Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. Now, notice that word “self” in there?
One of the indications the fruit isn’t spontaneous is the last fruit Paul listed in
Comes from the Greek word enkráteia. The krátia part means government, like in dimokratía/“people[-run] government,” democracy; plutokratía/“wealthy[-run] government,” plutocracy; or theokratía/“God[-run] government,” theocracy. The en part of the word means “inside”: Self-government. You govern yourself.
I know; you thought it’d be God-controlled or Spirit-controlled. Some Christians even try to stretch en to mean “the Holy Spirit inside,” so that it is ultimately Spirit-controlled. Nope. Paul could’ve made it explicit the Spirit is working us like a hand puppet, and didn’t. Self-controlled. God isn’t so incapable a creator he has to work us like puppets. Sovereignty doesn’t work like that. God told us what he wants of us. Fruitful Christians don’t look for excuses not to obey him. We get hold of ourselves, tap the power the Spirit grants us to do as he told us, and go and do.
Lazy Christians don’t believe in self-control. They think enkrátia doesn’t mean we do anything; they assume the Holy Spirit’s gonna reprogram us. He’s gonna replace our self-centered human nature with something godlike. We’re supernaturally gonna want to sin less. We’ll become good, without any further effort on our own part.
If that were the case, Paul’s inner war with his depraved human nature makes no sense. Why’s he in such turmoil when the Holy Spirit granted him the fruit of self-control?
Romans 7.14-20 KWL
- 14 We’ve known the Law is spiritual—and I am fleshly, sold into sin’s slavery.
- 15 I do things I don’t understand. I don’t want to do them. I hate what I do.
- 16 Since I don’t want to do them, I agree: The Law is good.
- 17 Now, it’s no longer I who do these things, but the sin which inhabits me.
- 18 I know nothing living in me, namely in my flesh, is good.
- The will, but not the ability, exists in me to do good.
- 19 I don’t do the good I want. I do the evil I don’t want.
- 20 If I don’t want to do them, it’s not so much me doing them, as the sin which inhabits me.
If self-control were nothing more than the Spirit’s reprogramming, there’s no need whatsoever for all God’s commands to quit sinning and behave yourself. Right? We’d do it automatically. We’d see a quantifiable drop in the amount of sinning we commit. Christians should sin way less than pagans do.
But the reality is we sin just as much. Survey after survey (in the United States, anyway), shows in practice, we aren’t morally better. Our temperance sucks. And since the Holy Spirit isn’t broken, the responsibility lies with us. We’re not practicing self-control. Just the opposite.
Heck, how many times have you seen Christians beg God for temperance? “God, my life is so undisciplined. I’m making an utter mess of things. Please take it over. I surrender my life and my will to you.” We’ve even included this idea in most versions of the sinner’s prayer. It’s the correct attitude. It’s just it’s not how God works. He wants us to obey. To resist temptation. To choose his path. To seize control of our thoughts and emotions.
He wants a loving relationship with followers. If he wanted machines he’d have built some.
The qualities of self-governance.
And now a bit from Simon Peter.
2 Peter 1.2-11 KWL
BI hope you multiply in knowledge of God and our master Jesus.
- 3 Like everything given us by his godly power, we were given it for a religious life,
- through knowing the one who called us to his glorious, excellent self.
- 4 Through this, he gave us precious, great promises.
- Through them, you have a relationship with his godly nature:
- You escape the corruption of the world, caused by desire run wild.
- 5 This being the case, contribute as much as you can to applying the promises.
- Start with faith. Add quality. Then knowledge, 6 then self-control,
- then endurance, then godliness, 7 then a sense of family, then love.
- 8 This is how you develop growth. Not by laziness nor fruitlessness.
- It makes you knowledgeable about our master, Christ Jesus.
- 9 Those who don’t participate in this are blind, short-sighted;
- they’ve forgotten how they were cleansed of their past sins.
- 10 Fellow Christians, you therefore have a definite calling: You were chosen to do these things.
