In this series of articles on the fruit of the Spirit, we have come to the last of the nine virtues—self-control. Of all the things we have to govern in this life, self is often our greatest challenge!
The 21st Winter Olympics are scheduled for February 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia. For most athletes hoping to compete, that date is now extremely near! They know that to be the best in any sport, they must train for many years.
The apostle Paul compared life to a race. He wrote: "Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize. You also must run in such as way that you will win. All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.
"So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step . . . I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, New Living Translation, emphasis added throughout).
In the greatest of all races, the race for eternal life, everyone can be a winner. Thankfully, there is no need to compete with another person. In fact, we should be coaches and cheerleaders for one another! But Paul said "run in such a way"—as an Olympic athlete competing for a gold medal.
Those of us who want the "eternal prize" should ask ourselves some questions:
• Am I as dedicated and zealous as an Olympic athlete?
• Do I study the Holy Scriptures as much as any athlete studies how to perform well in his sport?
• Am I quick in seeking advice (through prayer and Bible study) from my Coach?
• Do I stay focused on my long-range goal?
• Am I willing to make sacrifices to reach my goal?
• Am I determined to endure to the end —to cross the finish line of life—and to never quit? (Matthew 24:13).
We probably can't say yes to all those questions every day. But we surely must be heading in that direction. This requires taking charge of our lives—the final listed aspect among "the fruit of the Spirit."
Self-control: last but not least
Paul listed nine godly virtues that constitute the fruit of God's Spirit—the inward and outward effect of having the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. They are "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
What a stark contrast they are to the actions of man's sinful nature that Paul listed in the previous three verses!
(Where the New King James Version has "self-control," the earlier King James Version used the word "temperance," meaning self-restraint. Today, however, this word usually has the narrower sense of moderation or, when referring to alcoholic drinks, total abstinence. Therefore, as commonly understood today, temperance is only a small part of self-control.)
Is the sequential order of the nine godly virtues significant? The first listed, love, is clearly the most important (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 13). Is self-control, then, last because it's least important? On the contrary, self-control is extremely vital. Paul emphasized it alongside "righteousness . . . and the judgment to come" (Acts 24:25).
Perhaps self-control is listed last as the capstone—since it takes a lot of self-control to exercise the other eight virtues! It takes a lot of self-control just to "bridle" one's tongue (James 1:26; 3:2). Maybe Paul was thinking of love and self-control as the two great bookends for the set.
Clearly these nine virtues work together and support each other. Consider long-suffering, which is the opposite of short-tempered. Many people are ruled by their feelings and can't control their anger . In fact, one measure of maturity is emotional control. Some adults still have temper tantrums!
The best form of self-control may be fleeing
We all face temptations to sin—all our lives. When confronted with temptation, we must strive, as far as possible, to get away from it— flee! Even if you think you have a lot of self-control, don't put it to the test unnecessarily.
Consider some of the things we are told to flee: "Flee" from a "stranger" (a teacher of lies), "flee sexual immorality" (as Joseph had to literally flee, Genesis 39:12), "flee from idolatry," flee "all kinds of evil," "flee also youthful lusts" (John 10:5; 1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14; 1 Timothy 6:10-11; 2 Timothy 2:22).
We need self-control to avoid not only outright evil but also too much of the good things. Proverbs 25:16 cautions: "Have you found honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be filled with it and vomit."
People often lack the self-restraint to stop when they should. People overeat, over-drink, overspend and overindulge in lots of things. We must rule over our appetites rather than letting our appetites rule us. Overindulgence can lead to intoxication and/or addiction. In either case, the person is then really out of control!
Self-control often means resisting sexual temptations, a subject addressed many times in the Bible. Tragically, standards of morality and modesty are plunging around us. Sexual sins are especially damaging—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually (1 Corinthians 6:13-20).
Because of lust, even smart people do stupid things. Just think of all the prominent people who've been caught cheating on their spouses! They may be "ruling" over many people, but they fail to rule their own lives. They trade integrity for instant gratification, and everyone loses.
