I ended a previous post noting that self-control, although a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and one of the Christian virtues listed by Peter (2 Peter 1:5-7), is probably the most neglected and misunderstood of those listed. Why is this? Several reasons come to mind. The first and most obvious is simply because we are products of our society. Our culture places little value on self-control; in fact, it celebrates the very opposite. Self-indulgence and instant gratification are encouraged and applauded; after all, “you deserve it!” If you want it, you simply go get it. Denying ourselves pleasure, whatever form it may take, is seen as unnecessary and foolish. Some may even use the Bible to justify this indulgence (1 Timothy 6:17).
Jesus’ words urging self-denial (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) strike our American ears as foreign and leave us a little uneasy. Not to mention Paul’s words about beating his body and making it his slave (1 Corinthians 9:27). It is easier to just skip over these passages and focus on the more appealing ones, like “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)!
Perhaps we pay so little heed to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of self-control because we don’t really think it matters that much. After all, we are under grace and free in Christ!
It is true that in Him we have freedom and are no longer bound by rules and regulations. But Paul warns us not to use our freedom as an excuse to indulge the flesh (Galatians 5:13).
It is true that we are no longer under the law; but everything we are free to do may not be beneficial. Paul cautions against being mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
God’s grace and the freedom we have in Christ are clearly not a license for self-indulgence and immorality (Jude 4). In fact, it is this very grace that teaches us to say “No” to our fleshly passions and live self-controlled, godly lives (Titus 2:11-12). It is interesting that one of the characteristics required for service as an elder, is self-control (Titus 1:8, NIV). In just the first two short chapters of Titus, “self-control” is listed five times (Titus 1:8, 2:2, 5, 6, 12)! Peter mentions it four times in his writings (1 Peter 1:13, 4:7, 5:8, 2 Peter 1:6) Maybe self-control matters after all.
I wonder whether self-control is so neglected because we don’t understand what it actually is? Since it is called “self” control, we wrongly assume that it is something we must find within ourselves to exercise. It seems to be a matter of will power, and in our experience we simply don’t have the strength of will (power in ourselves) to overcome the desires of the flesh and its appetites. So, more often than not, we give in and assume that the elusive fruit of self-control is simply out of reach–except for those fortunate ones who possess the rare virtue of will power!
However, since their success flows from mere human effort, the result is inevitably self-righteousness and/or legalism. It is easy to think of self-control as just trying to keep a list of do’s and mostly don’ts, which God lays out for us and expects us to master. Such a misunderstanding of self-control leads to a life of discouragement and defeat, or just further apathetic self-indulgence.
This is where New Covenant living comes in. The reality that Christ dwells in us now by His Spirit means that we are no longer dependent on our own efforts, which always end in failure (John 15:1-5). As Paul warned in Galatians 3:3, we cannot begin with the Spirit and then rely on human effort to produce what only He can—His fruit. We have got to move beyond thinking of God as someone “up there” helping us apply biblical principles that will make us victorious. The truth is, He is actually and literally dwelling within us, ready to live His life through us as we choose to live by His Spirit’s power instead of our own futile efforts.
It is so much easier to identify what self-control is not—will power and keeping the law in the power of the flesh—than to clearly state what it is. I would love to hear other perspectives on this “forgotten fruit.”