The Fruit of the Spirit Is Self-Control
The Scripture we have been using throughout the summer for our series The Fruit of the Spirit is Galatians 5:22-23. Let’s read it in unison: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
We come today to the last of these nine traits that the Apostle Paul uses to describe the fruit of the Spirit. Let me remind you that the word fruit in this passage is singular. Paul does not provide a list where we may pick and choose the characteristics we want. As Christians we are supposed to have all of these virtues. Paul’s list is a single fruit with nine manifestations.
Some say that we have three distinct groups of traits here. The first three manifestations – love, joy, and peace – portray a Christian’s relationship with God. The second group – patience, kindness, and goodness – affect our relationships with others. The last three – faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – deal with our own sense of integrity. These virtues grow out of our own inner being. Certainly that is true of self-control.
Any one of these traits would make a beautiful Christmas card. “May the Lord grant you love at Christmas.” “May the Lord grant you joy at Christmas.” “May the Lord grant you peace at Christmas.” We can take any one of them and make a Christmas card until we get to the trait of self-control. Would we likely say, “May the Lord grant you self-control at Christmastime”? The truth is that we might need self-control most of all during that season of the year. It might be that Paul mentions self-control last because it, in some ways, holds the others together. The word self-control comes from the Greek word egkrateia, which means strength, the ability to contain ourselves, hold ourselves. It certainly is a very important characteristic for us to cultivate in the Christian life.
I have told you before that when I was a boy, I had a terrible temper, which I inherited through my family. Many of the Neely clan have quick tempers. My mother worked and worked and worked to get my temper under control, and she was somewhat successful. I can usually control my temper, but on occasion I do not do such a good job. Even at those times, I think about my mother and her attempts to help me bring it under control. At times she made me count to ten or quote verses of Scripture like, “Harsh words stir up anger, but gentle words turn away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
It is indeed appropriate that we focus on the trait of self-control as the new school year begins. Self-control is required in order to complete homework. That task entails sitting down in a chair and resisting the first thirty-eight temptations to get up from the table. Self-control is also required for so many other activities in life. Preparing income tax is one such chore that demands the same kind of discipline. Self-control has many applications in our lives.
It is a great pleasure having Jackie Satterfield lead the music during our morning service today. Holly Irvin is helping her daughter Shelby get settled in her new digs at college.
When Jackie and I were on staff together before she retired, she took it upon herself to be my censor. She often fussed at me for using certain expressions in the pulpit. Toilet paper was one such phrase. One day I told the congregation about cutting myself while shaving. I put a piece of toilet paper on the cut and forgot about it. Then I walked up to the pulpit to preach with that paper stuck to my face. Jackie thought that the use of the word toilet was totally inappropriate.
I asked her, “Jackie, what do you want me to call it?”
She answered, “Just say you used a tissue.”
On another occasion I told a story during the sermon and used the word gynecologist. She still has not gotten over that one.
I started to leave this next section out of my sermon today but decided to include it because I knew Jackie would be here today, leading the music.
The King James Version of the Bible uses the word incontinence to mean the lack of self-control. This is the absolute truth. I am not kidding. You must remember that this version was translated in 611, a very long time ago. The definition of incontinence has completely changed since that time. It now has a medical meaning. The use of the word incontinence, which appears twice in the book, is a pretty graphic description about the lack of self-control. Having self-control means that we control our impulses, our desires.
Temptation has less effect on us when self-control exists. Think of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Jesus was tempted in all ways that we are tempted, yet he was without sin. Jesus was able to resist because he had self-control. The word self-control is actually found only three times throughout the New Testament. One of those times is here in Galatians 5. Paul considers it to be one of the key virtues.
So many events and situations in this life can lead us to a sense of humility. I had an experience this week with a copy machine in the office. Talk about something that will push you to the limit of self-control! This microphone I wear often brings me to the brink of losing my self-control, too. I compared the mike during my Sunday School class this morning to a hospital gown, which is one of the most irritating things in the world that quickly brings you to a sense of humility. When I mentioned the hospital gown, a member of the class said, “That’s where the phrase, ‘I see you’ comes from.”
Self-control is much easier to define than it is to master. The book of Proverbs talks about its importance, by saying, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down” (Proverbs 25:28). Proverbs 14:29 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit exalts folly.” James 1:26 points specifically to the problem of trying to control our tongue, to control what we say. James says that it is important to “keep a tight rein.” The passage uses the imagery of a bridle on a horse, saying that unless we can bridle our tongue, we really discount anything we might say for the faith. He adds that people can tame “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8).
Paul perhaps mentions self-control last in the list in order to place emphasis on it. It may have been a problem, a struggle, for him.
In Galatians 5:16-17, Paul says,
“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.”
