Self-control is an important biblical concept. Without it, we’re out of control. Those who lack self-control perfectly fit Paul’s description of a person who says, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
The problem is, self-control is a bit of an oxymoron. Because from a biblical perspective, we can’t control ourselves. That’s actually Paul’s point in Romans 7: we want to do what we know we ought to do, but we can’t get ourselves to do it. The man in Romans 7 can do nothing better than cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The self needs to be control, but this man is forced to look elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the Bible commands us to control ourselves. In 2 Timothy 3:3, one sign of the godless is that they are without self-control. Peter commands us to “make every effort” to supplement our faith, virtue, and knowledge with self-control. And in Galatians 5:23, self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit.
So we have to control ourselves, but we can’t. Frustrating, right?
But God doesn’t leave it at that. This is exactly the problem that Romans 7 leaves us with, that people “in the flesh” cannot control themselves. But the solution comes immediately afterward, in Romans 8. What the person in the flesh can’t do has been made possible through the Spirit of God. The Spirit takes our dead selves and gives them life.
And take a closer look at Galatians 5:22–23. These qualities, including self-control are the fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit. Are you seeing it? These aren’t things that we conjure up through intense effort. These are fruits. They’re produced, grown. And where do they come from? The Spirit.
So self-control is commanded, and it’s possible. But not if we think of self-control as self-control. It’s really Spirit-enabled-control. It’s self-control, but not until your self is brought under the control of the Spirit.
So next time you’re struggling with sin and are tempted to pull yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps, read Romans 7 and resonate with the description of the person who tries to please God apart from the Spirit. Feel the hopelessness of that approach. Then continue reading into Romans 8 and be inspired by the power available to us in the Spirit. Be empowered and filled with the Spirit of God, and then get that “self” in control.
So what if the Spirit seemingly isn’t empowering us to have self-control?
Oh man! Great question, Carly. I think that’s a pretty complex issue. For one thing, Galatians 5:22–23 gives us a handful of fruits of the Spirit, so if you see gentleness in your life but not self-control, does that mean the Spirit is not working in your life? And then there’s the fact that self-control is difficult to define. Does it mean you never sin? Does it mean that you are occasionally able to refrain from sin?
I think the point he’s making in Galatians 5:16-25 is that what comes from the flesh is different than what comes from the Spirit. So if you look at your life and you are more characterized by “works of the flesh” than “fruits of the Spirit,” you need to go back to the drawing board in learning to “walk by the Spirit.” I’d say if self-control seems absent in a person’s life, the encouragement would be: pursue the Spirit all the more. And lack of perfection is not the same as lack of self-control. So keeping an eye open for what God is doing is often more healthy than watching what he’s not doing.
Another possible issue here is how we’re pursuing self-control. In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul says that outward discipline and regulation seem to be wise, but are actually worthless is fighting against the indulgence of the flesh. Discipline and regulation look like self-control, but Paul says they don’t lead to true self-control. So it could be that we think we’re pursuing self-control, but are actually leaning more on our own strength than on God’s Spirit to see the self-control. So again, the answer is the same. If we lack self-control, the Spirit is the only source we can look to.