The Fruit of the Spirit: Self-Control

We’ve come at last to the final fruit of the Spirit – self-control or temperance. If you start from the premise that “love” led the list of the fruits because it is the crown of all the virtues, it might be tempting to then suppose that self-control must be the least of all the virtues. I don’t think we should assume that. In fact, I’d like to suggest that self-control winds up the list not because it is unimportant, but because it is important in two very significant ways.

First, when I think of self-control, I think of it as the “fail-safe” mechanism for all the fruits of the Spirit. Let me explain what I mean by that. We all understand that we are imperfect human beings, that we have not arrived at sinless perfection, and that while God is actively re-forming our hearts into the image of Christ, none of us has reached that perfect transformation. And most of us would acknowledge that we are far from that completion; it seems sometimes that the road ahead of us is much, much longer than the road behind us!

So none of us are perfectly loving, perfectly patient, perfectly good, gentle, kind, and meek. It is because of that imperfection, that old nature rising up within the new creation, that self-control is necessary. When our love fails, when our humility fails, when our goodness fails, self-control is the fail-safe mechanism that prevents us from stepping outside the bounds of godly behavior.

Let me give you an example. Suppose that I’m having a hard time being patient with my children (this is not hypothetical – I often struggle with this, despite many people telling me that I have such wonderfully behaved children). When they do something that they shouldn’t, normally a gentle word of correction is all that is needed to guide them into appropriate behavior. Yes, sometimes a sharp word is necessary to get their attention, but once I have their attention, it is usually a gentle word that is more helpful, productive, and compassionate than a harsh rebuke. It is patience that makes the gentle correction possible, and if I were truly, fully patient, that gentle correction would be my natural and default response.

And yet, in the midst of the moment, I find myself battling with my own impatience, and a gentle correction does not seem to be the natural response.

Here is where self-control comes into play: self-control acknowledges my own human frailty, and the fact that God’s fruit of patience is still developing in me. In the meantime, self-control helps me to avoid lashing out in ways that are inappropriate or unhelpful. It is the fail-safe mechanism that helps us live together in peace while God is building all the other fruits in our lives.

C. S. Lewis writes about this, although he does not use the term “self-control.” In his book Mere Christianity, he wrote: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

What is Lewis saying? He’s saying that when we fail in the fruit of love, it is the fruit of self-control that sweeps up the mess and says, “Even though my heart has failed in love, I’m going to behave in a way that is appropriate for a follower of Jesus, trusting that God will continue building the fruit of love in my heart as the fruit of self-control takes up the slack.”

If you look at it in that way, it becomes obvious that self-control is very important. The danger is in relying on self-control while refusing to admit the underlying heart conditions that make it necessary. This was how the Pharisees lived – their lives were lived in self-control, without any acknowledgement of the heart conditions that were under the surface.

The other reason that it makes sense to put self-control here, at the end of the list of fruits of the Spirit, is that it links us back to the main theme of the book of Galatians.

Galatians, you will remember, is all about freedom.

5:1For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1 (ESV)

But with freedom comes great responsibility.

In I Corinthians 6, Paul emphasizes to the people of Corinth that even though something might be lawful, that doesn’t mean we should allow it to take control of us.

Let me illustrate with another personal example. All you have to do is take a quick look at me and you can tell that I like to eat. I’m not a skinny guy, and I enjoy sweets and desserts as much as the next person – maybe even more. Years ago, I used to bake chocolate chip cookies. The problem with chocolate chip cookies is that they are never so good as when they first come out of the oven and the chips are still gooey and the cookie is warm. This was a problem because I would eat cookie after cookie after cookie, until I had eaten far more than I should all at once.

Chocolate chip cookies are not illegal or immoral. There is nothing in Scripture that says I can’t eat them. But we are cautioned in the Bible against gluttony, the overindulging of food. The truth is that my desire for fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies bordered on gluttony.

And so self-control is required. Not because cookies are evil, but because I must not allow myself to be mastered by anything and gluttony is not healthy. Self-control can take on a variety of aspects, including limiting the number of cookies I have each day, or simply quitting cold-turkey and not making any more cookies.

