Self-control is probably not the most popular of the fruits of the Spirit. Certainly not one which crops up in ancient hymnody or modern worship songs, and if it did, I think I’d cringe. So why am I writing about it?
I was talking on the SCM podcast recently about how I think the fruits of the Spirit are a helpful thing to focus on at the moment. The ‘at the moment’ I was talking about then was about Brexit, polarised politics and divisions in the church. So, when Coronavirus reared its ugly head, I sat down to consider which fruit of the spirit might be nourishing for these new and changing times. I expected my answer to be love (basically I always think that’s going to be the answer!)
But, when I read the phrase self-control something clicked in my brain and soul. I went looking for a fruit to inspire in the time of a pandemic and I think what I got was an insight from a pandemic about what this fruit of the spirit is about.
I’m going to be honest and say that I suppose I had some sort of latent assumption that self-control was about sex. Therefore, I think I filed it away in the box of verses I feel are overused and I’m tired of hearing about. I’m not saying this was a good attitude, but I think it is true.
But, here it is out of its box:
‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things’
Galatians 5 22-23
Firstly, we have to notice that self-control isn’t issued as a command to behave ourselves. St Paul tells us here that there is a wonderful list of fruits which flourish from faith. Fruit is something that grows naturally if the tree is fed and watered. These fruits grow because we are being fed and watered with God. So this isn’t then a stick to beat ourselves with, a list of things we ought to try to be or to do. It’s more like noticing how when we are with someone we love, we find ourselves being a better person, a person we like more and more. But its that kind of effect multiplied over and over, because the spirit of God who loves us is living in us, empowering us.
Self-control in the time of COVID-19 is, amongst other things, washing your hands and not touching your face. It's staying away from others when necessary, and not putting the most vulnerable at risk of infection. It's tiny daily acts of thoughtful sacrifice. We literally have to think of others as we use our hands. How is it that we can do this, when no one is looking, when no one will thank us?"
Look at the next bit of Galatians 5:
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5 24-26
Once upon a time it probably was about sex. Nowadays we have laws and policies to control us from reaching out and grabbing at someone we find appealing; we don’t need the bible to tell us that’s wrong (if you do, seek help!). Forget the assumption this is about sex. Really, I mean it.
Now think about not touching your face on public transport or bothering to get up and go and wash your hands when you sneezed in the library. If we think only about what we want, we scratch the itch because we will probably recover from this virus and we aren’t that bothered, or we stay seated because we are just a bit lazy. Living by the Spirit empowers us to live for others, to hold our flesh driven instincts in check, because we care about what impact we have on those around us.
God’s spirit in us opens us up to a world of connection which is beyond just grasping for what is easy and selfish. That connection makes us care so deeply about other people that self-control feels like a good thing. Those extra seconds of hand washing when we are in a hurry, that choice to buy one rather than two packets of something at the supermarket when we aren’t sure there will be more next week. These are the real day to day choices that loving our neighbour calls for at the moment. We mostly don’t have to make ourselves do these things - we want to help, and the self control is the fruit of the life lived in God. We will do the harder thing, the less selfish thing, because we are capable of sacrifice. We know we can do this, because the Spirit of the one who sacrificed everything lives in us.
During spring we will fill the world with these little sacrifices. As the blossom comes out imagine one of those lovely trees carries a petal for every tissue-caught cough and every scrub of your hands. Come the summer the fruit of self-control will be even more visible, in a whole lot of people who are still alive because we held ourselves in check.