At the end of this series comes 'self-control'.
In the garden of the Spirit, we find the fruit of self-control. What can this mean?
First, this is a huge challenge to all those who see religion as the deprecation of self: 'all of God and nothing of me'. Here we are told that the Spirit wants us to be self-determining people, people who are in fact able to manage our lives, not people who abandon responsibility for ourselves. This is good news!
It is customary amongst the critics of modernity, the era of thought and development since the 'Enlightenment' period of the 18th century, to see this time as one which championed human autonomy. 'The age of reason' sought to replace the era of church authority over all learning and cultural expression. Some see this as a great mistake, and suggest that an appropriate alternative is 'theonomy', rule by God's authority.
Yet here we have the idea that the Spirit calls us and enables us to be in 'self-control'.
Are these really opposites? I suggest not.
There is a pivotal passage in John's Gospel, when Jesus says to his followers that they are no longer servants or slaves, but friends. It's worth looking at this passage, as it helps us to see the crucial dynamics here.
John 15. 12 – 17
12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15I do not call you servants* any longer, because the servant*
does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my
16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I
appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the
Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
One of the critical elements here is the idea that Jesus' friends are to love one another with the same love that they have known and received from him. They are commanded to love: but then they are also held responsible, not as servants but as friends, for doing that.
Here are the dynamics of this invitation. Responsibility for one's own actions is an essential dimension of any genuine relationship, and especially one of mutual love. This is what the Spirit enables: if we receive the Spirit's gifts, we can grow into self-control, into an autonomy that takes responsibility and chooses to love, even chooses to be obedient to Jesus' way and will. There is no ultimate contradiction between this autonomy and self-control, on the one hand, and a decision to be obedient to the way and will of God on the other. God does not will the obedience of robots, or people without character and purpose of their own. God has created us as people who can think for ourselves, and can control ourselves—with the Spirit's guidance and inspiration.
So then, what does this self-control mean? First, I think it is crucial to see that this final 'fruit' of the Spirit is listed last. I have argued before that there is no sequence or development between these fruits, as if love leads to joy which leads to peace, etc. But there is still some importance in which comes first and which comes last. Self-control is not the means to the others. This is vital, as so easily we may think that by our own efforts (and self-control) we have to produce these fruits, which we cannot. No, these are gifts which the Spirit produces. Self-control is possible because the Spirit brings the strengths and encouragement that these other fruits give.
Second, self-control is a largely individual thing. It stands in contrast to many of the other elements or fruits, which we have argued to be largely communal. But self-control is not individual in the sense of a private attribute or inward quality. Rather, it is actually a relational aspect. It's about how we respond to God, to ourselves and our needs and possibilities, and to others. It's about ourselves as responsive and responsible agents. In other words, self-control is very much about how we love. Do we love with joy, with thankfulness, with hope and peace, and a deliberate gentleness, in our dealings with others, or do we love with a furtive, self-seeking and needy motivation?
Here, we see a significant contrast with the unsavoury behaviours Paul had listed prior to this passage on the fruits of the Spirit. It's meant to be a contrast. There's a list of things which are called the 'works of the flesh'—an unfortunate translation. It doesn't mean that these immoral actions are the outcome of our embodiment, as if that is the opposite of being spiritual. ('The Word became flesh'!) No, these things are the outworking of human life when it denies God and denies the spiritual depth and potential of our own lives, in all dimensions. This way of the flesh is the result of our failure to be whole persons, as God creates and invites us to be. 'Spiritual' means the whole of ourselves, being whole, or at least becoming whole, together.
'The flesh' is when we deny this, and do not reach out for the fulness of who we are and can be, in relationship with self (including our bodies), each other, the creation and God.
The Spirit produces a whole harvest of good, even beautiful things. The garden is filled with this beauty: and we are part of it. Self-control is not so much managing this as 'letting be'. It is more about receiving than struggling or achieving. It means going with the Spirit's way, receiving the gifts and fruits, in one's own life and in our relationships, community and world. It means, also, deliberately affirming these things, and contributing what one has to contribute. It means accepting responsibility for one's abilities, and not pretending. None of us is a worm, and we ought not to act like it. Neither are we self-sufficient. We did not create ourselves. We do need others, and can receive from them with grace and gratitude. All this is part of self-control.
Far from being a position of arrogance before God, this measure of self-control is about responsibility and thankfulness. It is, indeed, our reasonable worship. We should not, as Paul says, in Romans 12. 3, think too highly of ourselves. But neither should we think too lowly. rather, we are to make a 'sober judgment', and thus contribute what we have been given to contribute. This is self-control, and it too is a fruit of the Spirit.