So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13–16 NLT)
In his examination of each of the virtues listed in Galatians 5 in his book Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright notes that eight of the nine items in Paul’s list are attributes of God. The one exception is self-control. If we think of self-control as holding in check any evil desires, then it is certainly not one of God’s attributes – for “God is never tempted to do wrong” and “there is no sin in him” (James 1:13; 1 John 3:5) – even if self-control is granted by the Holy Spirit. It can seem a bit curious, then, that Paul chose to include it in this list.
Yet, in some sense, self-control is the lynchpin of the whole list, as well as all the other spiritual fruit Paul doesn’t list. Without self-control, we have no hope of effectively growing any of the other fruit in our lives. Wright puts it this way: “[U]nless we exercise this somewhat negative but necessary practice of self-control and live in a disciplined way (a way disciplined by the Holy Spirit), we will not be likely to bear the rest of the fruit of the Spirit.”
This is likely why Paul ends his list of spiritual fruit in Galatians 5 with self-control, and it is certainly why we are beginning this season of Lent with self-control as the focus. It is the trellis upon which the vines of spiritual fruit must grow. There is a vicious cycle when we fall prey to our own sinful nature, but there is also a beautiful feedback loop that takes place when we submit to the Holy Spirit; Wright says, “Self-control does involve effort of the will, but it is an effort inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God as his will bears fruit in our will.” The Spirit inspires and empowers our own will, which, when we respond appropriately, then blossoms with the fruit of the Spirit, which then brings glory to God and invites us further into his presence in our daily lives.
Our ultimate goal in all of this is to be holy in everything we do. It is the reason we seek to add to our “faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5–7 NIV). We are seeking, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to follow ever more closely in the footsteps of Jesus to bring further glory to God the Father.