The Spirit's Fruit: Self-Control

As a believer, if I always entertained thoughts and engaged in deeds that are suitable to one who enjoys life in Christ, then self-control would not be an activity with which I would need to be concerned. However, undergoing regeneration does not mean that all my sinful thoughts and desires have been banished from the boundaries of my person. In this life there is an irreconcilable war waging within my members that won’t be fully and finally reconciled until my last day. I am a sinner. Therefore, I must be occupied with controlling myself.  

A quick etymological search shows that control is likely made up of two words that mean something like against the wheel. The picture it creates is certainly apt.  In C. S. Lewis’s space adventure Perelandra, Ransom is transported to a planet of pure beauty. It was like a dream, he thought, this was the most “vivid dream I have ever had.” And then, there were the trees. Bubble Trees they were called. And when he touched one of them it burst on him and “drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, “die of a rose in aromatic pain.” In other words, it was wonderful, and Ransom wanted more. But Ransom had always disliked those who encored at the opera – “that just spoils it” and now the principle had “far wider application.” In other words, Ransom practiced self-control.

Of course, Lewis is teaching us what he first learned from Paul. The Apostle was a man who knew how to abound and how to be brought low. He said in a verse often stripped of this context, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). The principle of contentment is the same on earth as it is on Venus. But this takes self-control. We must go against ourselves. Ransom had to go against his desire to “plunge himself into the whole lot of them.” He had to be content, which required his self-control.

Certainly, this is the present need of every believer. We are living in a world of Bubble Trees that beckons us to plunge into the whole lot of them that we might repeat our experience again and again. In fact, if someone were to suggest that we hold off or restrain ourselves or exercise a little self-control we might retort, “Why on earth would I do that? It’s here for me!”  We have come to believe that we deserve to be happy and if our particular Bubble Tree makes us happy, well then, why should we plunge in headlong?[1]

So, perhaps the first thing we need to do is answer the question, why. In other words, why should we restrain ourselves? Proverbs 30:8-9 gives us the beginning of an answer,

give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
 lest I be full and deny you
 and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
 and profane the name of my God.

Now, someone might read this text and say, “Well, I guess that this is Aristotle’s ethic. We ought to look for the golden mean.”  But that is not the case. Even Aristotle would encourage us to pursue the good without reservation. However, notice that we must recognize what is good. Good is not extra money nor an abundance of food. The good is not our Bubble Tree. The good is God himself.  Now, having answered the why question it is easier to answer the how question.

How do we exercise self-control? How do we turn the wheel against the Bubble Trees?  It seems to me that turning against something is easiest when we have a direction for which to aim.  And so, the answer is relatively simple. We must set our eyes on the Lord Jesus. We must pay careful attention to what we’ve heard. We must not neglect so great a salvation. Thus, all our effort must be expended to lay hold of the One who has laid hold of us. When we know where we are going. When we know what is the good, then the good of the Bubble Tree will never be ultimate but simply a pointer to the Ultimate goodness found in our Lord.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Editorial Director of Ref21 and Place for Truth both online magazines of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


[1] Of course, we are thinking of goods that are penultimate.  These goods can distract from the ultimate good found only in God through Christ by faith alone.


Jeffrey Stivason