The gritty, grace-filled virtue of self-control

by Courtney McLean, |

"She's so transparent,"

"She is so quick to give grace,"

"She's a great listener,"

"She's much....self control."

Not the most sought-after compliment for a Christian woman these days; it's akin to something like, "She's got a great personality." But why, I wonder.

Why does complimenting someone's self-control seem so lacking in its "spirituality"? Is it because self-control is a virtue most often related to a healthy diet and exercise, or in one's ability to bite her tongue? Or maybe it's because the true biblical idea of self-control seems so ambiguous, underrated, or nonexistent in much of teaching today.

In a culture of "gospel-centered (fill in the blank)" and grace-filled (again, fill in the blank)," have we bypassed perhaps the supreme virtue of Christianity: a gritty, unwavering control of our passions, thoughts, words, and behaviors for the sake of Christ? This isn't to say that that a gospel-centered, grace-filled life and ministry is unbiblical or even "sub-biblical."

However neither of these is obtained without the costly lifestyle of humble and vigorous self-control.

One theologian defines self-control in a concise and precise way: "Self-control is simply that important, impressive, and nearly impossible practice of learning to maintain control of the beast of one's own sinful passions."[1] Most of us would agree that is self-control one of the less glamorous Christian virtues, and also one of the most elusive. Modern ideas about self-control are consumed with behavior modification...

"I can't have sex."

"I have to work out three times a week."

"I can't eat that chocolate bar."

"I can't watch that movie."

"I have to eat a kale salad everyday for lunch."

Yet, the believer cannot miss the urgency and significance of self-control.

There are essential, theological reasons for self-control, and nothing less than a gospel witness is at stake.

The most frequently referenced text concerning self-control is Galatians 5:22-23:

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."

As I meditated upon this text, it occurred to me that self-control is in fact the linchpin for the fruit of the Spirit to be evidenced in the believer's life. I state this for two reasons: 1) The verses before this passage present a dichotomy of flesh and Spirit; to walk in one is to reject the other. In order to have the fruit of the Spirit manifested in the believer's life, she must categorically reject the flesh and its passions in exchange for the transforming power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and 2) In the following verse (v.24), Paul exclaims that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."

Self-control is the fuel by which the believer participates in any of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.

How does one love? Self-control.

How can one be gentle? Self-control.

How can one be kind, joyful or at peace? Self-control.

Why is self-control a fruit of the Spirit? Self-control is the reason why you can have a semblance of success at any aspects of the fruit of the Spirit. It is the epitome of spirituality.

The clearest picture of this is in the life of Jesus. From the beginning, he lived a life of self-control; Jesus was submissive to his parents (Lk 2:51), He loved and served even those whom he knew who reject Him, and He was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). Believers are called to walk in the same way as Jesus walked (1 Jn 2:6), but how does self-control lead to that abundant life that He promised (Jn 10:10)?

In order to understand self-control, we much recognize its intersection with the biblical idea of freedom. Today, the idea of freedom runs off of the presumption that every one of my internal inklings and desires is good for me and must be acted upon in order for my humanity to be fulfilled.

This worldview promotes a lifestyle of Netflix binges, compulsive shopping, excessive eating, rampant and unadulterated sexual immorality, a pulverizing materialism, an aimless search for validation through "likes" and "followers", and other destructive habits. The scary reality of this "freedom" is that habitual surrender to the desires of the flesh actually imprisons a person to those desires.

The Word of God speaks directly concerning freedom, and is clear that God intends for His people not to be slaves to the flesh. Rather, freedom can be found is submitting to and walking in the Spirit; for, "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17).

As contradictory as it may seem, freedom realized in a person's life is always preceded by some sort of surrender. For the believer, the question is, to whom will she surrender – her own flesh or the Holy Spirit?

The truth that the Holy Spirit provides freedom to the believer dead-ends into the fruit of self-control that He manifests in the believer's life. Without the Spirit of God, the believer is imprisoned in her own lethal desires and passions. With the Spirit, the believer is called to freedom by controlling her passions for the purposes of serving others through love (Gal 5:13).

This narrative provides a difficult and beautiful reality for the life of the believer. Every day, we must surrender our conceptions of what is best for us, in exchange for God's ideals of best. Often, His best feels like an outright assault against our good, but truly the boundaries He provides for us are there to allow us to flourish.

[1] David Mathis, "Self-Control and the Power of Christ," Desiring God., accessed on July 14, 2016.

This blog article first appeared on, a ministry of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.