Perhaps, out of all the characteristics identifying believers the quality of “self-control” is the most intimidating. After all, self-control is incredibly difficult. Most of us know the struggle of restraint well. Yet Paul tells us here, that self-control is not just about us and mustering up our own discipline. Rather, self-control is a work of the Spirit of God in us. Paradoxically, to be in control of our selves we must be under the control of the Spirit.
Self-control appears last in this list in part because it is a necessary quality in order to develop the other attributes with any consistency. So, love for others requires us to restrain our own self-interest and the pursuit of our desires (Phil. 2:3-4). Likewise, patience will require us to be disciplined in our treatment of others, to extend grace and give people the benefit of the doubt (Col. 3:13). Gentleness too serves as a good reminder of the role of self-control. Our temptation is to respond with the full force of our passions, thoughts, and desires. Gentleness, however, calls us to be careful and soft in our response (Prov. 15:1). Self-control is necessary too for any level of consistency in these other fruits. To develop the character of Christ in our lives requires us to regularly check our own desires and pursuits and to die to self (Luke 9:23).
Self-control also serves as major counterpoint to the “works of the flesh,” listed in verses 19-21. Paul lists these sinful behaviors for us:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Self-control is the clear counter to these works. So, Christopher Wright states:
Many of the behaviors that Paul lists show human nature out of control and at its sinful, excessive worst. That kind of uncontrolled life lets people give in to self-indulgence, sexual gratification, pride, glutton, and so on. Self-control is the opposite of those kinds of sinful behaviors. (Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, 143)
To avoid giving into these sinful temptations, then, we need to develop and cultivate self-discipline with regard to our sexual desire (immorality, impurity, sensuality, orgies), our temper (fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions), appetite (envy, drunkenness), and attitudes (envy, jealousy). In order to do these things we very clearly are going to need help, for we know how difficult it is to restrain ourselves in such basic ways.
Yet, unlike the other fruits mentioned in this passage, this particular one does not have a divine corollary. That is to say, we can point to God’s love, peace, patience, etc. as the object lesson and source for ours. But God does not need to possess self-control because, unlike us, He is never tempted towards sinful responses. His passions never verge on overtaking Him. “Perfect holiness possess perfect control,” says John MacArthur (Galatians, 169). Yet, there is still a clear connection to God with regard to this fruit.
Paul clearly paints a picture that the Spirit is the one who generates self-control in our lives, and that this is found through submission to the Spirit himself. In one pointed passage Paul draws a contrast between those “controlled by the flesh” and those “controlled by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:8-9). The flesh refers, here, to our sinful impulsive desires, it is those who are not disciplined enough to say no to ungodliness. The solution is not willpower, but submission to Spirit of God. This is an important distinction too, for the opposite to the sinful impulsivity, is not willpower but Spirit-power. We try to manage these things ourselves, but apart from God’s Spirit working the fruit of self-control in us we will continue to spin our wheels. Worse still, we may cultivate a level of pride that believes we in fact are capable of accomplishing all of this apart from Him, by which we will further condemn ourselves. We need His Spirit to be self-controlled.
This is an attribute that works in the negative, it serves to control sinful or wicked impulses in us. Therefore, God does not possess this attribute, since He does not possess any wicked impulses (John 1:5). Yet, in order for us to cultivate this fruit we need the Spirit at work in us. We cannot grow self-control apart from Him. Though God does not need self-control, He is still the source of it in us. Submit, then, increasingly to the Spirit, in order that you might cultivate this fruit.