Self-Control: The Unpopular Fruit of the Spirit

St. Paul teaches there are nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Some of those fruits are sweet as peaches in August. After all, who wouldn’t want fruits like love, joy and peace? That’s why they get most of the press and decorate all those baptismal and confirmation cards from Hallmark.

But there is at least one fruit on St. Paul’s tree that tastes more like a lemon than a peach to most of us: the fruit of “self-control.”

It’s hard to blame people. Self-control brings up images of everything from extreme dieting schemes to those little ads in the back of tabloids on “Mastering Your Spending Habits Through Will Training.” Worse, we Catholics have, in addition to such secular images, a whole crowd of sacred ones against which to measure ourselves and be found wanting. The little voice in our head says, “Here is St. So-and-So who disciplined himself to live on bugs and rainwater his entire life out of deference to the customs of the Higgledy-Piggledies of Outer Wahoovia whom he was evangelizing. They were all converted, of course, while you? Heh! What have you done for the gospel lately?” I look in the mirror. I explode with persecuted rage when my radiator gets a leak. I dislike not getting what I want, when I want it, in the amount I want it. In a word, I am a fallen human being-like you. Self-control is not a fruit I want all that much.

Nonetheless, if we can look past our frustration at ourselves, we can still discover it is a beautiful one when we let it ripen.

We usually think of self-control as a negative, which is partly true. Self-control is, in part, the art of saying “no” when we should, not merely when we feel good about it. But the key to saying “no” is to have some larger “YES”-some great positive-in our souls. Thus, Rocky Balboa says “no” to his revulsion at drinking raw eggs not because he enjoys revolting things, but because he has in view the thrilling goal of beating Apollo Creed in the Big Match. Put in that light, discipline is seen to be, not something aimed at crushing delight, but rather a means to some greater glory and happiness. Every athlete, every gardener who prunes a tree, every lover who makes sacrifices for his Beloved understands this logic. Such self-control is really just another name for Love that won’t let anything get in the way of its desires. It was just this sort of relentless, obstacle-leaping Love which played out on a cosmic scale when “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). As in all acts of true Christian discipline, it is joy and love for God and neighbor, not mere self-absorbed will to stoicism, that is the goal.

Thus, our self-control as parents ought to be understood as a form of love for God, our spouses, and our kids, not a mere cold and arrogant mastery of those passions to which “weaker creatures” and “lower orders” are subject. The goal of self-control is not iron independence, or the Triumph of Sheer Will, but dependence on God. Its goal is not Pride, but Love.

In Catholic tradition, the Big Three Enemies of the Christian life are the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. All three attack us by the time-honored method of saying, “You Deserve a Break from Self-Control Today.” Indeed, all advertising is specially and carefully designed to create in us a sense of moral permission to indulge ourselves.

The World urges on us, among other things, a prolongation of adolescence with its fleshly self-indulgence. Time was, we could take in a scary movie like “Jurassic Park” and, being young bucks in our 20s, we just had a good time. There’s nothing necessarily bad about enjoying a good movie with its thrills. But do we go on insisting on our right to such movies, even when it means dragging a psychologically defenseless three-year-old to it? The love of our children demands at such moments that we either find a sitter or, if we cannot afford it, to forego the movie (or the child-inappropriate TV show) till the kids are not around. It might even prompt us to ask, “Instead of a movie tonight, what if we play hide and seek with the kids or read a book aloud.” An act of self-control can be a doorway into some new and untried pleasures!

The Flesh labors to convince us that “lust” involves only our sexuality but not that hankering to make power, money, status, and such the meaning of life (which is what St. John means by “the lust of the eyes”) (1 John 2:15). Many parents (though regrettably not nearly enough of them) know that our sex-drunk culture is profoundly toxic for kids. And so they commendably try to monitor TV and internet access to blockade the gross and exploitative slime our culture pumps out. However, many parents do not realize our culture promotes other deeply anti-Christian values besides sexual lust. Do we, by our actions, give the stamp of approval to avarice, greed, materialism, hedonism and the itch to outspend the Joneses? Do we testify by our actions to our worship of Mammon while we disavow the worship of Venus? Suppose we discuss and critique with our kids the lies behind the consumerist commercials on Saturday morning as studiously as we take care to disarm the lies behind the lust-filled ads on Saturday night?

If we do, we do well, but we must beware that in avoiding the self-indulgence of the flesh, we do not compensate with self-indulgence of the soul. For the Devil aims to make us forget that “the pride of life” (1 John 2:15) is a thousand times deadlier to the soul than the sins of the flesh. In teaching our children and ourselves to avoid the cultural pitfalls around us, we must be even more wary against coming to see ourselves (or worse, teaching our children to see themselves) as especially wise people who are a cut above all the other “fools”. As C.S. Lewis said, the Devil is happy to cure your chilblains if he can give you cancer in return. Indulgence of Pride (pride, for instance, in our excellence as parents who aren’t suckers for Mammon and Venus like those awful Joneses are) is the root of hell. It is the great sin that made the Devil the Devil. We can do more to endanger our souls and our children by indulging a sense of smug superiority in ourselves and in our children than any other relinquishment of self-control.

The key here is reliance on St. Paul’s on Paul’s wisdom in Galatians 5:22-23. For self-control is, in the end, a fruit of the Spirit and a gift from God, not something we figure out or achieve by our own wonderfulness. For as Jesus reminds us in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” That fruit includes the unpopular but life-giving fruit of self-control.


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email