September 10, 2023

Hidden Power

Where does true self-control come from?

H. Haskell Williams
Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

Today we live in the world of “self.” Type in “self help” in an Amazon search, and more than 70,000 entries will pop up. We strive to be self-actualized, self-starters. We are told to be true to our self. Taking a “selfie” has become commonplace, and there is even an online magazine dedicated to the subject titled 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.” Self-control can be understood in many ways. Different Bible translations render the Greek ἐγκράτεια (egkrateia) as “self-control,” “temperance,” “keeping the body under control,” and “having control of oneself.” Greek scholar Joseph Thayer defined it as “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetite.”2

We often equate self-control with self-discipline, which can sometimes conjure mental images of “correcting or regulating ourselves for the sake of improvement,”3 or powering through temptations through the strength of our own will.

Let’s take a deeper look at this idea of self-control and its place within the fruit of the Spirit.

Reviewing the Fruit

When our life shows love, it is a Spirit-given virtue, not an attribute we self-generate. By God’s grace we choose to love even when a person is “unlovely” and “undeserving” of love. Joy exuded by us is God’s gift, not autogenerated enthusiasm. It is present because we know who God is, what He has done, and what He will do, despite the appearance of all present circumstances. Long-​suffering is not biting our lips and summoning an inner reserve of willpower to force ourselves to duty, but prizing the way Christ has treated us and welcoming the heavenly bestowal of forbearance in our hearts.

“No outward observance can take the place of simple faith and entire renunciation of self. But no man can empty himself of self. We can only consent for Christ to accomplish the work. Then the language of the soul will be, Lord, take my heart; for I cannot give it. It is Thy property. Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee. Save me in spite of myself, my weak, unchristlike self. Mold me, fashion me, raise me into a pure and holy atmosphere, where the rich current of Thy love can flow through my soul.”4

We could continue through this marvelous list of precious qualities called the Spirit’s fruit, which we treasure in our life and experience. Their characteristics are all externally originated and granted to believers to the measure 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 exercising self-control by a choice of our will, it is because we have given the Holy Spirit 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) as we trust Him. Any demonstration of self-control outside of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life is mere self-exaltation as humans try to convince themselves and others that they can be good on their own.

God-given self-esteem requires abandoning any notion of self-importance or self-success. It means 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).

Jesus said: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). 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 could go on.

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 by works on the last one. This century-old clue helps us get on the right track: “What is justification by faith?” it asks. “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.”5

Pleasing to the ego? Absolutely not. Self-control must be understood as “control of 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: “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, Message).6

A Place for Resolve

Not that biting my lip is always inappropriate, and there’s definitely a place for the will. 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.”7 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 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).




4 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 159.

5 Ellen G. White, The Faith I Live By (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 111.

6 From The Message. Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.