Growth in Self-Control

We come now to the last of the nine fruits of the Spirit, self-control. (See Galatians 5:22-23) The nine Beatitudes (Matthew 5) could be pronounced on those who bear these nine fruits, and there could well be special emphasis on the last in this way: “Blessed are the self-controlled.”

It is interesting that Paul puts self-control last. Most systems, ancient and modern, would put it first. Confucianism through self-control would strive to produce “the superior man;” Hunduism through breath- and thought-control would try to produce “the realized man;” Stoicism through will-control desires to produce “the happy man.” The Christian way produces through Christ-control the self-controlled man. But note that self-control is not so much a means as an end. You do not gain Christ through self-control; you gain self-control through Christ.

The love of Christ constrains us, or, literally, “narrows us to His way.” If you begin with self-control, then you are the center, you are controlling yourself. And you will be anxious lest you slip out from beneath your control. I can think of very few situations in which this illusion of self-control is more prevalent than with the addict or alcoholic. There is always this insanely persistent illusion that you’ve “got this handled.”

If you begin, as Paul does here, with love, then the spring of action is love for a Person, someone outside of yourself. You are released from yourself and from self-preoccupation. The power of a new affection breaks the tyranny of self-love and releases your powers. This means that you are a relaxed and, therefore, a released person. When you begin with love, you end in self-control. But it is not a nervous, anxious, tied-up self control; it is a control that is natural and unrestrained, therefore beautiful.

Self-control, the last fruit of the Spirit, is the one that makes all the rest operative. To the Greek, self-control meant to have power over oneself. Paul grasped this quality from the four cardinal virtues of the Stoics, and claimed it as one of the many vital aspects of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word egkrateia means to have strength to control the self. We know this is not possible until we surrender to Christ’s management.

This sublime fruit of the Spirit is not negative. It does not delineate what we are against or will not do. Rather, it consists of a very positive capacity to know who we are and what we will do because the Spirit is in control of our abilities and aptitudes, as well as our appetites. We can have power over ourselves only when we have submitted to the Spirit’s control and power in us. Christ’s control is the basis of self-control.

The fruit of Christ’s indwelling is more than just not flying off the handle or always being Mr. Perfect or Ms. Smooth. Instead, it’s being centered so that all our energies, when multiplied by the Spirit, can be used creatively rather than be squandered. A person who has the fruit of self-control becomes like a wind channel in which the power of the wind is directed. It is silent strength that’s focused to do what the Master commands.

Interestingly enough, this is the only place where the word self-control (egkrateia) is used in the New Testament. And here it is used last as a by-product of love for Christ. Love Christ and do as you like, for you’ll like what He likes.

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