- Stick to it! You don’t stumble when you do them.
- 11 You’ll be richly given entry to the age
- of the kingdom of our master and savior, Christ Jesus.
Note Peter’s instructions to his church. Makes it sure sound like self-control is something we need to do. Like the Spirit’s fruit is as much our active response to God, as it is a byproduct of our relationship: Self-control is a fruit because our love for God, our empowerment by God, makes us want to be religious about our relationship with him. And so we are.
So how do we grow in self-control? Like Peter said.
Start with faith. We trust God, right? Okay. Do as he told us to do. Obey his commands.
Add quality. Get better at them. We’re gonna suck at first; we’re not used to this obedience. Sometimes we’re only gonna do them to fit in, to look good, to conform to our churches instead of to God’s will. That introduces the temptations of hypocrisy and legalism, of doing ’em for the wrong reasons. Stick to doing them for noble, excellent, virtuous, godly reasons.
Then knowledge. Learn why God commanded us to do as he instructs. We’re gonna learn by doing, of course. But we should also learn by study: What other instructions in the scriptures apply to these commands? What other insights have fellow Christians learned? How can we obey God better?
Then self-control. Wait, isn’t all of this self-control? Yes it is. But this is our tip this isn’t Peter’s step-by-step list on how to grow self-control. It’s a holistic lifestyle. We continually look back and add these things where we lack ’em. Once you’ve got quality, try to make it a knowledgeable quality. Once you’ve got knowledge, try to make it a self-controlled knowledge. And the next one: If you’ve got self-control, try to make it an enduring self-control.
Then endurance. Patience, or longsuffering, is a big part of self-control. ’Cause there isn’t a point where we’re permitted to drop self-control, or lose self-control, and run amok, or sin like we’ve always desired to. We’ve gotta tough it out. We’ve gotta endure. Self-control without endurance is simply delayed gratification: “Can’t murder him now, but I will so murder him later.” No; don’t murder him ever.
Then godliness. Again, this should all be godly. We’re not controlling ourselves for carnal reasons. Our self-control should reflect God’s character. In other words, it oughta have all the characteristics of the other fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, generosity, and gentleness.
Then a sense of family. Literally filadelfían/“familial love.” Sometimes translated “brotherly love.” (
KJVwent with “brotherly kindness.”) Another of the temptations of self-control is selfishness: We’re trying to improve ourselves, right? But we mustn’t forget we’re not doing it for ourselves. It’s for God. And if it’s for God, it means loving others is part of the equation. The Pharisees regularly made the mistake of pitting love of God against loving their neighbors; fr’instance observing Sabbath so intently, they wouldn’t help the needy. Not cool. God wants our self-control to contribute to our relationships with others. Not alienate them.
Then love. ’Cause every fruit of the Spirit must ultimately have love in it. Self-control included.
Sound hard? Well, it is. Good thing we have grace, ’cause we will fail—and God forgives us, so we can pick ourselves back up and try again.
Self-control and spiritual maturity.
Part of the reason Paul listed self-control last was likely because self-control governs all the other fruit. We choose when and where to love, to embrace joy, to make peace, to exhibit patience, to behave kindly, to do good, to have faith, and to exercise gentleness.
When we take control of our own choices and behaviors—and take responsibility for the consequences—it’s called being mature. Some Christians call it “spiritual maturity,” but there’s no difference between maturity and spiritual maturity. They’re the same. Christians who try to divorce the two, are trying to get away with something immature.
Frequently Christians don’t know what makes a person spiritually mature. They think it’s age, or knowledge, or the ability to give impressive public prayers, or the power to perform supernatural gifts. It’s how I was able to get away with being a giant hypocrite for so long: I could impress people with all the bible verses I knew. But I lacked love, patience, kindness, peace, goodness, and self-control. I was immature. Knowledge ain’t maturity.
