The word “self-control” indicates that there is a battle within us. This battle involves bad or wrong desires within us that we need to control. If we don’t control them, they can completely destroy us.
The bible recognises the problems that can occur when we lack self-control:
“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). Especially in bible times, a city without any walls was extremely vulnerable and open to attack at any time.
“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32). Having self-control is better than any temporary victory you may achieve, as self-control will keep you going long after the victory has been forgotten.
First, we need to understand what “self-control” is not: It is not having great will power; really wanting to do something bad but somehow, through sheer determination, resisting giving in to it. It is also not extreme concentration, having a sort of ‘zen’ mastery over “self”.
The apostle Paul gave an excellent example of what the word actually means. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he says: “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. 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. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” An athlete goes into strict training because he has his eyes on the prize. We cannot win a race by not training; it takes discipline and practice, doing the same things over and over again. It is not just trying our hardest.
As in all the fruit we have been looking at, it is important to continually remind ourselves that this fruit comes from the Holy Spirit. So although we are working hard, it is His strength that gives us the ability to keep going. It’s important, I believe, especially with self-control, to recognise what ‘training’ we need and what actions will help us to develop this particular fruit in our lives. Let me list a few:
(1) Keep your eye on the prize
The prize is Jesus; we are running this race for Him, to please Him and to finish the race well in preparation for spending eternity with Him. When we focus on this, we can handle anything. This view of the prize also helps us when we don’t feel like praying or reading our bibles etc. We can look beyond how we feel at any given moment.
(2) Read the bible
Saturate yourself in the scriptures, they will always turn your focus back onto Jesus (see point 1). When Jesus was confronted with problems, it was clear that He knew the scriptures; His responses were automatic because He had obviously soaked Himself in the word.
(3) Be in community
The Christian walk is not individual, it is corporate. We need one another to check up on each other, to watch our backs and to be accountable. It’s called ‘self-control’ but it is actually much more than just ‘self’.
Testing produces the best self-control. We don’t know how self-controlled we are until we are tested. These tests in turn throw us onto reliance upon God.
The next question to ask is, “in what areas do we need to exercise self-control?” There are a number of common areas which can make us slip up again and again. Let’s look at just a few:
- Finance– Without self-control in our spending we can easily fall into debt. Are you the sort of person with holes in your pockets, can’t wait to spend the money you have? The money we have is a gift from God and needs to be stewarded wisely.
- Eyes– What we allow ourselves to look at and linger on can quite easily cause us to stumble. “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Proverbs 31:1 NIV). This obviously applies to pornography but also anything else which can cause us to give in to temptation. For some it could be gazing lustfully at a huge cream cake in the bakery window!
- Speech – the book of James has a lot of wisdom about our speech: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19); and also: “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!” (James 3:5). Our tongues can get us into so much trouble, whether with angry words, proud words or gossiping words. There’s not a better piece of advice than to ‘bite your tongue’ before we speak. We mustn’t forget that we don’t have to say what we think!
- Our bodies – Along with the rest of our lives, our bodies belong to the Lord. Are you self-controlled with what you put into your body? The sin of greed is given very little ‘weight’ (forgive the pun) in our modern lives. It is so easy to give in to excess. Exercise is also beneficial and has some value, as it says in 1 Timothy 4:8. I believe we honour God when we pursue a healthy lifestyle in order to look after our bodies.
This is now the end of this series on the Fruit of the Spirit. We have seen how these fruit all work together and are intertwined. However, I don’t think it is a coincidence that “love” is mentioned first and “self-control” at the end, almost like two book ends. I believe that these two together make all the others effective. I like to think of it as ‘love’ being the fuel and ‘self-control’ being the motor that powers the rest of the engine. Let’s continue to seek these fruit in ever increasing measure as our lives give glory to God.