When the apostle Paul lists the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5:22-23, he leaves ‘self-control’ or ‘temperance’ until last.
The list begins with high-profile things like love, joy and peace. So is this ninth fruit an afterthought? Not at all, for it is basic to true Christian living.
The terms ‘self-control’ and ‘temperance’ do not really do justice to the attribute in question. Literally it means ‘self-strength’ or ‘self-domination’. If we turn to 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 we get a clearer view of what it is.
Paul here likens the Christian life to a race or athletic contest. ‘Everyone who competes’, he says, ‘is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown’.
By linking ‘being temperate’ to ‘obtaining an imperishable crown’, Paul gives notice that ‘temperance’ is no side-show but something of fundamental importance to every believer.
Probably the best term to describe this fruit of the Spirit is ‘self-discipline’. Successful athletes excel in self-discipline – they are totally dedicated to the task of winning races.
They subject themselves to punishing exercise regimes and strict training schedules that affect what they eat, how they sleep, and how they spend their time. Preparation for the contest is ever-present in their thoughts.
The athlete does not ‘run uncertainly’ or (if a boxer rather than a runner) ‘beat the air’ (see v. 26). On the contrary, every stride is timed and calculated; every punch is planned and practised. Such is the preparation needed to win medals in the chosen sport.
We see this self-discipline, for example, in the dedication of a teenage swimming prodigy, who rises at four in the morning to swim length after length at the local pool before going to school.
For such a person, the tasks of training, racing and winning are unchallenged priorities.
The same should be true of the Christian. We are engaged both in running and training for a spiritual race which terminates in glory.
Seeking first the kingdom of God must therefore be the believer’s unchallenged priority, knowing that our heavenly Father will take care of all our needs (Matthew 6:25-34).
The Scriptures insists that we must ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Changing the metaphor, we are to ‘endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’ – for ‘no one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this world, that he may please him who called him as a soldier’ (2 Timothy 2:3-5).
In short, the follower of Christ must take up his cross. Whatever else that means, it signifies a life of self-discipline which prioritises the service of the Master (Matthew 16:24).
Why must we so live? To obtain an imperishable crown. Paul strains every nerve and sinew that he might ‘press toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:14).
But does this mean we obtain salvation by our own efforts? Not at all. Remember that this self-discipline is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and only those who are already saved are so indwelt.
What it does mean is that when we pass through the door of salvation (and that door is Christ; John 10:9), we find ourselves on a race-track not in a rest-home!
Serving the Master
This teaching is much needed today. We tend to be lazy and easy-going in our Christianity. Many of us are one-day-a-week Christians. We have seven days and we give one back to God, OK?
No, this is not OK. Whatever we are doing – whether worshipping, working, studying, home-making, child raising, resting, reading and so on – we are to be serving the Lord Christ who is our Master.
If we do put Christ first in our lives, the life and work of the local church will play a far larger part in our programme. Prayer will be a priority, worship a delight. Bible study and meditation will be our food and drink, fellowship in the gospel our life-blood.
The upward call of God in Christ will be our motivation.