Paul lists here nine aspects of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’(Galatians 5:22), qualities that should be evident in people filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Note there are not nine different fruits but one fruit with nine aspects, a subtle difference, but important; it’s holistic. Nevertheless, this one aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work in us, ‘self-control’, is fascinating – it’s key to understanding how our relationship with God as Christians functions. It’s where our role ‘self’ and the Spirit’s appear superimposed, and come into sharpest focus, revealing the true dimensions of this supernatural existence we enjoy.
The first obvious thing to note is that ‘self’ is involved. We are not to be passive in this, a common error and consequent source of failure. It’s to feel like we’re doing something, putting in the effort, because we should be. This is all over scripture: Jesus urged us to ‘“Strive”’(Luke 13:24) and taught, ‘“If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”’(Luke 9:23). Peter used the phrase ‘all diligence’(2 Peter 1:5) in relation to Christian growth. Paul taught that like an athlete ‘who strives in the games’ we should apply ‘self-control in all things’(1 Corinthians 9:25), and echoed Jesus by encouraging us to ‘present your bodies a living sacrifice’(Romans 12:1). Clearly our felt effort is required.
Secondly, ‘self-control’ implies that we’re inclined to go out of control – otherwise there’d be no need for it. This is our sinful nature, outlined by Paul a few verses above. It includes things like ‘sexual immorality… outbursts of anger… drunkenness’(Galatians 5:19-21).
These are powerful forces that ‘war against the soul’(1 Peter 2:11) – implying that it will often feel like an almighty battle. Sometimes we’ll fail and ‘sin’(1 John 1:8); and we won’t be ‘made perfect’(Philippians 3:12) until ‘heaven’(Philippians 3:20). Feeling the sweat, pain and effort of this battle is not a sign of failure. In fact it’s half the battle. It’s a sign that we’re no longer ‘dead in transgressions and sins’(Ephesians 2:1), like a dead body carried along by the devil’s tide, but made ‘alive’(Ephesians 2:5) spiritually, up and fighting for control over these forces. In fact we should be aiming to ‘Put to death’(Colossians 3:5) this side of ourselves. How?
By putting ‘on the whole armor of God… to stand against the wiles of the devil’(Ephesians 6:11); this includes taking up ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’(Ephesians 6:17) and ‘praying at all times in the Spirit’(Ephesians 6:18). Now we start to see how God, through His Holy Spirit, is intimately involved in this battle we’re engaged in. It’s not just our effort. We’re working hard, but dressed in God’s armour, empowered by His Spirit.
Paul teaches here that the key to victory/fruitfulness is to ‘walk by the Spirit’(Galatians 5:25). Peter expresses the same idea differently before his list of things to diligently strive for: ‘become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world’(2 Peter 1:4). It’s what Jesus was talking about when He said, ‘the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me’(John 15:4). In a similar way James encouraged God’s people to ‘resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you’(James 4:7-8) – this nurtures a fruitful virtuous circle in us rather than a vicious circle of sin, spiritual withering and death.
So we have this paradox; in a sense it’s our real effort, yet in a sense it’s the living God working through us – in reality it’s both in full symbiosis. Another picture might be that we’re a bit like birds flying in spiritual air. We fly, yet the air carries us – a bird can’t fly in a vacuum, it would drop with nothing to hold it up. No analogy is perfect; this concept is not easy to understand, perhaps it’s impossible to fully grasp, yet as Christians it’s our real experience. On a simpler level, we don’t expect our daily bread to arrive without any effort on our part, yet we recognize that it comes from God and pray for it.
These truths are related to the paradox of predestination – our turning to God is impossible without His enlivening, yet it’s our responsibility to come, another profound mystery, yet evidently true from scripture and Christian experience.
So, when feeling defeated or sapped, we should try again, actively seek God’s supply, exercise ‘patience’(Galatians 5:22) and ‘those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles.’(Isaiah 40:31)