This skill was once called Temperance, but that word has lost its original meaning, so we will talk about it here as self-control. St. Paul identifies “self-control” as one of the fruits of the Spirit. By this we mean that one of God’s purposes in our lives is to enable us to have self-control over our passions, activities, and consumption. Traditionally Christians have brought the need for this spiritual fruit to bear on the sins of drunkenness, gluttony, and lust. But these are not the only things in our lives that need self-control. Obviously, pastimes, hobbies, work, and even service activities can be candidates for things needing more self-control. Anything that threatens to pull us off balance or causes problems in relationships has the potential for needing self-control. This all-purpose need makes the skill of self-control a little difficult to talk about. But it also makes it more important than ever.
The first thing to say here is that “Self-control” is a fruit of the spirit. That means we need God’s help to achieve it. The business of self-control requires a partnership between us and God. Self-control is a skill that has to be tailor-made for each of us. It is not the same for everyone. This is because as unique individuals we require different kinds of self-control.
So how do we begin? Here is where the skill of self-control best shows its roots in temperance. We will use alcoholism as a kind of paradigm for the whole enterprise of self-control in the Christian life. An alcoholic’s first step toward self-control comes in the admission that alcohol is a problem which must be controlled. This is why alcoholics greet other at AA meetings by saying, “Hi, my name is ______, I’m an alcoholic.” Naming the problem to oneself and others is the best first step in getting control of it. In the case of Alcoholism, stopping drinking is the only way to control it. And to be able to stop drinking, day after day, takes disciplined dependence on God. This serves as an excellent example of the seriousness with which Christian should approach the skill of self-control.
Now of course the skill of self-control will express itself in our lives in a lot of different ways. Not many of them as dire as what an alcoholic faces with his or her addiction, but all of them require the same first step of problem identification and the open partnering with God. We know that is too massive or too trivial for our Lord. He is willing to help us find self-control wherever we may need it in this life. Every day is an opportunity for God to help us develop the skill of self-control. We only need to recognize that possibility and surrender the struggle to His Spirit. In fact, if this way of thinking is new, it would be best to start with easy things in order to develop a better working relationship with God’s Spirit for achieving self-control. When that working relationship is stronger, then we can try the more treacherous areas of our lives.
Please be aware that work developing the skill of self-control will be a very frustrating. Most of us have patterns of self-indulgence and addiction that are so deep they seem to overwhelm us. But we must not be discouraged. God has promised that he will win the battle in our lives. For sure, He will end our problems in death and remake us free of those problems in the resurrection. Then our self-control will be perfect. But we have the opportunity to learn what we can and to achieve a better life now as we work with God’s Spirit to gain the self-control God knows we desire. Let us seek God’s fruit in our lives through the skill of self-control. In that way he promises a better and more productive life now. And who knows what benefits the development of this skill may bring us for eternal life?