Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fruit of the Holy Spirit (Part 10) Self-Control

This is the last sermon in a series of ten on the fruit of the Holy Spirit that I have been preaching once a month at the Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Church here in Auckland.
Tolkien’s great epic fantasy ‘the Lord of the Rings’ is synonymous with New Zealand, because of the wonderful work of Peter Jackson and his fellow film makers . In Many people’s mind New Zealand is Tolkien’s middle earth. The story is a struggle between good and evil that revolves round destroying a ring of power forged to enslave the world to the will of a dark being.  This ring lost for many centuries finds its way into the hands of Frodo Baggins a Hobbit. Every person who touches the ring became consumed with the desire to own it. It takes control. In one scene the wizard Gandalf warns Frodo that the more the ring is used, the more it will control the user. Frodo says that had Gandalf warned him he would have done away with it, but when Gandalf says “would you… try! Try Now”  It says

“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket, again and looked at it… he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, without great struggle. He weighed the ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will h made a movement to cast it away-but he found that he had put it back in his pocket. Gandalf laughed grimly and said “you see? Already you cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it. And I could not ‘make’ you-except by force.”

Paul says that our human desires and appetites can do that in our lives but that the spirit of God produces in us the ability to control them rather than be controlled by them. Not by force but by walking alongside us and nurturing the virtue of self-control within us.

Today is the last in a ten part series looking at the fruit of the Holy Spirit In Galatians 5:22-23, virtues or character traits that Paul tells us grow and mature and plant seeds and reproduce themselves, in people’s lives, like fruit as we walk with God’s Holy Spirit. One of the metaphors you may remember we used was the idea of dogs and their masters growing to look alike. AS we spend more time walking and relating to God’s Holy Spirit we grow more to reflect our master Jesus. Not physically, but that our character and the way we treat others and live together in our faith communities,  may become more and more Christ like. 

The word ‘Self-control’  is unique in this list of fruit because the rest of them are words used in scripture to describe the attributes of God. God is Love, God is patient, God is Kind and Good, God is gentle, Jesus is the prince of peace. You could say that self control applies to God.  God always has God’s self under control.

Self-control comes more from the Greek philosophical world, from the ethics of Socrates and Plato rather than the Hebrew scriptures. The Stoics with their emphasis on athleticism and self-denial saw it as of paramount importance. Epicureans who thought life should be enjoyed and savoured also saw it as an important virtue to stop over indulgence.

The Greek word we translate self-control is the compound word en Kratos. Kratos is a word which is in common use in the English language, as an ending in many words. In fact one of its most common uses is going to dominate our lives here in New Zealand over the next month... and no it's not Greek for Rugby World Cup final.

Next month we are having a general election where we will  take part in a democratic process. The word democracy of course is from the Greek demos meaning people and kratos meaning power. The power of the people to choose who will govern them, as opposed to Autocracy the power of one over others. In the case of en kratos it to have power over oneself.

The word Self-control appears five other times in the New Testament and today what we going to do is a word study look at how those uses shed light on this word, and help us to understand self-0control and how it applies to our lives.

In Acts 24:25 Self-control appears as part of the sermon title or theme that Paul is preaching before the roman governor Felix and his Jewish wife Drusilla.  The topic is “Righteousness, Self Control and the judgement to come”, and we see that the message disturbs Felix so much he tells Paul to stop. It shows us that the Greek idea of Self Control is very similar to the Jewish idea of righteousness. For the Greeks it was to keep yourself in check, and for the Jews it was to conform one’s life to the Laws of Moses. It’s hard to extrapolate from this title what would have upset Felix and Drusilla, but from Paul's other letters you could see that he is saying, firstly that faith has an ethical side, that we will be judged for our actions and the second is that of themselves the ethical ideals of either culture righteousness and self-control are not enough in God’s eyes. We know enough from Paul to realise that it is only by grace and faith in Jesus Christ that we are made right with God. This self-control is not to earn God’s favour but rather is an outliving of a knowing Gods salvation, presence and leading in our lives.

In 1 Peter 1:6 self-control appears again in a list of Christian virtues that Michael Green calls the ladder of faith. Because of what Christ has done for us we are to make every effort to add these elements in to our lives. Peter starts with faith and then looks at goodness, developing an ethical way of living, then knowledge our intellect, echoing the ‘let our minds be transformed by the renewing of the spirit’ in Romans 12, then self-control, keeping our appetites in check, then endurance, Aristotle says ‘self-control is concerned with pleasures.. and endurance with sorrow, putting up with hardship’ right on to goal of Christ like genuine agape love or selfless love.  It shows that the fruit of the spirit, Christian virtues are not separate from each other we need to have them growing together. Secondly without self-control you cannot genuinely have this selfless love because we are still overly concerned or consumed with our desires and appetites. Thirdly we are all worked in progress there is on-going process of sanctification, growing up in Christ, till we reach maturity in love. In Roman’s Paul talks of the on-going wrestling in his life, between the old nature and the new. One of the reasons a twelve step programme is so effective at helping people deal with addictions is that they provide people with a buddy who will help them through, we have this in our lives as we walk with the Holy Spirit.

