Self-control is an important biblical concept. Without it, we’re out of control. Those who lack self-control perfectly fit Paul’s description of a person who says, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
The problem is, self-control is a bit of an oxymoron. Because from a biblical perspective, we can’t control ourselves. That’s actually Paul’s point in Romans 7: we want to do what we know we ought to do, but we can’t get ourselves to do it. The man in Romans 7 can do nothing better than cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The self needs to be control, but this man is forced to look elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the Bible commands us to control ourselves. In 2 Timothy 3:3, one sign of the godless is that they are without self-control. Peter commands us to “make every effort” to supplement our faith, virtue, and knowledge with self-control. And in Galatians 5:23, self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit.
So we have to control ourselves, but we can’t. Frustrating, right?
But God doesn’t leave it at that. This is exactly the problem that Romans 7 leaves us with, that people “in the flesh” cannot control themselves. But the solution comes immediately afterward, in Romans 8. What the person in the flesh can’t do has been made possible through the Spirit of God. The Spirit takes our dead selves and gives them life.
And take a closer look at Galatians 5:22–23. These qualities, including self-control are the fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit. Are you seeing it? These aren’t things that we conjure up through intense effort. These are fruits. They’re produced, grown. And where do they come from? The Spirit.
So self-control is commanded, and it’s possible. But not if we think of self-control as self-control. It’s really Spirit-enabled-control. It’s self-control, but not until your self is brought under the control of the Spirit.
So next time you’re struggling with sin and are tempted to pull yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps, read Romans 7 and resonate with the description of the person who tries to please God apart from the Spirit. Feel the hopelessness of that approach. Then continue reading into Romans 8 and be inspired by the power available to us in the Spirit. Be empowered and filled with the Spirit of God, and then get that “self” in control.