Self-control: Get ahold of yourself!

As I’ve said, many Christians assume the Spirit’s fruit just happens. Automatically, spontaneously, without any effort on our part. So just sit back and let the Spirit do his thing, and fruit’ll come naturally.

Wrong. And lazy.

One of the obvious proofs fruit doesn’t work that way, is the last thing Paul listed in Galatians 5.22-23—the fruit of ἐγκράτεια/enkráteia, which the KJV renders “temperance,” and most other bibles “self-control.”

Yeah, lazy Christians will claim it doesn’t mean that. Suddenly they bust out their knowledge of ancient Greek… although really they’re just trying to manipulate Greek-English dictionaries to the best of their ability. The word enkráteia comes from κράτος/krátos, “strength,” which the Greeks used to describe various forms of governance—and we still do; our words democracy (“people reign”) and plutocracy (“wealthy reign”) and theocracy (“God reigns”) and idiocracy (“idiots reign”) come from it. The en- prefix comes from ἐν/en, “inside.” Your strength comes from inside.

And no, this isn’t a roundabout reference to the Holy Spirit living within us. It’s applies to what Jesus taught about how evil and good don’t come from without, but within. Either we’re willfully following the Spirit, or we’re apathetically ignoring him and doing as we please, same as ever. Either we’re governing ourselves, or we’re not really, and letting every little external thing appeal to our selfishness.

Paul could’ve made it explicit the Spirit is working us like a hand puppet. He didn’t. He didn’t create a deterministic universe. He isn’t so incapable a creator, he has to micromanage every little thing—like a clockmaker whose clocks suck, so he’s gotta manually move their hands, and the clockwork is only there for show. His sovereignty doesn’t work like that. Instead God told us what he wants of us, and expects us to carry it out. And fruity Christians don’t look for excuses to dismiss him!

If self-control spontaneously arose, as a result of some kind of supernatural reprogramming, why on earth did Paul have some inner war with his self-centered human nature?

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 is nothing more than the Spirit taking us over, there’d be no need whatseover for all God’s commands to quit sinning and behave ourselves. Right? We’d be sinless, automatically. We’d see an easily quantifiable drop in the number of sins we commit. Christians should sin way less than pagans do… instead of just as much, if not more, same as many surveys in the United States reveal. Something’s broken in our system, and it definitely ain’t the Holy Spirit. It’s us. We’re not practicing self-control.

Heck, how many times have you seen Christians beg God for temperance? “God, my life is such a mess! I’m so undisciplined. Please take it over. I surrender my life and my will to you.” We even include 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 take action. To obey. To resist temptation. To choose his path. To seize control of our thoughts and emotions.

God wants a loving relationship with his willing followers. If all he wanted was machines, he’d have stopped creating after he made the single-celled organisms.

Well, enough ranting about how we need to practice self-control. Let’s talk application.

The qualities of self-governance.

Simon Peter wrote a few things about how to develop self-control in his second letter. It bears reading.

2 Peter 1.2-11 KWL
2B I hope you multiply in knowledge of God and our Master Jesus.
3 Like everything granted 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 our desire run wild.
5 This being the case, contribute as much as you can to applying the promises.
Start with faith. Add quality. Knowledge. 6 Self-control. Endurance. Godliness.
7 A sense of family. 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.

The Spirit’s fruit is both a byproduct of our relationship with him, and something we need to work on. Our love for God, our empowerment by God, makes us want to become religious about our relationship with him. And so we do. Best way to do it is like Peter said:

