When was the last time you heard a sermon on self-control? I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard one. Most of the other fruits of the Spirit get a lot of play–love, joy, peace, patience, godliness–but self-control seems to slide under the radar. For some reason it’s not a common barometer for spiritual growth….which is probably why I stink at it. I seriously can’t go to the mall without buying something, and don’t get me started on the kind of junk food I put in my mouth. If it comes down to me eating one of those chocolate lava cakes at Chili’s, or exercising self-control and holding off, the cake wins every time.
But clearly self-control is important–it is, after all, a symptom of the Holy Spirit at work! What, then, was Paul up to when he listed it in Galatians 5? Why did he feel it was such a strong indicator of one’s spiritual growth?
Well to find out the answer to this question, I looked up the Greek word for self-control. The word is egkrateia, and it is defined as follows: “The virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites.”
According to this definition, self-control is all about which master you serve. Are you a servant of God, or your own desires? Are you a master of your needs, or do your needs master you? At its core, self-control is an issue of idolatry. When examining each area of your life, it asks the piercing question, “Who is your god?”
In this way, self-control isn’t merely about how much you eat or how you spend your money. It’s about the disposition of your heart. And with that in mind, a lack of self-control in one area will usually indicate a lack of self-control in other areas.
For example, if your boyfriend cannot exercise self-control in your physical relationship, then there is no reason to expect that he will exercise self-control in other areas. Even if you do get married and the physical stuff is no longer an issue, the disposition of his heart is still the same, so his lack of self-control may play out in other areas, such as your finances.
If you are a person who serves your desires first, and God second, then no area of your life is safe from such idolatry. For some it can play out it drinking or having sex, for others it can be gluttony or over-dieting, and for others it can be the amount of money you spend on clothes, or the kind of movies you watch. For most of us, it is any number of those things.
We cannot, however, gain self-control by putting out fires. Because self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, then your first step is not to manage your money better, eat healthier, or stop making out with your boyfriend. The first step is to surrender your will to the Holy Spirit. Only then will your self-control be a manifestation of a changed heart, rather than an unsustainable change in lifestyle.
So when it comes to this fruit of the Spirit, take a look at yourself. You may be kind, patient, and faithful, but how are you in the self-control department? I, for one, have a lot of growing to do.