The list of things that are not wrong, yet can gain mastery over us if we are not careful, is a long list. To name just a few – television, internet, social media, talk radio, food, drink, excessive attention to reading, sports, politics, celebrities. Even friendships can become controlling influences! Any of these, though not wrong in themselves, can become unproductive and unhealthy parts of our lives.

As you’ve already learned from Galatians, it is not my job to try to dictate to you what amount of eating is right or wrong, what level of social media usage is too much, or how much political involvement is over the top. Each one of us is responsible before God for how we spend our lives in His service, and this makes temperance, or self-control, especially important, because we cannot fall back on rules that someone else makes for us to keep us on track.

In Titus 1 and 2, Paul lists desired character qualities for every person – the church elders, the older men and women, the younger men and women. Listen carefully and you will hear self-control either stated outright or implied for every group of believers.

From Titus 1:

1:7For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,8but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.Titus 1:7-8 (ESV)

From Titus 2:

2:2Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.3Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good,4and so train the young women to love their husbands and children,5to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.6Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.Titus 2:2-6 (ESV)

From young to old, from leader to follower, one constant in those lists is “self-control.” In the case of the older women, the word “self-control” is not used, but apparently there was an issue in the church of Crete with older women struggling with alcoholism. Paul’s instruction to them is to not be “slaves to much wine.” And that is precisely what self-control is – resisting slavery to anything that might overwhelm us.

I should add here that when we speak of the “temperance movement” we think of people trying to abolish alcohol. But “temperance” doesn’t mean “abolish” – it means “moderation” or keeping a wise balance in your life. Where sin is concerned, we abolish; where every morally neutral activity is concerned, we keep a wise balance. This is what Paul tells the older women: don’t let wine control you.

But that’s not all – Paul tells us in the same chapter how temperance is possible. Listen to these words:

2:11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,12training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,13waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,14who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)

Paul makes it clear that it is God’s grace appearing – in the person of Christ – that makes this temperance possible. It is Christ Himself who trains our hearts in self-controlled life. We also see that there are two other qualities that accompany this self-control. They are hope and zeal.

How does “hope” help us to be self-controlled? Our self-control is helped by the knowledge of something better to come. Here’s a simple example: on Sunday evenings we visit my parents, and my mother always has a “treat” for the grandkids. After supper on Sundays, one of the kids will always ask, “If we have a dessert now, can we still have a treat later at Grammie’s?” And the answer is, “No, you have to choose one or the other.” Invariably, the children choose to have a treat from Grammie. The hope of something better to come trumps their desire for a dessert now, and that hope leads them to a self-controlled refusal of the immediate desire. So it is for the believer; the blessed hope of greater things to come helps us in our self-control.

Paul also says that God is raising up a people who are zealous or passionate for good works. That passion – a good and godly passion – is at war with all the other passions in our lives. The more eagerly we desire to do God’s good works, the less time and energy we have for other passions that might control us. Thus we are helped in our self-control both by our hope and by our good desires.

Let us pray for this fruit in our own lives, so that when we fail in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, or meekness, then self-control helps carry us through those times of weakness in other areas of the Spirit. And let us also pray for wisdom and strength of spirit to keep a temperate, wise balance in all things.

Lord, we have spent many weeks considering these fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentle kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. In all these lessons, we have seen the glory of our Savior’s character, for He is the embodiment of all that is good and right in Your eyes. It is our humble desire that You would build into our hearts each of these qualities, that our hearts would be re-formed to be loving hearts, joyful hearts, peaceful hearts, gentle and kind hearts, good hearts, faithful hearts, meek hearts, and self-controlled hearts. It is our desire that our outward actions would be defined by these qualities that You are building in our lives. We pray that You would do a great and good work in our lives, and in our churches, so that we may be the ambassadors You desire to send out into this world, sharing the message and the ministry or reconciliation in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our world. Amen

The Crown of all the virtues, and the first of all the fruits
Levi's dinner party, from Luke 5
Becoming a peacemaker, living in peace with others
Living in patience with one another
Living in patience with our circumstances
Gentle kindness toward others
The rightness of a heart lived in the spirit
Hosea gives us a metaphor for God's faithfulness to us
The Triumphal Entry and the temple cleansing teach us about meekness
The final fruit listed in Galatians 5
Paul's concluding comment on the list of fruits
Living in the Spirit and Walking in the Spirit
Understanding the difference between a flesh and spirit life.


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