If there was a least-popular fruit of the spirit from the list in Galatians 5, self-control might have a good shot at winning. It’s (arguably) the character trait that takes the most effort and has the least accolade. If you’re doing it right, people don’t even notice how much self-control you have.
But of course, when the Holy Spirit guides our lives, then our selfish motives aren’t prompting character growth (Galatians 5:16). So things like public praise and acknowledgement for our progress doesn’t matter at all.
The main theme I’ve noticed while studying the Fruit of the Spirit is that the fruit only comes when we allow the Holy Spirit to influence our thoughts and actions. We create space for it when we set aside our cares and concerns and defer to His leading.
It may seem paradoxical to think about self-control in terms of allowing the Holy Spirit to control our self, but self-control is more about having mastery over our destructive impulses and negative reactions rather than being IN control all the time. There is a difference.
What is self-control?
First, self-control can be demonstrated by the ability to control our impulses or practice restraint. We don’t take a second helping at dinner or we don’t watch that fourth episode on Netflix.
Second, self-control can be understood as the ability to control our external reactions. We don’t yell when we’re angry or we don’t get wrapped up in social media debates.
When defined with a Christian worldview, self-control doesn’t end at our ability to not do something we want to do. Rather than bottling up our anger, we allow the Holy Spirit to teach our spirits how to be Christlike. As our minds and emotions become restrained, we change from the inside out.
“Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life.” 2 Corinthians 5:14
Developing this fruit means we stop pretending to be restrained—we ARE restrained. When the Holy Spirit teaches us how to have true self-control, we don’t just grin and bear a negative situation, we find a way through it. We tamp our emotional reaction and then allow the Holy Spirit to impact the way we think about the event.
Self-control in action
But perhaps a real-life example will help this powerful, important trait come to life. Let’s say you’re part of a political discussion that goes sideways. There are opposing, passionate viewpoints and you are beginning to become emotional. How do you demonstrate self-control in this situation?
Step one is a surface-level response. You bite your tongue and don’t throw fuel on the fire. We all understand how to do this. Of course, in the heat of the moment, this isn’t easy but it is possible. So we emotionally distance ourselves from the conversation and hold back our words.
Step two is then asking the Holy Spirit to change our mindset. To be open to this we need to quiet our mind and pray for self-control. We could ask the Lord to help us see a way to find peace in the conversation, or a resolution to not be personally affected by other people’s political positions. This in itself is no easy feat, but with God’s help? Possible.
Step three is staying here, in this mental place. The goal is maintaining restraint. Sure, other people may not be interested in this happening, but you don’t have to let them pull you back down the hill. Despite what’s going on around the dinner table you can choose not to engage in the debate while still being polite. Or maybe you can find a way to participate while still practicing self-control. Figure out where your lines are—which topics are safe for you and which aren’t—and don’t go further. Continue praying for God’s strength. This is a tough balancing act but again, it’s possible to achieve.
Step four is learning how to practice self-control as a first response rather than an emergency tactic. Of course, it goes against our human nature to not react when we feel insulted or wronged or we just plain disagree. We want our due, we want justice, and we want to prove how right we are! So this comes over time, after learning how to live under Christ’s power. And while self-control can become a more natural response, it will never be a static or fixed state. Self-control will always be something we work towards.
What else does the Bible say about self-control?
“A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.” Proverbs 25:28
Here are additional self-control references for further study.
- 1 Corinthians 9:27
- 2 Timothy 1:7
- 1 Peter 4:7
- Matthew 26:53-54
- Proverbs 14:29
- Romans 6:16-20
- 2 Peter 1:6-7
- Proverbs 3:5-7
- 2 Corinthians 4:3-4
- 1 John 2:15-17
- Galatians 5:19-23
- John 8:44
- Luke 4:1-13
- Luke 9:23
- Matthew 5:29
- Colossians 1:29
- Zechariah 4:6
- Proverbs 21:31
- Titus 2:6, 11-12
- 1 Timothy 6:12
Spiritual self-control is more than having strong will power. We have to have a compelling WHY to keep going after it. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explains this concept using athletes training for a race as a metaphor for living an effective Christian life. “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. The athlete trains, exerting great shows of discipline and restraint in order to race for a prize. And that prize is only temporary! Our prize, the motivation we have in order to be disciplined, is so much more than that,” (25-27). Keep your eye on the prize, my friend, and you will bear fruit.