11 Fruit of the Spirit: Self-control - Bible Study | WednesdayintheWord.com

Fruit of the Spirit Self-control: While self-control might sound like a call to perfection, at its core self-control values the gospel more than our desires of the moment.

Fruit of the Spirit: Self-Control Key Points

  • Self-control is choosing to limit myself to follow God.
  • Self-control is not being flawless in speech and action.
  • As an example, Paul was willing to limit his freedoms for the sake of the gospel
  • Word: Strong’s G1466.
  • Passages: Acts 24:24-27; 1Corinthians 9:19-27; 2Peter 1:2-8.

Next: Fruit of the Spirit: Summary

Previous: Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness

Series: Fruit of the Spirit



Fruit of the Spirit: Self-control

Today we’re looking at the last of the fruits of the Spirit. We have been wandering through Scripture on a quest to understand what the words on this list meant to Paul.

One last time, I’ll review the context in Galatians. Paul spends most of Galatians arguing we do not need to keep the law to be saved. Faith in Jesus is sufficient. In Galatians 5, Paul argues law-keeping does not make us more holy or good. Only faith in Jesus produces real moral transformation. Once we have been reconciled to God by the cross, He gives us His Spirit who changes us from the inside out, producing the qualities on this list.

Self-control can be a scary concept because we suspect Paul means the ability to control ourselves at all times. We think we must have the ability to say and do the right thing in every situation. But all of us wrestle with ourselves. Part of us wants to be kind and compassionate while another part wants to indulge our selfishness. Paul described this classic dilemma in Romans 7.

for I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. – Romans 7:15

Paul describes a situation every believer experiences. Before the law, he was convinced if he decided to stop sinning, he would. His problem was simply ignorance or lack of willpower. When he gave law-keeping his best shot, he continued to sin.

If by self-control, Paul means the end of that struggle with sin in his life, then he’s disqualified everyone, and contradicted what he says in Romans 7. By self-control, Paul can’t mean ceasing to sin, but what does he mean? How do we reconcile self-control with the fact that believers continue to sin? We’ll look at some passages to sort that out.

The Folly of Indulgence

Many cultures consider self-control a virtue. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle praised self-control as being foremost among the virtues. It’s obvious there’s something valuable about self-control. While all human beings have the selfish desire to trample others and ensure our needs get met first, we can assess a situation and check on our selfish behavior.

If everyone gave their passions free rein, civilization would rapidly degenerate into anarchy. Following unrestrained passion tends to destroy human life. We think throwing away morality makes us free, but ironically, when we abandon self-control, we find we’re not free at all. We are slaves of our passions.

If you follow celebrity biographies, you’ve probably run into that recurring plot. A talented young musician/actor/athlete becomes famous too young. He indulges himself in sex, drugs, alcohol, and spending vast amounts of money. What happens? His life falls apart. He ends up sick, destitute, poor without friends, in the hospital or in jail.

When he hits bottom, he finally admits he needs to clean up his life, apologize to the people he’s alienated, and begin exercising some self-control. Then he writes a book testifying to the advantages of staying sober, being faithful to your spouse and living on a budget. These tragic stories disprove the motto of the 1960s: ’If it feels good, do it.’

My friend Brad Wilcox at the National Marriage Project researches marriage and society. His work consistently proves nothing predicts happiness better than a good marriage. Hollywood preaches the path to fulfillment lies in acquiring wealth, remaining single, avoiding children, and indulging ourselves. But statistics consistently, repeatedly and overwhelmingly say otherwise. The happiest people are husbands and wives in a monogamous marriage. Self-indulgence does not make you better off.

At its core, self-control recognizes we shouldn’t do everything we want to do. Self-control acknowledges we need to decide not to act on some desire, thought, or passion.

