Human beings are made to receive and give love, joy, and peace. We were created to bear these and the other fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) in communion with God and with one another. But the ground of that communion is often stony and choked with weeds. Like a good farmer, we must rely on God’s grace — the sun and rain — if we are going to be spiritually fruitful. But, also like farmers, we are not passive partners. God pours out his Spirit freely, but we must cultivate the soil of our hearts and our communities. This means we need to pay more attention to that least popular fruit of the Spirit: self-control.
When Paul was called before Felix, the governor of Judea, and his wife, Drusilla, he spoke to them “about faith in Christ Jesus” and “justice and self-control and future judgment” (Acts 24:24-25). It is interesting that Paul mentions those three things as what follows from faith in Christ Jesus. Most will recognize justice and future judgment as basic Christian concepts, but do we consider self-control one of the fundamental marks of being a Christian?
Are we any less self-indulgent than our non-Christian neighbors? Are we notably more moderate in our consumption of food and drink? In our accumulation of wealth? Our gratification of sexual titillation? And what about indulging our more deadly spiritual passions? We live in an affluent and self-indulgent society. Our imaginations have been effectively catechized by consumerism and its insistence that we should avoid every discomfort and satisfy every appetite. This leaves us forever discontent and miserable. St. Neilos described well in the 5th century the effect of these insatiable appetites: “being self-indulgent, [we] do not realize how [our] soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.” Jesus likewise warned: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25).
Self-control is a recurrent theme in the New Testament and the early Church. It is rooted in Jesus’ declaration that self-denial is a basic requirement for being among his followers (Matt. 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). It is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23) and as one of the three things — besides power and love — that God has given us instead of a spirit of timidity (2 Tim. 1:7). It is listed as one of the criteria for being a bishop (Titus 1:8). The early Church continued recognizing the centrality of self-control to the Christian way. John Cassian (ca. 360-435) wrote that “no virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, ‘citizens of heaven’” (see Phil. 3:20). St. Thalassios the Libyan (7th century) wrote: “Stillness, prayer, love, and self-control are a four-horsed chariot bearing the intellect to heaven.”
Self-control is central to Christian faithfulness because it gets at the root sin of self-centeredness. Out of that root grow “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19), making us “slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). Such warnings against “passions” show up frequently in the New Testament (see Rom. 1:26, 6:12, and 7:5; 1 Cor. 7:36; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 2:3; 2 Tim. 2:22; Titus 2:12 and 3:3; James 4:1 and 4:3; 1 Pet. 1:14, 2:11, and 4:2-3; 2 Pet. 2:18 and 3:3; and Jude 1:16-18).
Here it gets tricky. Ask anyone what “various passions and pleasures” might refer to and the answer will almost certainly be that it refers to sex. While self-control in sexual behavior is a concern and passion in the New Testament sometimes refers to sexual passion, works of the flesh and passions are about much more than that. According to Titus 3:3, being “slaves to various passions and pleasures” means “passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another.” And when Paul lists the works of the flesh that are opposed to the Spirit, along with “fornication, impurity, and licentiousness,” he also lists “idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21).
Reference to passions was technical language used broadly in pagan philosophical morality, as well as in the New Testament and the early Church, to refer to interior spiritual agitations that lead to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to our nature and lead us away from God’s good pleasure. As such, passions refer to all sinful desires and emotions that draw us away from love of God and love of neighbor. Passions are the weeds that are forever sprouting up in our hearts to choke out the fruit of the Spirit.
Self-control is a neglected fruit of the spirit that needs cultivating in the contemporary Church. Its lack is at the heart of much of the Church’s spiritual shallowness. It is counter-cultural. It calls for self-sacrifice, which is a virtue more commonly admired in theory than put into practice. But there is no real love, certainly none as Jesus calls us to love, without it. Cultivating love and the other fruit of the Spirit and “weeding out the fruit of the flesh” is what self-control is about. The logic of the New Testament and the early Church suggests that this starts with control of our physical appetites. There are many reasons why control of those appetites is good for us. Uncontrolled indulgence of those appetites or passions is detrimental to our physical health and to the health of our communities. Many in the early Church also considered such indulgence unnatural.
Our sexual attitudes and behavior. Chastity and modesty are classic Christian virtues of sexual self-control that we would do well to reclaim. That means rethinking some of our entertainment as well as our behavior. Even if we are persuaded that the blessings and disciplines of marriage can be extended to same-sex unions, we should resist capitulating to our society’s abandoning of self-control.
Our consumption of food and drink. The classic virtue of moderation suggests that we can exercise self-control and learn to eat no more than we need to maintain our health. Fasting is a discipline that we would do well to incorporate into our lives beyond Lent.
Our accumulation of stuff. The classic virtue of simplicity is about exercising the self-control to be content with enough rather than constantly accumulating more and perpetually pursuing the newest and latest toys.
Our passion for busyness and distraction. Observing Sabbath requires the self-control to stop striving and to rest in the assurance that God is indeed in control.
These classic disciplines of self-control of our physical passions are just the foundation of the more significant — and more difficult — self-control demonstrated in the self-denying, self-offering love to which Jesus calls us. The wisdom of the early Church is that if we can exercise self-control at the most basic physical realm of the stomach and other bodily desires, we can begin to exercise more self-control in the spiritual realm of the heart, where the more insidious sins lurk: anger, malice, enmity, envy, impatience, vainglory, and so on. As Jesus said, “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). Indulging in these passions is also contrary to our nature as bearers of the divine image.
We live in an affluent, indulgent society, but Christians ought not indulge our every passion and desire, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. We have been given a spirit of self-control. Disciplining our bodily appetites rather than indulging our desires and pampering ourselves frees us to pursue self-control when it comes to those more difficult passions of the heart. Rather than allowing the weeds of impatience, anger, malice, envy, enmity, resentment, jealousy, judgmentalism, pride, factionalism, and quarrels to run rampant we can prepare the soil of our hearts and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. That is the shape of Christian holiness. Such fruitful holiness does not come easily. It requires self-control.