We live today in the world of the “self.” Self-help books have their own section in the bookstores. We long to be self-actualized and self-starters. We are admonished to be true to our self. There is even a magazine devoted to the subject, and entitled Self.1
Self in Scripture
Self does not miss its time in the limelight of Scripture. Among the facets in Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23) is “self-control.”2 Self-control can be understood in many ways. The Greek egkrateia is variously rendered: as “self-control” (NKJV, NIV, NASB);3 as “temperance” (KJV, 21st Century KJV);4 as “keeping the body under control” (WE);5 and as “having control of oneself” (NIrV).6
Greek scholar Thayer defined it as “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites.”7 We often equate it with self-discipline, which often makes us think of summoning an inner reserve of willpower to force ourselves to duty despite temptations to the contrary. My comparison with other components of the fruit leads me to an alternative view.
Reviewing the Fruit
When our life shows love, it is a Spirit-given virtue, not an attribute that we self-generate. Indeed, by God’s grace, we choose to love even when a person is “un-lovely” and “undeserving” of love. Joy exuded by us is God’s gift, not an auto-generated enthusiasm. It is present because we know who God is, what He has done and will do, despite the appearance of all present circumstances. Long-suffering is not biting our lips, but prizing the way Christ has treated us, and welcoming the heavenly bestowal of forbearance in our hearts.
We could continue through this marvelous list of precious qualities called the Spirit’s fruit, which we treasure in our life and experience. Its characteristics are all externally originated and granted to believers to the measure that they are willing to receive them. None are internally generated.
Is it not exactly the same with the last item on that list? When we succeed in the “exercise” of self-control by a choice of our will, it is because the Holy Spirit receives our permission to control our “self.” We ask Him to conquer our selfishness as we contemplate the overwhelming generosity of God (Rom. 8:32; 2 Peter 1:3). We invite Him to remove our self-importance by replacing self with Christ—“He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30, NIV). Our self-reliance is humbled by realizing that “apart from [Christ] [we] can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV). However, we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]” (Phil. 4:13, NKJV) as we trust Him. Any demonstration of self-control outside of the Holy Spirit’s office in our lives is mere self-exaltation as the human convinces herself, and even demonstrates to others, that she can be good on her own.
By contrast, God-given self-esteem requires abandonment of any notion of self-importance or self-success. It means that we realize our true worth and ultimate identity as God’s children, redeemed by His love. Thus, self-control is the equivalent of self-denial, or being “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20, NIV).
Said Jesus: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24, NKJV). At issue is the fact that “self” has been the problem all along—self-assertion, self-determination, self-centeredness, self-importance, self-indulgence—the list can go on adnauseum.
Not Really Different
Let’s banish the idea that self-control is somehow a “grit-your-teeth, grin-and-bear-it” resolve (or anything that we manufacture internally) and give credit to whom credit is due—the Holy Spirit. After all, we’re discussing spiritual fruit, not carnal power. Our privilege is to daily surrender self to His control—to have a self that is controlled by the Spirit; to have our self “crucified with Christ” in such a way that our self no longer lives, but Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20, NIV).
If we identify the first eight components of the fruit of the Spirit with righteousness by faith, we should not revert to a righteousness of works on the last one. This century-old clue helps us get on the right track: “What is justification by faith?” it asks. And answers: “It is the work of God in laying the glory of man in the dust, and doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself. When men [and women] see their own nothingness they are prepared to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ.”8
Pleasing to the ego? Absolutely not. Self-control must be understood as “control of the self,” not by some higher nature within ourselves, but by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, knowing our human nature, we would be putting the fox (self) in charge of the henhouse. Eugene Peterson captures well the essence of Christ’s words in his popular paraphrase, The Message: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self” (Matt. 16:24, 25).9
A Place for Resolve
Not that biting my lip is always inappropriate. And there’s surely a place for the will. Nobody who speaks in those terms is necessarily proposing an erroneous idea. It’s just that our human nature (the self) insists on insinuating itself into the divine processes to offer itself a measure of self-fulfillment.
Benjamin Franklin was intent on self-improvement. After a friend’s suggestion, he determined that humility was a virtue he needed. He tackled the task valiantly, even learning to feign it when it was missing. Finally he had to admit: “Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”10
True self-control is to surrender our self-interests, self-desires, and self-exaltation to the control of the Holy Spirit and the will of Christ. Only then can the self be “controlled.” That is the victory that is promised to all who put their trust in Christ (Eph. 1:17-23; 3:16-21).
2 The Amplified Bible supplements the interpretation “self-control” with synonyms “self-restraint, continence.” Bible texts credited to Amplified are from The Amplified Bible, Old Testament copyright © 1965, 1987 by Zondervan Corporation. The Amplified New Testament copyright © 1958, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
3 www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1466&t=KJV. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
4 Scripture quotations credited to 21st Century KJV are taken from the 21st Century King James Version of the Holy Bible, copyright © 1994. Used by permission of Deuel Enterprises, Inc., Gary, SD 57237. All rights reserved.
5 Bible texts credited to WE are from the Worldwide English New Testament, © 1969, 1971, 1996, 1999 by SOON Educational Publications, Wilington, Derby, DE65 6BN, UK. Used by permission.
6 Bible texts credited to NIrV are from the Holy Bible, New International Reader’s Version. Copyright © 1985, 1996, 1998 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
8 Ellen G. White, The Faith I Live By (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 111.
9 From The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Haskell williams and his wife, Cindy, serve a congregation of 104 pastors and church leaders in the Carolina Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This article was published February 9, 2012.