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Unsent Letters: The Art of Self-Control

Jan 21, 2018 05:31AM ● Published by Bonnie Lyn Smith

Every few months I write a letter to a particular person in my life. I process, digest it, and ultimately decide not to send it. When I review the many letters I have scrawled out over the course of time, I can see the progression of healing, the quieting of anger or pain, and the increase of forgiveness. Perhaps because writing is my therapy, this was a useful exercise, but even better is being able to look back to something tangible—a journal of sorts—and see where years of prayer about the issue and the person have taken me.

So, why not send it, Bonnie? Big whoopedy-doo that you wrote it. Isn’t reconciliation about the sending?

Sometimes, yes. But had I sent my original versions, I doubt they would have bridged any communication gaps with their raw emotion. And if I don’t wait on God for the timing, no matter how “ready” I am, the other person may not be. So, I don’t know. Will I ever send one? I believe I will. My heart beats for reconciliation. But the peace of God has to be there first. That is what I have been sorting out recently as I wrote letter #5 or #6 to this person. I’ve lost count.

I’ve drafted many letters along these lines to many people, never having sent them to:

  • school administration or teaching staff
  • church leadership
  • friends
  • family members
  • other parents

for various reasons:

  • frustration
  • challenging policy or the way my child was treated
  • a broken heart
  • anger
  • advocacy

You see, I have a warrior personality, and with that comes the need to tame the tongue, to strengthen my self-control muscle.

How about you?

James 3:5-12, ESV

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Man, if those verses from James 3 don’t intimidate us into watching what we say, type, text, or write, not much will, I guess. I hear the following warnings about the tongue:

  • It sets things ablaze.
  • It stains.
  • It is a restless evil.
  • It is full of poison.
  • It blesses God and curses those made in the image of God.

For many years, my tongue (or pen) wasn’t on any fitness program, so what I said was blunt, in-the-moment, and fully passionate without restraint.

I’ve learned to write letters instead. Very often, they help me evaluate how vital it is to communicate my particular issue. I find they help me exercise appropriate restraint, and I find them to be a release. Knowing I have words on a paper ready to go in case a situation continues is often enough. It is empowering and emptying—even if never sent.

[May I suggest you never do this with an email that has addresses in the “To” line already. I always leave them blank on purpose to be safe.]

So, obviously the Bible endorses self-control because it’s a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), but what else does it say?

Proverbs 25:28, ESV

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.

Yikes! That sounds chaotic! I also think it would be unsafe. No walls equals no boundaries, and that makes me nervous just thinking about it! The man without self-control sounds unsafe to himself as well as to others. No self-control seems to correlate to crossing other people’s boundaries in unhealthy ways.

2 Timothy 1:7, ESV

…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

God gave us power, love, and self-control, so we are equipped. That means we are without excuse if we are in-Christ, a believer in His sacrifice for us on the cross.

2 Peter 1:5-9, ESV

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.

Peter’s “supplements” to our faith sound a lot like the fruit of the Spirit. And Peter says that if we are growing in these qualities or characteristics of faith, they keep us “from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But he takes it a step further for emphasis. He says that if we lack these qualities, we are blind to what Christ has done for us and forget our cleansing.

My example was writing letters, but perhaps you have a different one. What is your exercise of the discipline of self-control?

In addition to prayer, maybe you:

  • Journal?
  • Bounce your conflict off another believing friend for wisdom and discernment?
  • Go the gym to work it off?
  • Have imaginary conversations in your head until one sounds more reasonable, a calmer version?

I don’t know when I will send my most recent letter, or if, six months from now, there will be yet another version.

What I do know is this: I don’t want to act on emotion without the peace of my God, and to know when this is in place, when I’ve genuinely got my self-control on, it should look like this:

James 3:17-18, ESV

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace [emphasis mine].

I love the “impartial and sincere,” “gentle,” and “open to reason.” Aren’t those wonderful gauges to check our self-control and wisdom of going forth in any kind of action in response and not re-action?

I will send my letter someday—but only if it makes peace.

I want my “harvest of righteousness.”

How about you?


Author Bonnie Lyn Smith writes about mental health advocacy, special education, faith in the valleys of life, drawing healthy boundaries, relational healing, renewing our minds, walking with a Holy God, and much ado about grace. Join the conversation at Espressos of Faith.

She is the author of Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day and the founder and editor-in-chief of Ground Truth Press, a book publishing company.


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Opinion, Arts+Culture reconciliation self-control self-discipline unsent letters patience taming the tongue restraint harvest of righteousness making peace

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