But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22,23)
The final characteristic on this familiar list stands out rather negatively in relation to the others. Self-control is an attribute that has become increasingly out of vogue in our North American culture over the past 50 years. From a once moral-based society, we’ve polarized towards narcissism, abandoning the very idea of self-control. But then, this is the nature of sin itself – a focus on individual desire, often leading to excesses. We resent being reigned in, resisting accountability for our bad habits.
As followers of Christ, one proof of the Holy Spirit’s work is recognizing harmful self-indulgent patterns in our own lives and quelling them. Just before this list in Galatians, Paul reveals an opposing list, naming obvious acts of the flesh: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, drunkenness, orgies and the like.” (Gal 5:19-21).
Paul introduces the list of sins with ‘sexual immorality’, and ends with ‘orgies and the like’. Sadly, sexual sins have caused irreparable damage within many a ministry and shamed the church. Scores of men (and women), in a moment of unguarded neglect have stepped over boundaries into ever-darkening depths of captivity. Lest this sound dramatic, let’s consider the fact that as soon as the boundary is crossed, we justify our actions. Just this once; I won’t do it again. Just one more time; really, this time I’ll stop. I’m tired of fighting; I can’t do it anymore. And so it goes. Being true to ourselves involves knowing our weakest points, taking great care to defend ourselves against attack and stepping back before submitting to our harmful obsessions.
In his book, Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright explains that having powerful passions is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as that power is controlled. Think of the fury idling beneath the hood of a race car; it’s fast and it’s fun. It can also maim, paralyze or kill unless the driver controls the power at his disposal. Our own intense passions can likewise be channelled in the direction of good or evil, towards life or death.
Wright draws a contrast between Joseph and David in the Old Testament. Joseph, an attractive, young, virile male, actually ran from Potiphar’s seductive wife, who ended up holding an empty cloak in her hands. Joseph valued his employer’s trust in him with everything; to break that trust was unthinkable. Joseph also realized that giving in to Mrs. Potiphar would be “a great sin against God” (Gen 39:9 NLT). Joseph models integrity, unlike David, who initiates his affair with Bathsheba. His sin launches a downward spiral of manipulation ending in dire consequences. While we are assured that there is forgiveness for the most horrific sin, someone inevitably bears sin’s natural repercussions.
Wright admits that both men and women experience sexual temptation but asserts that it is more prevalent in men. He says that “we need to recognize what a dangerous enemy it is, whether in actual practice, or in the world of our thought and imagination, through pornography and other sources.” He adds, “The stupendous scale of human suffering caused by uncontrolled male lust and sexual anarchy is beyond imagination. Unaccountable numbers of women and little girls and boys all over the world suffer at the hands of rapists, pimps sex-traffickers, pedophiles, abusers, violent husbands, and plain, ordinary adulterers.” Paul tells us, for good reason, that Christians must have nothing to do with these practices, and that is only possible through Spirit-controlled living.
If we think one sin greater than another, we deceive ourselves. In his book, Respectable Sins, Seminary professor and author Jerry Bridges writes about our tendency to tolerate the sins we consider less scandalous, citing examples like impatience, pride, resentment, frustration and self-pity. Since God is holy, His standard is perfection. Anything less than that constitutes sin; it doesn’t come in varying sizes and degrees. Sin is rebelling against His authority. Bridges writes, “[Therefore], when we sin, when we violate the law of God in any way, be it ever so small in our eyes, we rebel against the sovereign authority and transcendent majesty of God…It is indeed cosmic treason.” Both Bridges and Wright agree that lack of self-control can snowball; for example, we can shift from anger to bitterness, bitterness to hatred, and from hatred, eventually to murder.
Bridges addresses three areas where Christians often lack self-control. The first is the area of food and drink (he is careful to separate this from overweight issues, often caused by other factors). The second is temper. “Anger, in most instances, is sin, but with the short-tempered person, there is the added sin of a lack of self-control.” The third is personal finances – even affluent Christians, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, indulge in whatever their heart desires, withholding any restraint or wisdom. To these three, Wright adds attitude (i.e. jealousy, envy, self-ambition), time and the tongue.
To bless or curse
Christian counselling services are inundated with clients who have been wounded by the words of others – parents, a spouse, teachers, bosses, and sadly, fellow believers. James (in chapter 3) writes that although the tongue is small, it is able to cause all kinds of damage. He likens the tongue to the rudder of a ship, which steers a mighty vessel in one direction or another. Words are able to bless, curse, encourage, humiliate, validate or accuse. Mincing no words, James calls the tongue “a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” He goes on to say that although all manner of animals and sea creatures have been tamed, no human being can tame the tongue. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” We hear James saying that no one is exempt in this area of self-control (and he’s addressing Christians!).
This ninth attribute of the Spirit’s fruit, self-control, is inextricably linked to the other eight. If we submit our minds and speech to Christ (after all, a word enters the mind before we utter it), our language will generate the mature spiritual fruit involving all the other attributes.
Self-control is examining every area of our lives – saying ‘no’ to excessive consumption and negative responses – before they eventually consume us. Lack of restraint becomes unhealthy – sometimes for our physical body, but mostly for our spiritual and emotional health. We are distracted from real, abundant life by petty desires and justified vices. It is impossible to be under God’s control if we surrender that control to something else. James helpfully extends this succinct instruction: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)