Paul encourages us Christians to enter into this internal struggle of learning to control ourselves in order to be in harmony with God’s will. This is why he writes in Philippians 2:12, “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” That sounds contrary to what we believe about salvation by grace, but Paul is saying, “You have to work out some things.” He continues in the next verse, “…it is God who is works in you to bring His will and His purpose to fruition” (Philippians 2:13).
Paul’s most heart-felt confession is found in Romans 7:15-25. Listen to the way he describes his own struggle, his inner war:
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I imagine Paul pausing at the end of Verse 24, as if he is watching the paint peeling on the wall. Then finally he says, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
When it comes to the body taking us to death, Adam and Eve provide Exhibit 1. They were placed in the Garden of Eden and given the strict command not to eat the fruit of one forbidden tree. Temptation came in the form of a snake that said, “If you eat this fruit you will be like God. You will know everything that God knows.”
The couple both succumbed to temptation, bringing the death penalty upon themselves and to each of us. The inability to control ourselves is our human nature. Jesus faced temptation but refused. The book of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Think about that statement. Jesus was tempted in every way that we are? What an incredible statement to make, yet Jesus was without sin.
In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul describes his attempt to control himself to an athlete preparing to run or engage in a competition. He talks about the discipline of an athlete, saying that he inflicts that type of discipline on himself in his spiritual life.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
We ordinarily speculate that Paul has some sort of physical malady when he talks about the “thorn in the flesh” in II Corinthians 12:7-10. I, for one, am glad that he never identifies the malady. Perhaps that thorn is a lack of self-control. That possibility certainly fits what he says.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul says that when he gets to the end of his resources, when he is overcome with weakness, God provides him with a greater strength.
In II Timothy 1:7, Paul addresses this virtue again: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Some versions substitute the word self-discipline with “a sound mind.” Strong’s Concordance offers additional alternatives: discipline, self-control, sensibility, self-discipline, self-restraint, wise discretion, sound judgment. Paul makes this virtue equal in value to courage, power, and love. A person who can govern himself or herself is sensible, restrained, and self-disciplined in life. This important virtue only comes to us through the Holy Spirit.
Romans 12:1-2 is one of those passages my mother drilled into me. Paul writes,
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
This passage makes self-control and self-surrender companions. We can quote Scripture. We can count to ten. We can clench our fists and grit our teeth. We can try everything to push away from temptation. Ultimately, we must surrender.
We read the story about Jesus resisting each of the three temptations in the wilderness. The Gospels tell us that Satan departed from him until “a more opportune time” (Luke 4:13). That time came while he was in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died. The tempter slithered his way in to entice the Lord Jesus at the hour of his greatest vulnerability. Hebrews 5:7-9 describes his struggle: “While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with anguished cries and bitter tears, to the only one who could rescue him from death.” God heard the prayers of His Son because of Jesus’ deep devotion. Regardless of their relationship, Jesus had to learn obedience through suffering. In this way he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Self-control and surrender are the path to salvation. If we want to have self-control we have to yield, surrender, to the only One who has strength and power beyond our own. That is Jesus.
Mark tells an amazing story in Chapter 5 of his Gospel about a man confined in chains living among the tombs. He often screamed, yelled, and cut himself with stones. Afraid of this man who was out of control and stark raving mad, most people called him the Gerasene demoniac.
Understanding the deeper need of this man, Jesus went to him and asked, “What is your name?”
The demoniac replied, “My name is Legion. Many people live inside of me.”
Jesus cast out the demons, healing this human being. Later the townspeople saw this man, clothed and in his right mind. Self-control came to him only through Jesus.
The demons entered a herd of pigs, which ran headlong into the Sea of Galilee. I call tell you that the pork producers do not like that story.
If you get caught in a riptide, experts say to surrender to the tide, to go with it. The way to survive is to let the tide take you until you get beyond it. Then you can swim to safety. One way to battle the forest fires raging in the west is to fight fire with fire. Firefighters sacrifice some land by starting backfires to contain the fire. In the same way, we can control ourselves only by surrendering to Christ Jesus.
Paul recounts his personal experience with surrender after he lists the nine manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit. In Verse 24, he says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In Galatians 2:20 he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”
To be called a disciple of Jesus means to be called to a life of discipline. Look at the words disciple and discipline. If we are called to the life of a disciple, we mature to a life of self-discipline. Self-discipline means that we have the makings of a good disciple built within us, not by our own doing, but by Christ Jesus himself.
Would you like to have self-control? The only way to get self-control is to surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. Become his disciple. If you have not surrendered to Christ Jesus and made him the Lord of your life, this is the day. Some of you have been waiting, waiting a long time, to make a decision about accepting Christ. Wait no more. Let this be the day of your decision.
Kirk H. Neely © August 2012