Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”—Genesis 3:4,5
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.—Galatians 5:22,23
‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. I’ve never been one to get all that excited about the new year, or to make a big deal about making major life changes every January, but that’s not to say I’m against it. I’ve known people who were serious about setting goals at this time of year, and who have used the idea of a New Year’s resolution as an effective tool for personal growth. If that’s you, more power to you.
While I don’t think the time of year is the important thing, I am a big fan of personal growth. The Bible teaches that salvation is the beginning of a journey, not the finish line, and that God is always in the process of refining us. This process doesn’t happen while we sit on the couch and eat Cheetos; it requires our cooperation and effort.
In Galatians 5, God tells us that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. As the Holy Spirit has His way in us, we will get better and better at controlling ourselves. We’ll be able to resist bad choices and have the discipline to make better ones. This isn’t simply a matter of willpower, because we couldn’t do it without the power of the Spirit, but it does involve submitting our will to Him and making choices that give Him the opportunity to transform us.
In the book How People Grow, Christian counselors Henry Cloud and John Townsend give a helpful perspective on the issue of self-control. They say that the fruits of the spirit are things that God wants to restore in us. Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest aren’t new; they are things that were lost when humanity fell into sin, things that the power of Christ’s cross can enable us to reclaim. In other words, before sin came into the world, Adam and Eve were loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind, etc., and now God wants to help His children become those things again.
This means that Adam and Eve had self-control. They were disciplined. Then sin came along and messed them up, and now people are in this strange situation where we know what we’re supposed to do but we aren’t always able to make ourselves do it, and we don’t seem to be able to stop ourselves from doing things we know we shouldn’t.
Furthermore, Cloud and Townsend say that when people lost self-control, they replaced it with the desire to control everything else. We are no longer in control of ourselves, but we want desperately to control other people, and the world around us. We think the problem is out there, not inside our hearts. Sin flipped everything on its head, so now we work hard to manipulate others, and we fret endlessly about world events, and all the while we aren’t able to make ourselves do the basic things we’re supposed to be doing. We have traded the responsibility of self-control for the illusion of controlling the world.
We see this all the time. People who have strong opinions about what politicians should be doing, while at home they can’t figure out how to be a good husband or wife. People who care deeply about the performance of their favorite athletes, but who don’t take care of their own health. People who are angry about the economy, but who don’t manage their own finances well. People who have harsh words to say about celebrity scandals, while privately they are slaves to their own pet sins. People who complain about being treated poorly by others, but who are often graceless and unkind in their treatment of those around them.
What if, instead of trying to change everything around us, we turned our focus to allowing God to transform us from within? What if we worried about our own responsibilities instead of being so quick to inform everyone else what they are supposed to be doing? What if 2024 was the year you stopped fretting about things that are beyond your control, and surrendered yourself to the work of the Holy Spirit, who wants to teach you to control yourself?
As a refresher, here is a brief list of things you and I do not control: The government, the price of gasoline, the moral decay of society, the weather, our spouses, our children, our neighbors, bad drivers, mean bosses, global politics, pandemics, wildfires, other people at work, other people at church, God’s master plan for human history, angry bears, and meteors from the sky. Every day, we live our lives at the mercy of what any one of these things might do to us, and we’re largely powerless to stop it.
On the other hand, here are some of the things we do control: The way we treat other people. The way we take care of our bodies. What we do with our time. What we do with our money. Our words. Habits, such as faithful church attendance and quiet time with God. Whether or not we choose to take offense at something. The news and entertainment we fill our minds with. How much time we spend on screens. How much time we spend outside. Whether we participate in gossip, or choose to believe the best about someone. How much we complain. God help us, how much we complain. Whether we choose to worry or pray.
These things are up to us. If, by the power of the Spirit, we are going to become more self-controlled, these are the things we need to focus on, while consciously leaving the rest up to God. In the year to come, you and I could waste large amounts of time worrying about things that are beyond us, trying to impose our will on people and situations over which we have no real power at all. Or we could choose to work on ourselves, with God’s help. May God grant us the humility to grow in all the ways He desires for us in 2024. Happy New Year.