Today we reach the ninth fruit of the Holy Spirit—self-control. There are always some parts of our life that are out of control--first because we are human and second because we are sinners. Until we get to heaven, we are going to have trouble with self-control.
My dog Natasha is a good dog, but she’s still a dog. Sometimes on a walk she’ll see a squirrel and go crazy, or a jogger and leap to chase him. Even a well-trained dog is something impulsive and unpredictable. What’s true of the dog is also true of her master. When something riles me or when I’m under stress, or some temptation crosses my path, I leap impulsively like my dog. Later, I am ashamed of my lack of self-control, but unless I restrain my heart, I get in trouble. That’s what it’s like to have an undisciplined, fallen human nature.
Self-control is a problem in many areas of life. One is food. And another is sex. A third is anger. A fourth is language. James says the tongue sometimes seems to have a mind of it’s own. We also each have what used to be called “besetting” sins, which are areas of temptation that are stronger for us than for others. Modern language calls these addictions. They may include television, the internet, gambling, drugs, shopping, obsessive behaviors,--whatever! These parts of our lives seem constantly to be either out of control or about to be out of control. We promise ourselves that we’ll never do it again, but we keep failing to keep our promise. Fortunately, God in His mercy forgives our failings. He overlooks our faults and loves us anyway, even though He wants us to change.
Self-control, however is not really about our failings. It is about how we can succeed in becoming better, healthier, and happier people. Let’s not look so much as where we fail as where and how we can find success, and become fully what God wants us to be.
When it comes to the fruit of the Holy Spirit, most people fall into one of two misconceptions. One misconception is that self-control is all about willpower. We leave “the Spirit” out of it. If we don’t have self-control, then we think it’s because we didn’t try hard enough. This is a very false, non-Christian concept. But so is the opposite misconception, that we can do nothing to produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives that somehow the Spirit will hit us with a bolt from the blue, and we will become incredibly disciplined, loving, and joyful. Both these extremes are wrong. Self-discipline is a process involving our cooperation and God’s Spirit, producing a personality change in us.
Once again, let’s look to the life of Jesus. We see an example of Jesus’ self-control right at the beginning of His ministry in in Luke 4: 1-2:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.”
This story, as many will recognize is the beginning of the story of Jesus’ temptations. But saying that misses the point. Jesus began His ministry with a forty-day fast. Why? Some people fast to get closer to God, but Jesus didn’t need to—He was God! Others fast as penance for sin. But Jesus didn’t need to—he never sinned! So why did Jesus fast?
I believe He fasted for one reason in order to fully experience humanity. He could not be the epitome of self-control unless he had proven it by denying Himself nourishment, even to the point of death, in order to recognize for Himself how hard self-control was for us. Every cell of his body demanded to be fed. He knows the hunger we feel when we must fast or diet. He knows what it means to deny urges that are God-given, natural and healthy. He could not begin a ministry that demanded self-control of him until He had been driven to the very limits. He demonstrated his self-control by denying himself the necessities of life,
Jesus learned self-control the same way we did—by struggling with natural desire for the ordinary necessities of life. Without learning self-control in small things, we will never learn it in big things.
Self-control may involve, self-denial, but they are not the same thing. Self-denial leads to self-control, which unlocks the vast potential of the human spirit within us. When we learn to deny ourselves and follow the Holy Spirit, then there is no limit to what we can attain or achieve.
Self-control isn’t just going on diets and breaking bad habits. It’s also staying strong in hardship, being an example to others, staying on course to bigger and better goals, and pressing beyond our expectations. Athletes, circus performers, and virtuoso musicians do nearly miraculous things by learning to control their minds and bodies. Scholars becomes smart through years of rigorous intellectual discipline. Saints practice disciplined prayer. Self-control is gaining mastery over self, so we can master the world around us.
Paul tells us in Romans 12 to present our bodies a living sacrifice to God. But we can’t present our bodies and minds until we first control them. We cannot give God what we cannot control. Self-control enables us to accomplish what God has before us.
What do you desire in life? Health? Wealth? Success? Godliness? Self-control is the path to achieving it. Jesus’ fast wasn’t just an incident in his life, but an essential part of fulfilling His destiny. He said “no” to His body, so He could say “yes” to the Father. We must also do the same. Jesus tell us in Luke 21: 19 “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Self-control is a tool that opens up all the fullness of life and satisfaction in following Jesus.
So, how to do we develop self-control?
First, recognize that we need to control ourselves.
God is not going to fix a problem in your life that you will not admit to having. We have to admit that our lives are out of control, and have a desire to change.
Second, committing ourselves to being like Jesus, and doing whatever it takes.
Jesus’ initial forty-day fast was a gesture of submission to God. This radical submission had to start somewhere. Every attempt at repentance and self-control must begin with a willingness to follow no matter what it takes, and how long it takes.
In this journey, Jesus is our model. A sculptor who sets out to carve a statue out of a block of stone makes models and sketches before he ever lifts a chisel or a hammer. Before we can go to work we must have a model. Jesus is our model. He is what we seek to be. There is no point in just practicing self-discipline to remake ourselves, if we have no idea what we are supposed to be. You have to make Jesus your model for life. Once you have the model, then you can begin the process of learning self-control, to build your live in His image. Then you do whatever it takes to become like Him in thought, word, feeling, and action. This is not easy, but obedience to the Father never is. Jesus paid the price for self-control. If He did, we should also.
Third, seek help from others.
No one can learn self-control without help from other people. Without help, we all fall into self-deception. We can easily lie to ourselves, because there is no one to catch our lies. Also, we do not possess in ourselves enough wisdom, strength or guidance to solve our own problems. We need help from God, but God usually offers that help and strength from other people. Pride makes us reject help from others. Wisdom seeks help from others.
We all need three kinds of help from others. First, we need a mentor. This can be a pastor, counselor, confessor, or coach--someone who has been a little farther down the road that we have and can give us sage advice. A mentor is not someone who has all the answers, but is someone who may help us find the answers.
Next, we need a friend and fellow struggler. This doesn’t have to be someone who is better or more mature than we are, but someone who will hold us accountable.
Finally we need a small group who will love us, support us, and encourage us. Jesus never intended that His people should suffer alone or celebrate alone, but that we should share our struggles. That’s why He created the church—to be a place where people may come and grow.
Fourth, measure success by consistency, not results.
Don’t let a lack of immediate results get you down. Suppose we resolve to walk an hour a day, because we want to lose weight. If we have walked an hour a day, at the end of the week we will have been successful, whether or not we have lost any weight. The weight is irrelevant; consistency is everything.
Results are not as important as consistency. We may not feel closer to God at the end of a week of devotions. Don’t be discouraged. Once we have gained self-control, results will follow in time. If we keep going, in time, God will bring results if we are faithful.
Fifth, forgive your failures and celebrate your victories.
When we exercise self-control, celebrate it! Tell your support group, and let them rejoice with you! And when you fail, don’t beat yourself up about it. God has already forgiven your failures. Our failures should only be remembered as opportunities to learn from our mistakes. If you fail, you are no worse off than before you tried. You will fail at one hundred percent of everything you do not try. But you will succeed at some of the things you do try.
Jesus succeeded at self-control not because He was God, but because He was fully human. God did not have to live within a body that had human imitations, but He did, and in doing so he demonstrated that our very human bodies, minds and spirits may be made to obey. His humanity and self-control gives us hope.
Whatever you are able to ultimately do, God can give you hope. We do not have to be out of control. With God’s help we can master our souls.