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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 18: Clarity about the Fruit: Self-Control

In Give Me an Answer That Satisfies My Heart and My Mind, Cliff Knechtle peppers his book throughout with comic moments of how to apply biblical truths to your life. One has a character, Tony, choosing to be a professional bowler over becoming an international terrorist. Tough decision!

Wouldn’t it be great if all your choices were so easy! Instead, you face temptations that can be as challenging as fasting in a chocolate factory. Yet by keeping in step with the Spirit you can have the power to say “No! to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:12 NIV)

Self-control as a fruit is not a matter of making up your mind…or even being a determined-to-overcome type of person. That kind of self-control describes a reforming approach to the faith life. “I will conquer my flesh. I will beat this temptation.” Trying to reform into the likeness of Jesus means you, not God, are personally seeking to shape your character, as noble as it seems to you to steer clear of sin.

This pops up often as a feature of Christian accountability. Now, if you are speaking of Christian accountability as a means of making something important, such as a reminder to guard your heart, or to practice moderation in all things, or to care for the poor, or to sow the gospel faithfully, then you are on biblical grounds. But when accountability becomes your go to method for not giving in to sin—replacing what Paul described as “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body,” (Romans 8:13 NIV)—you are not practicing self-control, but self-reliance. It’s a form of pride.

For example, I am aware of how many people use a Christian online screening service as a means of making sure they do not go anywhere on the internet that is sexually explicit. In order to use this service, you have to choose an accountability partner who gets a report snitching on you. Knowing that someone will know if you engage in such activities weighs in your favor of saying “No.” Except it is all smoke and mirrors. Anyone who wants to sin and also to lie to his or her accountability partner will do so. As one friend told me, you can always get on a different computer under someone else’s name. (This, by the way, is not meant to encourage you to try it!)

The point is, unless the Spirit changes you from within, you will never be safe. You may live a version of someone who AA calls a ‘dry drunk.’ You will still crave the forbidden fruit. You will turn your back and run away, but your mind will pull it along behind you. Your desires will draw you back towards it. In the end, you will lose the battle for self-control because you have no real self-control—only a pale substitute of the real thing that will fail you at the worst moment of your life.

But, if by the Spirit you allow yourself to be transformed, by faith let him kill the misdeeds that have formed barnacles on your soul, you will live. You will freely say “No.” because the pull of sin will not be battling your impossibly weak ability to resist, but will instead come against the Spirit’s empowering presence in you.

There’s more. Self-control frees you to do the will of God. When you have the fruit of self-control, you do the right things for God and not merely stay clear of sin. This is the unexpected outcome of self-control. But think about people you know, both above or below the radar of public notice, who have been greatly used of God. One characteristic they share is that temptation is always stalking them, but they do not say “Yes” to it.

Furthermore, no test that you failed in the past will keep the Spirit from producing this fruit in you today. I know a man who wrecked his life by saying “Yes” to sin—lost his job, his community, and almost lost his family. I get to watch him now as he is keeping in step with the Spirit. All he lost has been restored and added to by God. He is doing things for the kingdom that only God could have made possible. I do not worry that I will hear someday that he blew it again because the self-control he displays in his life now is not a result of him reforming his behavior. It comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith