HH, Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
Self-control ἐγκράτεια (egkrateia) is the ability to control one’s body and its sensual appetites and desires – physically and mentally – through the power of the Holy Spirit. Self-control relates to both chastity and sobriety, and particularly moderation in eating and drinking. Self-control is the opposite of the works of the flesh that indulge sensual desires.
As Galatians 5:16 says “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other so that you are not to do whatever you want.”
The last characteristic in Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit points us back to his list of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21. Those of us with the indwelling Holy Spirit has the strength to control our sinful desires, to say “no” to our flesh. Self-control gives us the power to say “yes” to the Spirit and foster a beautiful, bountiful harvest of spiritual fruit!
Why is the final fruit of the Spirit, self-control, so important in governing our decisions, especially in relation to demonstrating the other fruit?
For Christians, however, self-control is not merely about temperament. It is about resisting the temptation to break God’s law (which includes losing our temper) and react to others without demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in our thoughts and actions. The apostle Paul wrote about bringing “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Since thoughts lead to actions, this includes controlling ourselves completely, despite the pulls of temptations.
Romans 7:23 describes it in this way: “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Paul is describing this pull of human nature that makes us think it is “natural” to sin.
We have to remember that the “natural” is part of this world, temporarily run by Satan the devil (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Therefore, as godly Christians, we recognize that self-control includes abstaining from the evils of the world.
Notice 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
What is self-control? It is the active effort we put forth to resist the temptation to go back to the ways of the world around us once we’ve been shown God’s spiritual way of life. It is demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit instead of committing the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-23).
Why does God want us to demonstrate self-control?
The reason God wants us to grow in self-control ties in with all the other fruit of the Spirit that are listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
We are in a battle. As we read in 1 John 2:16, “All that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” That is Satan’s idea for the world, as we see in John 8:44: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”
God’s idea for the world, on the other hand, includes having everyone demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
So where does self-control come in? Everywhere.
- It takes self-control to show true godly love instead of lust and infatuation—to love others, not as the world loves, but as Christ loved us. “And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Ephesians 5:2, emphasis added throughout).
- It takes self-control to have godly joy when we are facing a difficult situation in life. “Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
- It takes self-control to get along with others and make peace instead of constantly getting into conflict. “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).
- It takes self-control to patiently bear with others rather than quickly condemning them. It’s very hard to “be patient with all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
- It takes self-control to not automatically look out only for yourself but kindly looks out for other people (Philippians 2:4).
- It takes self-control to do good, to go through the narrow gate toward life rather than the evil, wide gate toward destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
- It takes self-control to be faithful and not have our faith shattered by the mocking of scoffers (2 Peter 3:3-4).
- It takes self-control to be a gentle servant of the Lord (2 Timothy 2:24), showing compassion and mercy with real love as God does with us.
Here’s an example to follow
In the articles on the other fruit of the Spirit, various biblical figures have been highlighted as examples to follow. Knowing that Jesus Christ is the perfect example to follow for all of the fruit of the Spirit, it is fitting to use Him as the example for the final one of the list: self-control.
The story of Jesus Christ is found mainly throughout the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) but is also illustrated throughout the entire Bible because He was the Creator who then came to earth in the flesh (John 1:1-4, 14).
We look to His experiences and actions as a human being and then try to model our lives after Him. Jesus Christ’s time as a human being defines self-control. In order to pay the penalty for our sins, Jesus had to live a sinless life. This required constant self-control with the help of God. Even in the face of blatant temptation by the devil, who offered Him the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life, Jesus Christ remained in control (Luke 4:1-13).
Jesus Christ also needed amazing self-control to allow God’s will to happen in the perfect way it had been planned. For example, Christ had to refrain from calling for legions of angels to save Him from torture and death (Matthew 26:53-54). Also, He had to refrain from disagreeing with God’s will (Matthew 26:39), looking to the spiritual rather than just the physical.
As with all the fruit of the Spirit, Jesus Christ is the only perfect example to follow in demonstrating self-control. Without His self-control, we would all still be under the death penalty for our sins.
Here’s an example to avoid
Where does the attitude that is the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit come from? Just as Jesus Christ is the perfect example of self-control and the other fruit of the Spirit, Satan the devil is the perfect example of the loss of control and the other works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21).
The transformation of Lucifer the angel to Satan the devil (found in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19) is a cautionary tale of loss of self-control. When sinful, violent and prideful thoughts entered Lucifer’s mind, his reaction was to allow them to turn into a rebellious spirit.
Earlier we saw that the Bible refers to Satan as a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44), so it is interesting to see what God said to Cain, the first human murderer, about control: “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).
Like Cain, who, after hearing those words, went out and killed his brother, Satan did not rule over (or control) the thoughts that led to his rebellion.
Revelation 12:9 says that Satan “deceives the whole world.” It’s safe to say he wants humans to love the world and its carnality, especially losing self-control—the thing that stops us from committing the works of the flesh and keeps us demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit.
How do we demonstrate more self-control?
We’ve seen that the need to demonstrate self-control is critical. But how do we make the necessary changes and demonstrate more of it?
- Keep track, either in a journal or chart, of various reactions you experienced during the week and categorize them as either demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit with self-control or a work of the flesh with loss of control. Examine the causes and the thinking that led up to the reaction.
- When presented with a stressful situation, have a phrase or prayer ready in your mind to help you focus on staying in control and looking to the fruit of the Spirit instead of a natural, knee-jerk reaction. (For example, if someone tends to irritate you at work, think to yourself, “God wants me to rule over this”—before you lose control and insult them.)
- Pray daily for God to give you more of His Spirit, including the self-control to demonstrate that fruit and avoid temptation. The more we pray, study, meditate and fast to draw closer to God (the source of the Holy Spirit), the more we will have the control to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Set goals to expand the quantity and quality of these tools in your life.
As mentioned in the first article in this series, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is how Christians show God’s character and gospel message in their thoughts and actions. We are to be walking billboards for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. May we all grow in demonstrating and living by the fruit of the Spirit!