“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” -Galatians 5:22-23
The spiritual virtues listed by the Apostle Paul are labeled as the “fruit of the Spirit.” The insertion of this listing of virtues is significant within the contrasting context to the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21). These virtues are qualities produced by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit within a person. Expression of these character qualities is motivated by the law of the spirit — love, the principal virtue — and maintained through temperance, the sustaining virtue. Love and temperance are intentionally juxtaposed as bookends to buttress one’s display of the other seven virtues. Let’s focus on the sustaining virtue.
Temperance means self-control, self-restraint. It is mastery of oneself — having power over oneself, thus able to hold oneself in. The opposite of self-control is self-indulgence: an unrestrained gratification of one’s own desires.
Self-control is not a dominant theme in biblical ethics, yet reference to it is emphatic. Positively, “he who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules [has power over] his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32). Negatively, “a man who has no rule over his spirit [no self-control or self-restraint] is like a city that is broken down and without walls” (Prov. 25:28).
Self-control is a necessary character strength. It is the virtue that helps us stay in control to keep our cool. It is a character issue which has moral ramifications in personal and public life. Moral failures are generally attributed to lacking this virtue.
Reuben, the firstborn son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, is an example of lacking self-control (Gen. 49:1-4). Jacob characterized his son as “unstable/unruly as water,” meaning Reuben did not have the discipline to control his passions. He was uncontrollable as water without any constraints. Reuben, and the tribe bearing his name, consequentially lost preeminence because of his lack of self-control.
Paul feared becoming disqualified from receiving his rewards by lacking self-control and discipline (1 Cor. 9:27). In instructing people on how to behave, especially those aspiring spiritual leadership, several epistles emphasize self-control as a quality to have (1 Tim. 2:9; 3:2; 2 Tim. 1:7; Tit. 2:2, 4, 6; 2 Pet. 1:6).
Near the end of his life, Paul gave parting words to his pastoral protégé Timothy. A person’s last words are considered most significant to the living because those things are what that person wants to pass on. One imperative from Paul was to “use self-restraint in all things” (2 Tim. 4:5 NASB). In other words, keep your head and thus your cool by being self-controlled under all circumstances. Too often we have seen how terrible it is to lose one’s cool.
Whatever your political party affiliation is, I think you would agree that the 2016 run for the Oval Office was one of the most interesting presidential campaigns of recent times. Both major-party candidates had the highest unfavorable ratings in decades. The public’s difficulty with them loomed around something deeper than mere policy differences. The salient stinger was ethical issues — integrity, trustworthiness, character.
In relation to the virtue of temperance, several congressional leaders and numerous national security professionals of earlier administrations of one party had expressed apprehension with its nominee. Some publicly disavowed their support and vote for their party’s nominee. One major concern and consistent chief critique in their assessment was this nominee “lacks the temperament … lacks self-discipline … lacks self-restraint … lacks self-control and acts impetuously.” What they accurately knew and passionately disliked about that nominee, we all became acutely aware of throughout that person’s presidency and afterward unto this day witness.
If persons in the public arena express critical concern about someone lacking self-control for governmental leadership, how much more concern do you think God has regarding his kingdom representatives, especially spiritual leadership, lacking self-control?
How apropos is this saying to having self-control: “You better check yo’self, before you wreck yo’self.”
Rev. Johnson A. Beaven III is pastor of Citadel of Faith Church of God in Christ. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @jbeaven.