Self-control is one of the most fascinating aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul is insistent in telling the church in Galatia that there are two forces at war with each other: the flesh and the Spirit. He outlines what the works of the flesh are – so we know what marks out people who are flesh driven. He then outlines what the fruit of the Spirit – so we know what marks out people who are Spirit filled. The beginning of the list of the fruit is love and it ends with self-control. An element of knowing that we are Spirit driven people is that we are able to control the self in such a way that it does not display the work of the flesh. It defeats the flesh the more we live by the Spirit.
What the fruit of the Spirit expresses is not just the presence of God in us, it displays to the world the way that God had created us to be. The thing about self-control is that it acknowledges we have a struggle going on. We have needs, the issue is how will we allow those needs to be met. We have urges and passions, many of which are in themselves blessings from God, the issue is how will we express them.
Before Jesus, our tendency would acknowledge the need for some self-restraint in some areas. Yet there are those aspects of life that we cannot keep under control, so strong is the urge, so pressing is the passion that we give in and get what we need to meet that urge or passion. In doing so we reflect a lack of self-control and contribute to our own debilitation. We don’t allow ourselves to function in the fullness of our humanity when we succumb to the urges and passions that overwhelm us. We are at the whim of those urges and passions.
Those urges and passions are expressed in so many different ways – interestingly, most of which relate to that which opposes the other elements of the fruit of the Spirit. Where love can be present, our urge might be to withhold love out of hurt, betrayal or bitterness. Where joy can be present, our urge for self-gratification can make us miserable only living from one fix to the next. Where peace can be present, our urge for feeling good about ourselves can cause dissent and discontent with others. Where patience can be present, our urge for what we want when we want it can lead to disastrous impulsive decisions with short-term gain and long-term heavy losses. Where kindness can be present, our urge for greed can effect some painfully hurtful decisions depriving others. Where goodness can be present, our urge for whatever makes us feel good can actually lead us to decisions that are anything but good. Where faithfulness can be present, our urge for the next best thing can draw us away from sticking with that which works out for our best. Where gentleness can be present, our urge to dominate and be right can express itself in harsh, unsympathetic sentiments and actions that ruin relations.
This is why self-control is a fascinating element of the fruit of the Spirit. In self-control, it is not about depriving ourselves of things that we like or enjoy without reason. It is applying godly wisdom to divert passions and urges from that which destroys to that which reflects the goodness of God in life. Walking in the Spirit denies us walking in the flesh and fulfilling the lusts of the flesh – it actively guides us from an appetite for that which decays to developing the appetite for that which helps us grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
You would not want to be in a car that was out of control and veering from danger in one area to another. You would not want to be in a building that teeters unsteadily on the brink of collapse. You would not want to live in a community that is exposed to the wiles of surrounding thieves and has no sense of protection.
You would not want that for the life beyond you, why would you accept that for the life you live? Yet in reality everyone struggles in areas of self-control – that is why it’s a characteristic of God. It’s expressed just as the other elements of the fruit are expressed by God in His ongoing pursuit to get humanity to return to Him. It is His wisdom that allows Him to act in ways that are orderly and not given to unhealthy excesses. It is His wisdom that enables Him to be patient and merciful. It is His wisdom that means we have chance after chance to respond to Him as His Word is expressed to us in different ways.
He even displays it in the life and times of Jesus Christ on the earth who is goaded by His enemies throughout His ministry. Opportunity after opportunity is thrown His way to show off, or to harshly denounce or to bear a grudge. His disciples misunderstand him, the religious rulers despise Him, the people follow Him for the wrong reasons, He has every reason to lose His self-control. In all this, though, He is in full control of His faculties. That doesn’t mean He is unemotional. He feels, He gets angry, upset, sad, lonely – and He exercises full self-control. He does that because He has given Himself over to doing the will of His Father and He is filled with the Spirit so He can resist the flesh and fulfil the mission He was on.
It’s good news to know then, that this same Spirit that filled the Messiah lives in us to allow us to do the will of our Father. We can produce these elements of the fruit, because of the Spirit that lives in us. We can keep it together and be in control of the self, because of that same Spirit.
For His Name’s Sake
C. L. J. Dryden