by Rev. Katrina Walther
A reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the 5th chapter:
22…The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Lately, I’ve been writing a series on the Fruits of the Spirit for my church’s monthly newsletter. Last month, I wrote about the fruit I had dreaded writing on the most: self-control.
I thought about writing about self-control every month for the past three months. I started a couple of times, but I could not seem to finish.
There’s a lack of self-control, right there (as well as actual writer’s block). Since I know I am not the only human being in the world who struggles with this, I thought I would share my thoughts with you, the community of Sunnyside.
I will tell you truthfully that this is not my favorite “fruit of the Spirit.” I think sometimes that Paul included this in the list just to vex me personally.
If I were good at self-control, it would have been easy for me to give up French fries and potato chips for Lent. (It wasn’t.)
If I were good at self-control, it would be easy for me to stick to a diet plan and lose weight. (It isn’t and never has been.)
If I were good at self-control, my budget would probably not get away from me so much each month. (That’s down to lack of planning most of the time, as well as poor impulse control in the grocery store and the bookstore.)
We do not live in Paul’s world of Platonic philosophy, placing the mind and spirit so above and dissociated from the body, though we do still tend to value logic over emotion. We 21st Century Americans tend to believe that the things that the body wants are not necessarily detrimental to our spiritual well-being.
However, at the same time, we can and do still recognize that in every human being there is a need for self-control. We struggle not only to practice it in ourselves, but to teach self-control to our children.
“You can’t always get what you want,” right?
We know this. We learn the lessons of self-control from the time we are children: you can’t have every toy you want; you can’t hit your sibling or classmate or parent or teacher just because they made you mad somehow; you can’t eat only the foods you think you like; you can’t stay up all night just to keep playing.
Well, we should have learned these things. Yet, at the same time we are trying to set reasonable boundaries we are also bombarded from early on with a temptation towards lack of self-control and immediate gratification. I would argue that immediate gratification is one of the biggest challenges to our faith that we face in this day and age.
Television commercials tell us that we need that toy, that food, that brand of coffee if we are to have a “good life.” If we are to be cool (children) or attractive or respected (adults), we need that product. If you’re really cool, you’ll have the right breakfast cereal, the right shoes, the right clothes, the newest and most popular toy. If you really love your wife, you’ll buy her diamonds for every anniversary, birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc. If you really love your husband, you’ll buy him all the latest electronic gismos and tools.
This list of unspoken criteria for a “good” life could go on and on. It is a big challenge to self-control, both in our relationships with others and in our perception of ourselves.
Our self-control is challenged in other ways by the notion that violence is okay. In music, in movies, in TV, in so many things, we show violence as (at least kind of) cool, laudable. Nor is it always in self-defense.
Do you doubt me on this? Well, let me give you an example: in the movie “Frozen” (a movie I enjoy greatly and admire for many reasons), there is a scene at the end where one of the sisters punches out the male villain after he is no longer a threat. When that scene happened in the theatre, everyone cheered. I did, too. Yes, he was a slimy, manipulative you-know-what. Yes, we all wanted him to get his comeuppance. But that punch was a definite lack of self-control.
Personally, I struggle already to control my temper when I’m angry. I’ve worked hard to improve that aspect of myself. Now, as a parent, I see my temper in my children and I want to teach them, also, to control themselves when their emotions become seemingly over-powering. I don’t want them to punch people, no matter how much they think the other person deserves it.
In the face of all these challenges and the many volumes more I could discuss, how do I appeal to the Spiritual fruit of self-control in you? How do I make an appeal to you about something I struggle so with myself?
I can only turn back to Paul: let us live by the Spirit and, through the power of Christ Jesus, crucify the impulses to immediate gratification, vengeance and violence.
Perhaps this constant struggle is why Paul lists self-control (and all the others, for that matter) as fruits of the Spirit: they are not taught so much as cultivated, they grow out of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us by the grace of Christ. Each day, each hour, we must be crucified anew and each day reborn in Christ.
When we have the impulse to glut ourselves on food or possessions, we repent and call upon the Spirit, pouring the nourishing waters of baptism onto the Spiritual garden in our hearts. When the impulse arises to somehow spite someone who has wronged us, we turn to our Lord in repentance and pray for patience and self-control and are cleansed by God’s merciful forgiveness.
Living by the Spirit isn’t easy, but it is worth it. The sinful “flesh” would cause us to chase after immediate gratification and all the empty, meaningless “things.”
But, empowered by the Spirit through Christ Jesus our Savior, we can live lives that have true meaning. We have abundant life through Him who redeems our life from the grave!
‑ Rev. Katrina Walther is pastor
of Sunnyside’s Our Saviour’s