Self-control is a concept I’ve grown to hate.  Mainly because for most of my life, it’s been my Master.  And not a kind one either.  A slave driver, urging and chastising, inciting me to ever-increasing heights of proud performance and nadirs of self-contempt.

I’ve spoken in the past about how anorexia for me anyway, was all about exercising control.  Even when the rest of life seemed overwhelming and confused, my body was a safe sphere I could dominate, shape, carve and control.  But it hasn’t just been about food.  Even when I was very small, I remember sitting up through the night, obsessively editing and restarting stories, poems and drawings.  Re-reading books to check I’d really understood them.  Planning the perfect presents for loved ones.  Given that life was black and white, getting it ‘right’ was crucial.

Nowadays, packing a suitcase still sends me into a tailspin.  What if I forget something vital? We all know that clean underwear is only available in East Sussex.

With this history, my temptation now is to label self-control as a positive evil that I’ll have no part of.  But that’d be like saying I’ll get over anorexia by not bothering with food.  It’s a huge part of life and it’s not bad in itself – in fact, it can even be good.  (Who knew?!)

In particular, I’m challenged by passages from the Bible such as Galatians 5, which talk about self-control as one of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – part of the new person I become when I trust in Christ.

But there are some caveats. In contrast to our culture, where self-control is lauded as the supreme virtue, in Galatians, it is the last fruit of the Spirit, not the first. As a fruit, it’s not a goal in itself, but as a by-product of Christ’s love.  If I begin with this love, then I end up with self-control.  If I begin with self-control however, I end up with nervous exhaustion. In Jesus, my desires are changed, so that as I get to know Him better and become more like Him, I naturally want what He wants.  (It’s a slow process but it is happening!)

Ultimately then, I don’t gain Christ through self-control.  But I do gain self-control through Christ. And that’s actually a good thing – even for someone like me.

8 thoughts on “Must…learn..Control..

  1. I came here this morning through a link in Lesley’s blog, but it was worth it, thank you.

    It is so easy for the fruit and gifts of the Spirit to become ends in themselves, things to be checked off a list to “prove” that we are genuine disciples of Christ. Whereas, as you rightly point out, Christ himself is the main thing and everything else naturally follows – something preachers like me need to remember.

  2. Absolutely.

    Although also one reason i think that Paul lists self-control is that what we often think is us being ‘controlling’ is actually a symptom that we are enslaved to someone else.

    E.g. “I’m very self-controlled because I stay up late studying, even though it’s no fun” = “actually I’m controlled by a desire to get good grades and impress my parents”.

    Self-control is another word for freedom from those things that enslave/control us.

  3. … and of course, as you say, we don’t free ourselves by throwing off the chains. Christ breaks the chains, lifts us up, and leads us out the prison doors to a new life where we are self-controlled.

  4. Hi Rev
    Thanks for commenting. Yes, knowing Christ is at the heart of all change. And it’s interesting too that Scripture talks about the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. In other words they are given as a group – it’s not that some get patience but not joy, or peace but not kindness. This helps me when I feel that some fruits seem to come easier than others and it reminds me too that I don’t get them by dint of temperament or effort.

  5. Hi Dave
    This is really helpful. As you say, we can baptise our urges under the tag of self-control when the opposite is true. But we were made to hunger for God. So we neither want to, nor can get rid of such desires either – only replace them. So the question then is, what with? More functional or acceptable idols e.g: work or busyness?
    No, only in Christ can our hungers be met and redeemed. Then, by His Spirit we know true freedom as we say not my will but yours. Easy to write, harder to practise..

  6. I agree with you Dave and Emma – when we elevate good things (like self-control) into ‘Ultimate’ things they become our gods, our idols, and we do become enslaved to them. I thought I was in control; it was only when God helped me see that my obsessive control over food intake and weight had actually come to control me that I started to admit to having a problem and seeking help…

  7. …self-control is my idol when I look to it for my significance, comfort, self-worth, etc, instead of looking to Jesus Christ alone for those things. And as you say, the only way to get rid of our idols is to replace them with something or Someone else…

  8. Hi Debs

    Thanks for commenting. Like you, it took the Lord to show me that I wasn’t in control of anorexia, it was controlling me. It’s funny – we expect slavery to be obvious, but more often it takes a miracle to see how we are enthralled. Well done for recognising this and for seeking help – that’s a real work of the Spirit.

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