Click here for an audio version of this blog post.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:22-24
Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. – Proverbs 25:28
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. – 2 Timothy 1:7
And the walls come a tumblin’ down. Those words come from the song about Joshua at the battle of Jericho. Seven times the army of Israel had circled the city. Finally they blew their trumpets. All this was at the command of God. Unlikely battle tactics. An opportunity for the enemy to ridicule Joshua and his people. Fertile ground for grumbling on the part of the people Joshua was leading. Did it seem to be an exercise in futility to many? But when the trumpets blew, the walls came down. And when the walls come down there is access to the city. Victory for Israel. Destruction and defeat for Jericho.
I believe self-control is the wall that prevents us from giving in to anger, bullying, doubt, evil, discord, depression, and hatred. Self-control stand sentinel against the loss of the fruit of the Spirit. For while it is named last, it has the honor of being the first line of defense against Satan’s schemes.
Consider Jesus as he faces the devil in the wilderness. It’s been 40 days without food. No doubt he is extremely hungry. Satan’s ploy: entice Jesus to use his powers to turn stones into bread. There’s nothing evil about feeding yourself. There’s nothing wrong with ending a fast. But the stakes are much higher. Will Jesus listen to Satan or to God? Will he use his powers for his own sake or for the sake of others?
Jesus does not give in. He controls himself and seeks the sustenance of God’s word by which we truly live.
Someone provokes you to anger. You can lash out at him. Yell. Plot revenge. Curse him. Perhaps even get even by returning his provocation in double proportion. Or you can exercise self-control and pray for him, rest your heart in God’s mercy and love, and seek the peace that passes understanding.
You are tempted to pad your expense account, add hours to your billing, say you worked when you didn’t. You can do that, but you damage your soul in the process – selling your proper birthright for a pot of porridge (cf. Genesis 25:29-34). Or you can recognize the grave danger of gaining the whole world and forfeiting your soul (Matthew 16:26). Self control helps you keep your soul, your being, your essence, your youness.
Recent study of the brain helps here. Researchers have discovered that under pressure the thinking, reflecting, and creative part of the brain receives less blood supply. The lower part of the brain – that which is reactive and self-preserving – lights up with activity. Self-control, humanly-speaking is a matter of accessing the higher-thinking parts of the brain. It’s a matter of getting beyond self-preservation.
To some extent, therefore, self-control is a human process. So how is it a fruit of the Spirit? Self-control is a result of the Holy Spirit’s presence and influence. It is also a means by which we keep from giving in to the deeds of the flesh. It’s the result and a means.
Those apart from Christ may have great storehouses of self-control. They may train harder, focus more intently on the task ahead, or manage their anger better than others. But apart from Christ and the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit they will not know true peace. Love will never be fully experienced. Joy will be momentary. Patience will have no God-factor. Gentleness will have nothing to do with faith.
Those who have the Holy Spirit, have Christ, and with him the truest expression of these gifts. Self-control helps us display that reality from a heart set free by the One who has ransomed our souls from the wanton abandonment of God’s ways.