By Dr. Bill Patterson
Roy Jones explained his car accident to his insurance agent. “I started backing down my steep driveway. I looked out my rear window but lost sight of my drive. I dropped off the concrete onto the yard. I rolled down the yard into my garbage cans. I knocked over my mailbox. The car jumped the curb and rolled across the street. It rammed my neighbor’s car and after that, sir, I lost control.”
Most of us have lost control at one point or another. Galatians 5:23 lists self-control among the fruit of the Holy Spirit. When you see someone who is out of control, you immediately know that person is not yielding to the Holy Spirit’s control.
What Is Self-Control?
Paul listed the nine-fold fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22, 23. Most versions render the last word in his list as “self-control.” The actual Greek is better translated, “control,” as the word self is supplied by the translators.
The ancient Greeks most often used the word in their literature to refer to sexual control, but also to control in other areas of life. The Bible uses the word in the same way—control in the sexual area (see 1 Corinthians 7:9), but also in other parts of our lives.
The Christian life is a life of freedom, but that freedom comes when we are most fully under the control of the Holy Spirit. A locomotive is most free to deliver its load when it stays on the tracks. When a train jumps track, it’s no longer bound by the rails, but it can no longer deliver its cargo. In the same way, when we are controlled by the Holy Spirit of God we are not free to do everything, but we are free to be all God would have us be and to do all he would have us do.
Plato used the term to describe self-mastery. Paul illustrates that concept in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 in reference to an athlete’s control over his body. Competitors train vigorously for an athletic contest. They develop great mastery over their bodies so they can win the game. In the same way, we who know the Lord must build our lives with daily Bible study, prayer, regular church attendance, and obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Self-control is that fruit of the Holy Spirit which enables a person to master his life so that he is under the control of God’s Spirit and therefore fit to be God’s servant.
Is Self-Control Needed?
Do we need self-control? A simple glance at the daily newspaper answers the question. Recently I read a headline that announced, “Man arrested here suspected of murder.” The story said, “We believe there was some type of verbal altercation that turned violent.”
Another headline stated, “Woman rejects plea in alleged poison death of newborn.” Yet another said, “Trial date set for man accused of killing dad.” A fourth said, “Investigator of double slaying is arrested.”
Another piece recorded, “Couple traded baby for truck.” That report said the couple sold the truck for money with which to purchase drugs. One account cited officials at Penn State about whom, it said, “evidence shows an active agreement to conceal” a former coach’s sexual abuse of boys.
Yet another piece of writing stated that due to improper controls, the “U. S. wasted billions in Iraq.” That article listed “kickbacks, bribery, bid-rigging, fraud, embezzlement, and outright theft of government property and funds” as some of the ways money had been misused.
Those articles were all on pages one through three. They make a person not want to read the entire paper! Read your paper today or watch your evening news to see if our world doesn’t need self-control. Lack of self-control breaks up marriages, destroys businesses, tears down government, sets people at odds, and makes daily life more difficult, demanding, and costly for us all.
Making It Personal
Lack of control is not just a problem “out there.” A British newspaper headlined a question, “What’s wrong with the world?” and invited replies. A theologian wrote his simple response, “I am.”
In what area of your life is control needed? In Galatians 5:19-23 Paul contrasted the works of the sinful nature with the fruit of the Spirit. He mentioned three different types of wrongdoing: sensual, superstitious, and social sins. Read the list carefully: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”
You may think, “I’m not a murderer. I don’t practice witchcraft.” No, but are you envious? Do you have selfish ambition? Do you cause factions? Remember also that Paul’s list is a suggestive one, not an exhaustive one. He closed it by saying, “and the like.” If nowhere else on Paul’s list, you and I are covered by “and the like.”
Were it not for the help of the Holy Spirit we would show little control in our lives. It is only by his help that any of us can be in command of our lives. We are to practice a lifestyle no longer characterized by selfishness. By the help of God’s Spirit, we can practice a daily life of putting him first, others second, and self last.
Peter the Great from Russia, the man for whom St. Petersburg (Leningrad) was named, conquered the whole land of Russia. However, like King Saul in the Old Testament, he had tremendous fits of wrath. In one of these outbursts of anger, Peter the Great killed his own son. Later in his sorrow he said, “I’ve conquered the Empire but I cannot conquer my own heart.”
How do we conquer our own hearts? From where does control of our hearts and actions come? The key is in Galatians 5:16 where Paul contrasted the Spirit and the sinful nature. He wrote, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (NIV 1984).
As we live under the management of the Holy Spirit, we live the most controlled lives possible. In verse 25 Paul wrote, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
We do not develop self-control by focusing on self-control. Can you imagine a person saying to himself, “Today I will be self-controlled”? Then on his way to work he gets cut off in traffic but grits his teeth and says, “I must be self-controlled.” At work he is given an impossible assignment with little chance of success and an early deadline. He says to himself, “I will not get angry. I will not lash out at my coworkers. I know this is their fault for not following procedures and I’ll likely take the blame, but I must maintain self-control.”
Then on his way home someone pulls into the parking space for which he had patiently waited three minutes, but he repeats to himself while tightening his grip on the steering wheel, “I will not lose control.” He waits in a long line because the store doesn’t have enough cashiers, but before he can get to the checkout stand, someone rams a shopping cart in front of his and jumps to the front of the line. The man loses his cool and yells, “What are you people thinking?”
The point is that we do not develop self-control by focusing on self-control. The key is to get under the control of the Holy Spirit. When we yield to the Holy Spirit daily, we find that he slowly produces the fruit of self-control in us. A peach tree doesn’t have to think about bearing peaches. The task is natural. All it has to do is stay attached to its roots and peaches are produced.
In the same way, developing self-control is a root issue, not a fruit issue. When a Christian gets into the Word of God, prays regularly, stays close to the Lord by asking forgiveness of sins, and does what the Holy Spirit directs him to do, the Holy Spirit will produce the fruit of self-control in his life.
Dr. Bill Patterson is a freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.
The Fruit of the Spirit: More Resources
Fruit of the Spirit: Deepening Life Together
(Baker Books, 2011)
Fruit of the Spirit
by Hazel Offner
(InterVarsity Press, 1999)
The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life
by Charles F. Stanley
(Thomas Nelson, 1995)
The Fruitful Life: The Overflow of God’s Love Through You
By Jerry Bridges
Power and the Fruit of the Holy Spirit
by Bruce Williams
(DPI Books, 2005)
Fruit of the Spirit: Living the Supernatural Life
by Bill Hybels
Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community
by Philip D. Kenneson
(InterVarsity Press, 1999)