Jesus and the apostles made it clear that God holds us strictly accountable for even sinful thoughts as well as sinful actions. We must wage spiritual warfare, "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
Jesus said, "Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). We should follow the example of Job, who said, "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl" (Job 31:1, New International Version).
And women need to understand how easily they can be partly responsible for men sinning in their minds. When a woman is exposing parts of her body that only her husband should see, others can be tantalized and tempted. Women who want to please God should "resolve this, not to put a stumbling block [a temptation] or a cause to fall [into sin] in our brother's way" (Romans 14:13).
Is willpower powerful?
The Greek word translated "self-control," egkrateia, is derived from two other Greek words— en and kratos . En means "in" and kratos means "strength" or "power." From kratos we get such English words as "democracy" (power or rule by the people) and "theocracy" (government by God).
From these Greek roots we see that egkrateia essentially means power or strength within. But whose power?
Even apart from God's direct help, some people have relatively strong character. Their good habits may be the result of good upbringing plus wisdom gained from experience—perhaps combined with innate determination. But we shouldn't confuse this with the erroneous New Age claim that everyone has a reservoir of righteous power deep within himself just waiting to be tapped.
Paul plainly said that "the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God's law, for it is unable to do so" (Romans 8:7, Holman Christian Standard Bible). Thus, the normal human mind by itself is not capable of being in complete subjection to the law of God! Therefore, we need "power within" that comes from God!
Jesus said, "The spirit [one's attitude] indeed is willing but the flesh [human willpower] is weak" (Matthew 26:41). For example, 11 of Jesus' disciples intended to stick by Him, but when things got really scary, they all deserted Him (verse 56).
Therefore, "self-control" can be somewhat misleading. Effective self-control is not ultimately self controlling self. To have truly effectual control over our lives, we need God's power to be in control.
"Power from on high"
Just before Jesus' ascension to heaven, He said to His disciples, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8). Luke 24:49 adds that the disciples were to wait in Jerusalem until they received this "power from on high."
Indeed, 10 days later when 120 of Christ's disciples were together observing the annual festival of Pentecost, suddenly "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit" and God's power was spectacularly demonstrated (Acts 2:1-4).
A vast crowd of people gathered about, and Peter explained to them what a person must do to receive God's Spirit: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
What are the benefits of having the Holy Spirit? There are many, but of crucial importance is that it enables spiritual understanding —the capacity to truly understand the Bible (1 Corinthians 2:9-11, 14).
Then, once we have spiritual "knowledge," we must add "self-control" (2 Peter 1:5-8). In other words, God's Spirit imparts the strength of character to apply and live by that knowledge. And as it transforms us, we can increasingly see the effects or "fruit" of having God's Spirit within us.
The aim of discipline through discipleship
What is the purpose of parental discipline? It should be to teach a child to exercise self- discipline. The self-discipline gradually becomes a good habit that is valuable throughout life.
Jesus Christ wants you to be His disciple. He said, "If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples" (John 8:31, Good News Bible). Therefore discipleship includes learning the self-discipline of obedience. And that has great rewards! Choose to follow Christ—choose to be His disciple!
Jesus also said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). Jesus was not suggesting penance, asceticism or a monastic life. But very often, we need to say no to selfish desires in order to say yes to God's will.
God will not take away a person's free will to make choices in life. But as long as you keep inviting Him into your life, He will empower you "to will and to act according to His good purpose" (Philippians 2:13, NIV).
Two proverbs draw a stark contrast between not having self-control and the priceless value of having it. The first says, "Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control" (Proverbs 25:28, NIV). He is defenseless and doomed to defeat.
The second states: "It is better to be patient than powerful. It is better to win control over yourself than over whole cities" (Proverbs 16:32, GNB).
As with all of us, certainly your biggest spiritual enemy has been yourself. But take heart. With God's great help, you can increasingly conquer the enemy!
Each of us must rule over self before we can, as promised to those who overcome in Revelation 3:21 and 20:6, reign with Christ in His Kingdom! GN