For the next few weeks, I want to run a series on the virtues described as the fruit the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. I’m starting with self-control.
So often, I hear self-control described in terms of hemming ourselves in, or resisting ungodly tendencies. Yet these descriptions feel lacking to me, as they can only have meaning in the context of sin. The other eight virtues all stand in their own right as expressions that will have a place in God’s kingdom when all sin is done away with.
I did, however, find one notable exception to the rule.
In an exploration of the fruit of the Spirit, Charles Stanley wrote the following about love:
Joy is love enjoying.
Peace is love resting.
Patience is love waiting.
Kindness is love reacting.
Goodness is love choosing.
Faithfulness is love keeping its word.
Gentleness is love empathizing.
Self-control is love in charge.
That made more sense to me.
I now prefer to think of self-control as skilfulness in self-presentation – best seen when a person is under pressure.
If you asked me to pour a glass of fizzy drink back into its bottle without spilling any, I might well be able to do it with a steady hand – but not if the drink had just been shaken up. I think of self-control as being less about bottling ourselves up and more about retaining our focus, our shapeliness, our direction when we’ve been shaken (or stirred or stoked). It’s not that we don’t express ourselves, it’s that we continue to express ourselves in a godly way. As Charles Stanley said, it’s about keeping love in charge.
I also learned this week that the Greek word for self-control is enkratos. It’s only actually used four times in the New Testament (Acts 24:25, Galatians 5:23, and twice in 2 Peter 1:6). On the 14 other times the NIV translates the Greek as ‘self-control’ or ‘self-controlled’ the Greek words have a completely different etymology, the most common one being to do with having a right state of mind.
enkratos, on the other hand, derives from the prefix en– followed by Kratos, the Greek god of power. I find it strange that this fruit of the Spirit would be named after a mythical deity, but I guess the word had lost its religious significance.
I find it interesting though that if I see someone who is able to hold their own, on their own terms, without any sense of desperation or need to prove themselves, and discern when to stand down from a battle, then I would easily describe that person as empowered. It is less about that person having power and more about them having skill over the power they have.
This is my preferred understanding of self-control.
With that in mind, I wrote today’s poem in praise of the Holy Spirit.
What need have you for self-restraint?
You have no rage, no malice, no spite.
Spotless and sinless, you proceed
From everlasting to everlasting.
What need have you to contain yourself?
You are goodness and loveliness ensourced.
Your bounty can never know excess,
Overflow is a hallmark of your beauty.
How I would sing of your hospitality!
Your deft words and skill of measure.
However sorely stoked or stirred,
You respond with grace and wisdom.
May no one ask you to deny yourself,
Or stem your being from us.
Only teach us well your shapely craft
That we may host you worthily.
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