Likewise Christians will claim someone’s not mature because they lack superficial things—like age, knowledge, talents, and gifts. Even though they’ve got loads of love, joy, generosity—you know, fruit. So they don’t know as much as a seminary graduate: They’re mature. (And usually wise enough to consult us seminary grads when they need to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.) I’ve known many pastors who know less than I do. But they’re more qualified to lead, ’cause they’re more fruitful than I am.
As a result of this mixup, we’ve got a lot of know-it-alls who don’t know why no one in their churches will trust them to lead. Or worse: Churches who do let ’em lead, and now everyone in their churches are suffering. The kids are already plotting to leave Christianity as soon as they’re old enough.
But enough about them; they’re depressing.
Where accountability fits in.
Part of self-control is
Problem is, most Christians—especially Americans—don’t wanna answer to anyone. Not even God. We claim we do, but our “submission” tends to consist almost entirely of telling God “I surrender all” in our worship songs, copping a sorrowful attitude ’cause we’re dirty sinners… and not changing our lives whatsoever. If we don’t bother to practice self-control, we’re certainly not gonna cede any control to God. Or others. Sounds too legalistic and cultish. Interferes too much with our “freedom in Christ” to follow our hearts’ desire.
Hence Christians answer to no one. We join churches which don’t hold their members accountable at all. At all. They dare not; they’ll lose ’em otherwise. Leaders may ask, “How’re you doing?” but if we don’t care to confess a thing, and just say “Fine” or something just as vague, we can stay off the hook. And that’s what we do.
If any Christian leader dared pin us down and say, “No, really: How’re you doing? How’s your Christian life? Are you praying? Reading your bible? Trying to follow Jesus?” they’d be immediately accused of being too controlling, manipulative, interfering where they’re neither welcome nor allowed. In fact, I expect some TXAB readers would be outraged at the very idea. Honestly, my knee-jerk reaction to such a thing is to back up. Even though I’m trying to be transparent—even though I feel I should have no trouble or struggle in giving an honest answer.
But accountability definitely helps us work on the self-control. As any recovering addict in a 12-step program, who speaks with their sponsor on a regular basis, will tell you.
If you know about these programs, you’ll know: A sponsor isn’t a boss. They’re an equal. An accountability partner. They’re given the right to hear what the addict’s going through, to tell ’em whether they approve of the addict’s behavior, and to offer advice. Works precisely the same with any accountable Christian.
I’m accountable to my fellow Christians. That includes you. But of course you aren’t my boss: You’re a fellow Christian. You have the right, under Christ, to tell me whether you approve of my behavior. I can either listen to you, or not. If you’re right, I should listen to you. Doesn’t matter whether you’re my pastor, whether you attend my church, or even how good a Christian you are. Heck, you could be a heretic, have no relationship with God, and know so little about him I’d be stupid to take your advice. Despite all that, if the Holy Spirit chooses to use you to point me the right way, and I hear him through all your noise, I’d be just as stupid to say, “Well, consider the source,” and ignore you ’cause I’d much rather sin.
See, accountability is about us Christians speaking into one another’s lives. We support one another. We correct one another when we’ve gone wrong, and encourage one another to go right.
There are abusive, control-freak Christians who try to turn accountability into a master/slave relationship. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to avoid that: We’re slaves to no one but Jesus,
So if you aren’t accountable to anyone—if you aren’t confessing everything, including sins,
Be willing to accept constructive criticism. Yeah, that’s gonna be hard for some of us. Especially when we lack humility: We don’t wanna hear we’re wrong. But we are, and shutting our ears isn’t gonna help us grow any. If we can’t listen to fellow Christians, whose voices we can hear clearly, we’re less likely to listen to the Holy Spirit, whose voice we need to hear. Don’t fool yourself: It’s not easier to only heed the Spirit, yet ignore fellow Christians. Nor is it healthier, nor spiritually mature.
We all have blind spots. All the more reason we need fellow Christians to point ’em out. We all have room for improvement. We all need help. So listen to one another. Submit to one another.