All ten weeks of our summer study, I’ve been humming that silly kid’s song, “The Fruit of the Spirit’s Not a Coconut,” but lately, I’ve been thinking that IF one such spiritual attribute WAS a coconut, it would have to be self-control.
All the others from love right through to gentleness evoked sweetness that sent me bounding into clip-art-apalooza for all things berries and blossoms. But then, there’s self-control, a.k.a. self-discipline.
That’s one hairy beast of a spiritual fruit, a tough nut to crack.
I’m convinced, though, that Paul concluded the Galatians 5 list with it because self-control is what gives us the structure and determination to carry out Christ’s command to love.
We often think about self-control as keeping ourselves away from harmful behaviors like substance abuse, lust, gossiping, lying, laziness, you name it. That is true, and the promise God makes is that through his power in us, we are no longer at the mercy of our sinful desires. Galatians 5:24-25 says that when we are in Christ, we have “crucified the flesh [our old sin-controlled nature] with its passions and lusts” and that we get to live a new, self-controlled nature by keeping “in step with the Spirit.”
In fact, that choice to stay in step with Christ is the first seedling of self-control. But rather than having to muscle up more and more natural willpower in the face of sin and temptation, the daily choice to submit our will to Christ means we tap into his willpower as he grows the fruit of self-control in us. As we choose to prioritize time with him and rely on his wisdom, he strengthens us so that we persevere during temptation, endure hard times, and walk away from situations and sometimes, people that make us vulnerable to sin.
However, I’ve also learned that the fruit of self-control is more than avoiding destructive behavior. Christ-enabled self-discipline is what governs how we love and serve effectively. All the other fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness – is meant to expand into our communities, but we need to direct that flow through, you guessed it, self-control. Look at Paul’s encouragement to the Philippian church (Phil 1:9 The Message, emphasis mine):
So this is my prayer:
That your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well.
Learn to love appropriately.
You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.
Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of:
bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.
The words I’ve emphasized speak of diligence, discipline, wisdom, and growth so that capricious feelings or passing whims cease to highjack our mission to love others. We’re talking love that has staying power and healthy boundaries. That comes from asking the Holy Spirit to develop self-control within us.
Self-control is also what frees us. Remember that the fruit of the Spirit verses are part of Paul’s warning not to add Old Testament regulations like circumcision to the gospel. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” he reminds them. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
The old regulation of circumcision was meant to set apart the Israelites, the people chosen to point to God and his plan to send a savior, until Jesus came to set things right for all people. The extensive rule system of the Old Testament and the later rules added by priests and rabbis were meant to regulate their behavior from the outside, but Jesus sent his Spirit to write the law on people’s hearts (see Jeremiah 31:33). Falling back into legalistic rituals would be like putting training wheels back on a bike after you’ve learned to ride. With the Holy Spirit now operating inside us, we grow in self-control along with all the other Christ-like attributes. That means we get to enjoy the ride in a “Look Ma! No hands!” kind of way while learning to use our freedom to minister to each other in loving humility rather than indulging the flesh (see Gal 5:13).
Does that mean we won’t need wisdom and good boundaries in areas where we’re vulnerable? Of course not. Paul advises Pastor Timothy, for example, to run away from the lust that trips up young people, not just wait around seeing if he’s tempted (see 2 Tim 2:22). That’s some Holy-Spirit-inspired discipline that says, “Self, hit the controls to get you out of here.”
Paul’s advice demonstrates, too, that we benefit from godly teachers. But we are not meant to be puppets controlled by exhausting moral checklists or manipulative people. Instead, we exercise that first step of self-control: choosing Christ daily and renewing our hearts and minds through his Spirit so that he grows in us the discipline to live his kind of life.
And that life? It won’t look like judgey self-righteousness. It will be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, unstoppable in its impact because “against such things, there is no law” (Gal 5:23).
Coconuts courtesy of Irene Kredenets on Unsplash.