father, … not my will, but thine, be done."
We must make the decision that we want to master ourselves. President David O. McKay urged us to remember that "the greatest battle of life is fought out within the silent chambers of your own soul" (Improvement Era, June 1969, 30).
We can gain self-mastery by working on one problem at a time. I remember how hard it was to remember to floss my teeth before brushing them each night until I set a goal to floss them every night. The fact that I had this goal made it impossible for me not to do it. Eventually, flossing was just as habitual as brushing was for me.
I know that it is important that we learn to master ourselves and that self-mastery brings happiness. I also know that Heavenly Father is there just waiting for us to ask for help in gaining greater control over ourselves. I also know that all the blessings promised to the faithful in the plan of salvation come to those who learn to deny themselves of all ungodliness and follow the Lord.