Acts 24:24-27

This event we’re about to read occurs at the end of Paul’s missionary journeys. Paul went to Jerusalem, intending to stay a short while. But the Jews there brought charges against him and had him arrested. They plotted to kill Paul while he was being transported to a hearing before the governor. But Paul’s nephew uncovered the plot and warned the Roman Tribune. The Tribune secretly moved Paul to Caesarea. At Caesarea, a Roman named Felix heard Paul’s case.

Felix was married to a Jewish woman named Drusilla who was reportedly very beautiful. Even though he started as a slave, he was freed and eventually got himself promoted to the office of governor of Judea. Felix was not an admirable character. The Roman historian Tacitus described Felix as “cruel, licentious and base.”

Drusilla was the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa 1st, the grandson of Herod the Great. Herod the Great is the king we read about in the Christmas story. Drusilla was married off at the age of 14.

When Felix arrived in Judea, he became infatuated with Drusilla. He convinced her to leave her husband and marry him. They had been married about a year by the time they run into Paul. Drusilla was Felix’s third wife and they had a son also named Agrippa.

24After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 26At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. 27When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. – Acts 24:24-27

For our purposes, what’s interesting is how Luke summarizes Paul’s discussion with Felix. Luke tells us they talked about “righteousness, self-control (our word) and judgment.” Since we don’t have much to go on here, we must speculate why these three words capture Paul’s speech. Given what we know about Paul’s other speeches, I suspect it was something like this.

Concerning judgment, Paul probably said, There is only one God. One day each of us will stand before the judgment seat of God. Our eternal destiny depends on how God judges our lives.

The next logical question is what will He say to me, which bring in the question of righteousness. Will God condemn me or grant me mercy? Paul probably spoke of the need to put your faith in Jesus Christ.

Then the final clue we have is self-control. God will hold us accountable to His standards of holiness, goodness and justice. In light of God’s judgment, self control makes sense. The wisdom of limiting our choices becomes obvious.

Paul would certainly have been aware of Felix and Drusilla’s background, and what sort of man Felix is. Paul’s words must have made Felix realize discarding wife #2 to marry wife #3 after seducing her away from her husband was not a good idea. After hearing Paul’s words, Felix was alarmed and didn’t want to listen anymore.

In this context, self-control is humbling myself before God and trying to live within His boundaries. Self-control is denying myself something I want because God says I can’t have it now or it would be wrong to take it.

1Corinthians 9:19-27

Paul stayed in Corinth about 18 months preaching the gospel and he founded a church there. But after Paul left, factions developed in the church. One of the many problems the church faced was the issue of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Corinth had various temples to pagan gods where people made offerings of meat. Some of the meat was burned during the offering process. The rest was sold in the marketplace or in the temple dining rooms where members of the community could eat together.

Before converting to Christianity, Gentiles in Corinth participated in these temple meals and bought temple meat in the marketplace. Now they’ve come to faith, should they stop eating such meat and attending these meals? This issue was dividing the Corinthian church. Some in Corinth argued we have the freedom in Christ to eat it. Others considered anyone who eats of such meat an idolator.

While Paul says they are free to eat such meat, he’s disturbed that those who eat look down on those who refuse to eat. The bigger problem is the impact their choices have on others. To illustrate the need for self-restraint, he uses himself as an example.

19For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. – 1Corinthians 9:19-22

Paul proclaims the gospel to Jews, gentiles and new believers alike. When he’s with Jews, he lives like a Jew. He accommodates them so his behavior is not a stumbling block and they’re more likely to listen. When he’s speaking to Gentiles, he abandons the Jewish rituals. When he’s with new believers, he doesn’t engage in activities that might confuse them. He goes out of his way to avoid creating an obstacle to their understanding.

This accommodation has limits. When the Judaizers said gentiles need to live like Jews, Paul did not give in. With the Judaizers, Paul was debating a fundamental question of salvation. So he refused to compromise. This issue of which meat to eat is not a question of salvation. We should never compromise the gospel. But if it’s a question of eating a ham sandwich in the company of Jews, Paul refrains.