Titus 1:8 uses self-control in a list of virtues that church leaders were to display in their lives. It is interesting to see some of the areas where a person is to be self-controlled in this list. We see that they are to be under control in their sex lives. In the way they bring up their children, Keep their temper in check, Their attitude to money. How they treat power. Hospitality is in this list and it opens up the idea of being self-controlled in opening our homes to one another and to strangers. I guess you could examine other areas of life as well, work, do you control your work or does it control you, either because you’re not good at time management or its becoming an addiction (you are a work aholic) have you enough time for family relationships or hospitality. Acknowledging and encouraging the good you see in other and that they do is a self-discipline. This use widens the scope of how self-control can apply to our lives.

The word is used twice in the first book of Corinthians. Both times as a verb.

In 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul likens the christian life to that of an athlete. He says that because of what Christ has done for him. Self Control as a verb is translated 'strict training' in the NIV and picks up the idea of an athlete being prepared to discipline and control every area of his life in order to win the prize. One point from this for me is the idea of self-discipline and strict training is not an end in itself but rather a means to reach a goal. For the athlete it is the finishing line, the Rugby World Cup or an Olympic gold medal but in the book of Hebrews we are told that we should run the race with our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ. He is our goal, a greater prize than even  the William Webb Ellis trophy. The other thing is that in the Holy Spirit walking along side us we have a coach, a personal trainer who helps us through.

The other use of the word self-control actually helps us to tie this idea down to real life applications.

In 1 Corinthians 7:9 Paul uses the verb self-control in terms of sexual desire and behaviour. Paul's says its better for those who are single to remain single but if that’s not possible it’s better to get married than to simply burn with passion. Firstly it challenges the way the church in western society sees singleness and our emphasis on finding the right partner and getting married.  That singleness is all about finding a mate and putting yourself out there as bait.  Singleness has been seen in the past as a gift to be valued and treasured. We should honour single people for their single mindedness to serve Christ.But again it is not  for everyone.

Secondly, When you look at the list of the work of the flesh that Paul contrast with the fruit of the spirit you see that many of them are to do with sex and sexuality. We live in a society where sex and sexuality and their expression are in hot debate. We are wrestling with what is normal sexual behaviour. People even define their lifestyles through their sexuality.  Sex education does not tell people to control their sexual desires as much as to make sure that they are safe as they express them. The word ‘en kratos’ I think opens a real biblical understanding of human sexuality and the gospel. On his blog Shored Fragment’s Steve Holmes who teaches Theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland posted that for Augustine of Hippo as with the many scholars wrestling with the issue of Sexuality today it was hard to define what was normal. He would agree that celibacy and even heterosexual monogamy were not nature or normal. He would say that because of our fallen nature that what was natural and normal is an ideal lost in the past, at the fall. Augustine was not interested in simply what was normal but rather for the Christian that celibacy and being faithful inside of marriage were ascesis or spiritual disciplines. The focus for Christians dealing with all forms of sexual desire, and the posting is in the context of the debate on homosexuality,  was rather to have a gospel shaped and heroic regulation of personal desire that tends to conform us to Christlikness’. It’s about conforming to Christ in that part of our life, not to the world. I have an acquaintance who describes himself to me as a redeemed catholic and a celibate homosexual. For him that was how he was living out ascesis.  

I could have easily talked about other issues. The writer of James says that the piece of our anatomy that is hardest to control is our tongue. He says that this is the organ that can do the most damage with and needs to be tamed or controlled and if someone can do that then they have reached maturity.  Our communication with and about each other is also a matter of ascesis of self control.

in conclusion... take a few moments to be still and ask the Holy Spirit to show you areas of your life which you need the spirits help in growing that fruit of Self Control. are there things that are out of control or have control of you that are impeding your christian life from growing or you from having the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Offer them up to God, and ask for the Spirit to walk alongside you and lead you to develop the fruit of the spirit and gain control over that area.

Secondly ask God to fill you afresh with the Holy Spirit, that you may know the Spirit's presence and leading more and more in your life and develop and grow love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness and self control in your lives.


  1. Thank you Howard for walking with God and going through your own discipline and strict training on your race towards Jesus - I love the analogy of fruits because the fruits themselves, though they are the sweet produce of nourishment and nurture, are also seed-bearing, and will by consumption cause the spread of those trees and fruits elsewhere.
    Blessings and thanks for your own seedbearing fruit,


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