Self-control is a highly touted idea in both the church and the world. It’s a natural human desire to be seen as having things together, to be “in control,” etc. And in reality, self-control is a very important and valuable thing. Paul lists it as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: “22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
I think it’s beautiful that there are “works” of the flesh, many of which are outward actions, contrasted with “fruit” of the Spirit, which are all inward characteristics. That’s just a wonderful thing. Works are done with one’s own labor and effort, while fruit is produced by a process of creation which requires no personal effort. I think there’s a very important lesson there and a means of clarification between what is “fruit” and what is “work.”
If the fruit of the Spirit is like natural fruit, growing by an unseen process, without effort, then the fruit of the spirit called “self-control” isn’t what is commonly understood. The common thinking is that self-control is the characteristic that enables us to consistently abstain from anything we see as negative, and consistently do anything we know is beneficial, no matter how much we desire otherwise. It’s what enables one to wake up early every day to exercise, read the Bible, or meditate. But all of that is something people all over the world do without God. There are extremely “self-controlled” people, according to that common understanding, who don’t believe in or pursue God at all. Therefore, this can’t be a fruit of God’s spirit. All of this abstaining or doing is based on natural human effort.
I read a quote the other day that really struck me. It basically said this: “The opposite of selfishness isn’t serving others or doing contrary to what you want. The opposite of selfishness is living for God and doing His will.” Self (the flesh nature) and God are opposed, scripture says. (Galatians 5): 17 “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you (wish).” This quote seems strange because we often fail to realize that flesh/self can be the motivating force behind serving others and many other seemingly “good” behaviors! So self-control isn’t going against your will to do something YOU see as better. There can actually be a selfish motive behind that. It’s deeper than that, as most things in the Kingdom of God are when compared with the kingdoms of Christianity or the world.
If you simply look up the Greek word that is translated “self-control,” you’ll see the word is egkrateia. As with many Greek words, this word is a combination of two words, en, meaning “within or among” and kratos, meaning “strength or might.” So egkratia literally means “within might,” or “in the midst of strength.” Keeping in mind that this is a fruit of the Spirit, then this strength has nothing to do with self-effort or willpower. It’s a spiritual fruit, so it must be a strength produced by the spirit.
What the Bible translators called self-control is really a state of being subservient to, under, and within the strength and might of the Holy Spirit of God. If you’re a believer, this spirit dwells deep within you, as a seed, but it must be nurtured in order to mature, just as with natural fruit. When the selfish flesh nature is overwhelmed by the might of the spirit of God, i.e. under the “control” of the spirit, that is a state of self-control that God recognizes. That’s what scripture refers to. Being disciplined and having impressive willpower have no relation to the spiritual realm where God is at work. Look deeper! Amen.