Paul is exercising self-control. Self-control is limiting our behavior because of what we believe to be true. We choose not to do something we might otherwise do because we value something else more. Theologically, we have the freedom to eat the temple meat, but if our freedom hurts another, we should refrain.

When Paul enters a new town, he doesn’t demand a speaking fee or required a room at the best inn. He doesn’t demand to be treated like an ambassador. Even though as an apostle he has the right to receive financial support, he doesn’t exercise that right. He keeps his day job. He limits his freedom to increase the chance that his gospel will be heard.

23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. -1Corinithians 9:23-27

Every athlete exercises self-control. Athletes make choices about when to sleep, what to eat and how to exercise to increase their odds of winning. They don’t sit at a desk all day and drink beer all night. They limit their freedom. They could spend their Saturday afternoon many ways, but they chose train for the race.

What’s the reality that corresponds for Paul? He’s not saying, ‘beat up your body and you’ll become more spiritual.’ He’s saying, ‘sometimes I choose not to do something I might want to do because my hope is in the gospel.’ Self-control is making choices about how to exercise our freedom because we hope in the gospel.

2 Peter 1:5-8

Peter wrote to an audience troubled by false teachers. He warns them these false teachers are deceiving them. These frauds don’t really believe Jesus is returning and are committed to greed and sensuality. Peter argues one ways we know these teachers are false is their lifestyle. They live ungodly lives and promote ungodly behavior in others.

5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. -2Peter 1:5-8

Believing the gospel leads to a different lifestyle, described by this list. The first item is virtue. It describes not settling for average but pursuing the highest, being the best human being you can be.

The second item is knowledge. The more the Spirit teaches us truth, the more that truth changes our worldview and the more we live differently. Knowledge is the foundation that changes everything else.

From there, Peter adds self-control, or limiting our choices because of what we believe to be true. God has revealed what is true, worthwhile and right. Self-control is about the gap between my sinful desires and the truth. When I come to faith in Jesus Christ, I learn how deep that gap is. I learn that some desires are not in keeping with my new faith. They are not worthy of it and I should flee them. I learn that other desires are in keeping with my new faith and those I pursue. Making those kinds of choices is self-control.

Legalistic Self-control

To summarize, self-control refuses to act on a desire for a reason. It’s not a blanket denial of the body like the medieval monks used to practice. Rather, we believe what God says is true. We recognize He has a time and place for our desires and we seek to live within the boundaries He established.

Self-control as a fruit of the Spirit is different from the self-control of non-believers. Many in the world recognize self-control pays off. Look at the biographies of almost any famous rock band. They learned the hard way that unrestrained freedom leads to illness, heartache, and despair. That kind of self-control may be a hard lesson learned, but it’s not a fruit of the Spirit.

Another kind of self-control is the kind valued for religious reasons. The Pharisees are a great example. They denied themselves in various ways and followed many rules and rituals for religious purposes. The Pharisees were proud of their self-control. Legalistic self-control is also not a fruit of the Spirit.

Self-control as a fruit of the Spirit

Self-control as a fruit of the Spirit is based on our understanding of the gospel. The gospel becomes more compelling than our various desires. Sin no longer motivates us like it used to. Thanks to the Spirit, we are becoming people who seek what God values because we believe what God says is true.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes that blessed hunger and thirst for righteousness. We limit ourselves to gain holiness. We view the restrictions God puts on us as freedom, not slavery. We choose to restrict ourselves because we would rather follow God.

Paul is not saying we should expect to stop sinning at some point in our lives. Paul is not saying we will never lose control or get angry or do something wrong. He’s contrasting people who indugle because they reject God with people limit themselves because they trust God. Self-control is the road to true freedom.

Copyright © 2024 · Krisan Marotta, WednesdayintheWord

Photo by Bill Williams on Unsplash

Season 24, episode 11

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