  • START WITH FAITH. We trust God, right? Okay. Take him seriously. Do as he told us. Obey his commands.
  • ADD QUALITY. Get better at obeying his commands. You’re gonna suck at first; we all do, ’cause we’re not used to this lifestyle. Sometimes we’re gonna slide into the temptations of legalism, doing ’em because we think they make us righteous, and they don’t; or hypocrisy, pretending to do ’em, or using tons of loopholes so we can claim we do them without really. Resist those temptations: Stick to doing ’em for noble, excellent, virtuous, godly reasons.
  • ADD KNOWLEDGE. Loads of people insist they need to know why we oughta practice something before we do it. And that’s not faith; that’s judgment. We’re basically saying we won’t do something if we think it’s unnecessary or stupid. Well, nobody died and made us God; we need to obey him first, then learn why. And a lot of the reason why will occur to us as we obey… and the rest will come by studying the scriptures, hearing the insights our fellow Christians have learned, and of course revelation from the Holy Spirit himself.
  • ADD SELF-CONTROL. Wait, isn’t all of this self-control? Yes it is. But this is our tip this isn’t a 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 got quality, make it a knowledgeable quality. Once you got knowledge, make it a self-controlled knowledge. And the next one: If you got self-control, make it an enduring self-control.
  • ADD ENDURANCE. Patience, or longsuffering, is a big part of self-control. ’Cause we never reach a point where we can now quit self-control, and run amok, and sin like we used to… and maybe still want to. This is a major lifestyle change, and we gotta grow used to it. We gotta endure. Self-control without endurance is simply delayed gratification: “I may not be allowed to murder him now, but I will totally murder him later.” No; don’t murder him ever.
  • ADD GODLINESS. Godliness is likewise a big part of self-control. We’re not controlling ourselves for carnal reasons, like a pickpocket practicing so she can get better at lifting wallets. Our self-control must reflect God’s character, and have all the characteristics of his other fruit: Love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, and grace.
  • ADD A SENSE OF FAMILY. The KJV went with “brotherly kindness,” but literally it’s φιλαδελφίαν/filadelfían, “familial love,” often translated “brotherly love.” See, a common temptation of self-control is selfishness: Aren’t we trying to improve ourselves, to make us better people? But we mustn’t forget we’re doing it for God, not ourselves. Love, particularly loving others, is part of the equation. The Pharisees frequently made the mistake of pitting love of God against loving their neighbors. Fr’instance they’d observe Sabbath so strictly, they didn’t help the needy on that day, and forbade it to others. Not cool. Godly self-control will help the needy, not alienate them. It’ll love everybody, and treat ’em like family. Same as God does.
  • ADD LOVE. ’Cause every fruit of the Spirit must have love at its core. Self-control included.

Sound hard? Well it is. Good thing we have grace, ’cause we’re gonna fail. But God forgives us, so we can pick ourselves back up and try again. And again and again and again.

Self-control, maturity, and responsiblity.

Likely part of the reason Paul listed self-control last, is 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.

Once we take control of our own choices and behaviors, and take responsibility for the consequences, it’s called maturity. Some Christians call it “spiritual maturity,” but there’s no difference between maturity and spiritual maturity. Christians who try to divorce the two, are trying to get away with being immature.

Too often Christians don’t know what makes us spiritually mature. They think it’s age, or knowledge, or ability: We speak impressively, pray really well, or can do miracles. It’s how I was able to get away with being a giant hypocrite for so long: I knew so much about the bible, people assumed my knowledge was wisdom, and assume wisdom is maturity. But I lacked love, patience, kindness, peace, goodness, and self-control. Still immature.

Likewise Christians will claim someone’s not mature because they lack all these superficial things. They’re too young, too new, lack talents and gifts, get awkward. Even if they’ve got loads of love, joy, generosity—you know, fruit. So they don’t know as much as a seminary graduate: If they’re fruity, they’re mature. (And usually wise enough to consult us seminary grads about 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, Christendom has a lot of know-it-alls who don’t know why no one in their churches trusts them enough to put ’em in charge. Or worse: Churches who do put ’em in leadership, and now everyone in their church is suffering. (Bad enough kids are already plotting to leave Christianity as soon as they’re old enough.) But enough about them; they’re depressing.

Lastly, part of self-control is accountability, the Christianese word for responsibility. To help us better control our own behavior, we gotta submit ourselves to fellow Christians for review and comment. They have every right to tell us we’re doing great… and every right to tell us we’re blowing it.

Problem is, most Christians—especially Americans—wanna answer to no one. 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, then not changing our lives a whit. Besides, submitting to others sounds too legalistic and cultish, and interferes too much with our “freedom in Christ” to follow our hearts’ desire. Jr 17.9 Hence Christians 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 dares 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?” often they’re accused of being too controlling, manipulative, or interfering where they’re neither welcome nor allowed. I expect some TXAB readers are outraged at the very idea; honestly my knee-jerk reaction to such a thing is to back away. Even though I’m deliberately trying to be transparent!—and feel I should have no trouble nor 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. And obviously you’re not 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—and 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 or nontheist, and know so little about God I’d be stupid to take religious advice from you—but if the Holy Spirit for some reason 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 rather sin.

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, 1Co 7.22 and he chooses to treat us like equals and friends. Jn 15.15 He’s freed us from every form of slavery. Let’s not enslave ourselves again to some misbegotten Christian drill sergeant. By all means submit to and serve one another. But when anyone sets themselves above you, they’re wrong to.

So if you aren’t responsible to anyone—if you won’t confess everything, including sin, Jm 5.16 to trusted and trustworthy fellow Christians on a regular basis—start. Find someone. Get their permission to share with ’em. Let them encourage you to grow, to work on that self-control.

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, we’re less likely to listen to the Holy Spirit. Don’t fool yourself: It’s not easier to only heed the Spirit, yet ignore fellow Christians. Nor is it healthier, nor 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.