Self-control is a concept I’ve grown to hate. Mainly because for most of my life, it’s been my Master. And not a kind one either. A slave driver, urging and chastising, inciting me to ever-increasing heights of proud performance and nadirs of self-contempt.
I’ve spoken in the past about how anorexia for me anyway, was all about exercising control. Even when the rest of life seemed overwhelming and confused, my body was a safe sphere I could dominate, shape, carve and control. But it hasn’t just been about food. Even when I was very small, I remember sitting up through the night, obsessively editing and restarting stories, poems and drawings. Re-reading books to check I’d really understood them. Planning the perfect presents for loved ones. Given that life was black and white, getting it ‘right’ was crucial.
Nowadays, packing a suitcase still sends me into a tailspin. What if I forget something vital? We all know that clean underwear is only available in East Sussex.
With this history, my temptation now is to label self-control as a positive evil that I’ll have no part of. But that’d be like saying I’ll get over anorexia by not bothering with food. It’s a huge part of life and it’s not bad in itself – in fact, it can even be good. (Who knew?!)
In particular, I’m challenged by passages from the Bible such as Galatians 5, which talk about self-control as one of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – part of the new person I become when I trust in Christ.
But there are some caveats. In contrast to our culture, where self-control is lauded as the supreme virtue, in Galatians, it is the last fruit of the Spirit, not the first. As a fruit, it’s not a goal in itself, but as a by-product of Christ’s love. If I begin with this love, then I end up with self-control. If I begin with self-control however, I end up with nervous exhaustion. In Jesus, my desires are changed, so that as I get to know Him better and become more like Him, I naturally want what He wants. (It’s a slow process but it is happening!)
Ultimately then, I don’t gain Christ through self-control. But I do gain self-control through Christ. And that’s actually a good thing – even for someone like me.