Self-control is the last of the nine fruits of the Spirit. We learn it gradually as the other fruits are released in us through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s an entirely God-given fruit that manifest our surrender and obedience, a place where self has no say and we live only for His will and purposes.
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:32)
I’ve pondered a fair bit on spiritual gentleness and the fact that self-control falls right at the end of the list of the fruits of the Spirit. I thought back and recalled many of the times where the wheels had fallen off because someone – or more than one someone – had lost their temper. The well-known ‘I totally lost it’ expression is usually used in relation to anger, or perhaps to fear and panic. These are powerful negative emotions that drive us to doing and saying things outside our normal behaviour. They fling the door wide to sin and to emotional destruction which follows a kind of ‘scorched earth’ policy. Regret is usually quick to come – if we allow it. Most of us will repent and seek forgiveness, though we may also go through a period of justification where we seek validation first or try to excuse our behaviour.
Righteous anger and self-control.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of ‘righteous anger’ used as excuse for lack of self-control. The basis of this presumption is Christ driving the moneylenders out the temple. When we pull the ‘righteous anger’ card, we’re effectively saying we’re wielding the anger of the Lord. Wow. The presumptive sin in trying to cover up only digs the hole deeper. We cannot use God’s holy emotions to justify our weaknesses. It’s critical that we understand righteous anger for what it really is so that we can avoid using it to explain away our sins or make us feel better about what we have done. First and foremost, righteous anger is of God. It is His pure and holy anger that is without fault and has perfect purpose. Think the great flood and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, along with Jesus cleansing the temple.
The second truth of righteous anger is that it’s entirely God-focused. It has nothing at all to do with what we feel or our fleshly human responses. Jesus did not clear the temple because He was personally offended by the moneylenders but because God was offended. His Father was righteously angry at the corruption and thievery and instructed His Son to address it. This brings in the third truth – righteous anger is always obedient to the will of God. It’s self-control at its most perfect. There are moments in life where God releases His perfect, righteous anger in us for a particular purpose, but they are rare. God will usually seek to achieve His plans through love, mercy, grace and compassion. If He does use us as an instrument of righteous anger, it will be entirely about Him and won’t last long or wallow in emotional complications.
Self-control is being slow to anger.
This is a very particular aspect of the nature of Christ in us that defines self-control. Anger is a very raw and almost primal response, one which easily overrides caution. It respects nothing, and indulging this kind of anger manifests our degree of lack of self-control. Today’s verse reminds us that one who is slow to anger is greater than the mighty. A man who is a king is an exceptionally weak king if he rules by his temper. History has shown this over and over. No matter how much power we may have in the ‘real world,’ it’s worth nothing if our tempers control us. We continually cut ourselves down by our own actions and weaken our position. Others may follow us out of fear, but this is short lived and these relationships only breed an angry response in return. Anger is self-seeding and sows destruction.
Jesus, however, was slow to anger. This doesn’t mean that He stood back and allowed the religious leaders to walk roughshod over Him or didn’t challenge their wrong attitudes and assumptions. We never see Jesus backing down, but moments of real righteous anger are rare. In all circumstances, He was slow to anger – which is the nature of God revealed throughout the Bible. He exhibited perfect self-control in all situations – even when wrongfully accused and condemned to death on the cross. Righteous anger would have been perfectly justified in those moments, but He retained control. He challenged His enemies but never once ‘lost it’ in a fit of self-righteous anger. He’s our example who beautifully reveals what it is to be slow to anger. Jesus responded by never reacted. Above all, He responded in the Spirit and in absolute obedience to God.
Self-control and the spiritual battle.
Anger is a sure-fire way to undo any good we may have done. It’s ‘me, myself, I’ at its most powerful, because anger sweeps aside all inhibitions, common sense, and the warnings of the Spirit. When rage rushes through our ears, we don’t hear what God is saying. We’re totally controlled by the emotion like a runaway train. The second part of today’s verse seems to contradict the first, which implies self-control – our spirit controlling the responses of the flesh. This second insight doesn’t suggest that our self must control our spirit. It means spirit must control spirit to the exclusion of the flesh. The only way to master our spirit, then, is to surrender it to Christ who taught us what it was to walk in yielded obedience to the Father. We master our spirit by making it subject to the working of the Holy Spirit in us.
The military imagery here has real significance. We all know that our Christian walk is part of a greater spiritual war between the kingdoms of Light and darkness. In this war, the devil is continually seeking to undermine our faith and our resistance. While he can’t change our salvation, he hopes to make us ineffectual or to keep us from living in the full promises of God. Anger is a bit like putting a bazooka into his hands – or worse, using it on ourselves and our fellow believers. Self-control or the lack of it can often be the deciding factor in a battle. We can be standing strong and making inroads, then anger lights a match that blows up our own arsenal. Self-control is powerful and pivotal. It can be the difference between victory or defeat, because it ushers in the power of God rather than of self.
The fruits of the Spirit and self-control.
I’ve mentioned that self-control is the last of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned, and there’s a particular and significant reason for this. When God works in us, it’s always incrementally. He works daily to change and transform us into the image of Christ. He begins to gradually reveal His nature through the fruits of the Spirit in us – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we look at the list, we can see a logical sequence, where one fruit leads to another. Of course, it’s constant and ongoing. God works through the list any number of times, gradually releasing more and more and we yield and willingly accept His work in us. In the same manner, it’s not a hard and fast ‘recipe’ or nine-step plan. It’s a dynamic and powerful supernatural work replacing the things of self with the things of God.
What this means is that the fruits themselves help to work the others in us. It’s easier to have forbearance if we love. It’s easy to manifest goodness if we have joy. There’s an interdependence because all these things reflect the nature of Christ together. They operate together rather than separately. Because self-control reflects our level of obedience, it requires all the other fruits to empower it. This is the place of self versus God. It’s a kind of spiritual line in the sand where we choose one or the other. Self-control brings us to willing obedience because of all the other fruits at work in us. It’s not something we can. If we try to achieve it without the other fruits of the Spirit, that’s self controlling us, not self-control. It’s an entirely God focused and empowered fruit with no room for self in our obedience and surrender.
Self-control and obedience.
The power of self-control lies in the fact that it manifests obedience to the will of God. It looks only to His purposes and not to the desires and weaknesses of self. A lack of self-control is self in us looking to reassert control, to wrench it back from the Spirit and cut us off from the saving grace of God. It’s very hard to be slow to anger or to master our spirits through absolute surrender. Self whispers constantly, trying to stir us up, and the devil will oblige with all kinds of things to push the angry button. But obedience is a choice, therefore taking control over self is also a choice. It’s empowered by yielding ourselves to the will and purposes of God and not living for ourselves. The nature of Jesus in us, manifesting in greater measure as we grow, is what enables us.
Anyone, with the right strategy, troops, and equipment, can storm and take a city. Military leaders have done it for centuries. It’s a lot harder to stand inviolate, to be an impenetrable city, to withstand the attack and remain strong. Sometimes, what’s not defined can be as much a powerful message as what is. Here, we’re reminded that God Himself is our ‘strong tower,’ the impenetrable defence in which we can trust. It is obedience through self-control that helps to make us inviolate in God. Not in ourselves, for we are weak, but in Christ who keeps us perfectly from unrighteous anger.
Guard our hearts and minds, Lord, and keep us from the sin of unrighteous anger. Help us to walk in constant obedience, to yield to the direction of Your Spirit, and to stand strong in the perfect example of Jesus.