But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. ~Galatians 5:22-23
Self-control. To control one’s self is definitely easier said than done. I cringe just thinking about how many times in the past day I’ve failed to control my intake of sweets, my selfish attitudes, the hurtful words that have escaped my mouth…how often I procrastinated sitting down to write this post. For some people (of whom I am jealous) self-control seems to come more easily. You know the ones. They exercise religiously, have their lives scheduled to the “t” and live in an impenetrable bubble of peace…as long as everything goes according to plan. This type of self-control isn’t really what the apostle Paul is talking about, though there are aspects of that to it.
The self-control that Paul mentions in Galatians is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. What often doesn’t come across in our English translations is that “the fruit of the Spirit” is singular in the Greek. That means it’s one thing. A set. You can’t have one without the others. They are all intermingled and growing together in the lives of those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (i.e. believers). All of these “fruits” are expressions of love—showing joy in our interactions with others is loving to them, being at peace with others is showing love, being patient with others is loving…you catch my drift. It’s no coincidence that love is the first fruit that’s listed. God is love (1 John 4:16); therefore his followers should also be people characterized by love.
Earlier, in the same chapter as our “fruit of the Spirit” verse, the apostle Paul says that “only faith working through love” counts for anything (Galatians 5:5). And later in verses 13-14, we read that we should not use our “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Much of the Christian life is about putting others before ourselves in servanthood and labors of love. And anything that requires us to turn our attention away from our sinful selves is going to take a lot of self-control.
Cultivating self-control shows love for God and love for others. For instance, it is loving for me to get up at the crack of dawn so that I can spend time in the Word with the Lord (this takes much, much self-control, two alarm clocks and a husband that won’t let me go back to sleep…he’s a very helpful addition to the routine). Or to exert self-control by limiting my spending so that I can give sacrificially to others in need. Or to stop and listen to someone who is hurting when I have a million things piling up on my plate. Or to drop everything to go hang out with a friend who needs to get out of the house. Self-control does not always mean having all the laundry done and the dishes put away. It’s about discerning what is best and doing it (which may in fact be the dishes and the laundry).
So how do we grow in this area? In another one of his letters, Paul instructed the older women to teach the younger women “to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:5, emphasis mine). In other words, this can be learned. It is a spiritual fruit so prayer is essential. Ask for it! (Self-control has been on my prayer list for a long time. I’m growing but it’s a work in progress.) When you fall, repent and get back to it. Seek the Lord in his Word, memorize, study, and just read.
Then read books that help with ordering your life. Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman by Anne Ortlund is a helpful, practical guide for growing in self-control. Find a mentor and/or someone to hold you accountable. After all, it is the older women who are to teach this to the younger. But let me encourage you, growing in self-control is a process. If it isn’t a natural bent for you (like me) then it’s probably going to be slow going…but don’t give up. Keep at it and someday you’ll look back and see that you are a different person than you were—a more self-controlled, loving, Christ-like person.