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  • Lindsay Esterline

Discipline, Self-Control, and Punishment in the Bible (Part 2)

Self-control in the Bible is one of the nine traits of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (NIV).


The idea of ‘fruit’ is likely referencing the analogy that Jesus used in John 15, verse five being the most often quoted, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Paul is answering the question, ‘what is this fruit?’


In the previous post (Part 1), we looked at discipline. We discovered that discipline was more than punishment - that it is guidance and training that helps us reach a goal. Paul used the analogy of an athlete (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) to make this point. The Holy Spirit will guide us to the areas of our lives that we need to be purposeful about in our training. If we follow the analogy of an athlete, we see that Paul has pointed out that athletes add the regimented practice of skills and healthy foods, and deny themselves things that would impede achieving their goals. To maintain this lifestyle requires self-control.


As Christians, we believe there are only two options - God or Satan - as the ruling power in our lives. So, when we say "self-control" it is a bit of a misnomer. Who will you allow to have control over your life, your "self"?


What is Self-Control in the Bible?

hands using a game controller

Self-control as listed in Galatians 5 is “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions…” What would mastering our desires and passions look like?


First, we have to admit that we have desires and passions that require control. The very words "self" and "control" lead to the fact that our "self" needs controlling. Paul says in Galatian 5:17, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want”. “Flesh” in this verse refers to our sinful or fallen nature. Paul then outlines the “acts of the flesh” (verse 19). This is not an inclusive list either. 


Being tempted by our “flesh” is not a sin (James 1:14-15). Acting on that temptation is. So, my understanding is that self-control boils down to impulse control. Since our hearts are sinful (Mark 7:21-23; Jeremiah 17:9) it would be wise not to act on its impulses. In this way self-control helps us resist temptation. 


Responding vs Reacting

How can we tell when we are acting on impulse? I will answer the questions with another question: Did you respond or did you react?


When we react to a situation, a temptation, it implies that our actions are based on a quick impulse based on our emotions. For example, when someone provokes us to anger we might react in a fit of rage, or with unkind words or tone. In this case, we would have allowed our emotions to dictate our actions. We have given in to temptation. 


In contrast, responding implies that we have taken a moment to thoughtfully act. In that moment the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to work. When I consider the life of Jesus I think of the many times his enemies tried to trap him with baiting questions (Matthew 16:1; 19:3; 22:35; Luke 10:25; 11:54; Mark 12:14–15). I know that in the same situation I would have to fight the fleshly impulse to react in anger. But, Jesus kept his cool and responded in a way that showed he was a man of peace and wisdom. By controlling impulse he didn’t take the bait.


I also think of the impulsive apostle Peter. In Matthew 16:21-23 we find an example of Peter speaking on impulse. When Jesus explained to his disciples what must come to pass in Jerusalem, the thought of their beloved Master suffering no doubt aroused feelings. These feelings prevented Peter from understanding Jesus’s mission, and caused him to speak against the mission. Jesus’s response, “get behind me Satan” seems harsh, but it was needed. Peter needed to know where his impulses were derived.


But, that didn’t stop Peter from acting on impulse again when the crowd came to arrest Jesus. Jesus had warned the disciples that he would suffer, and told them that one of them would betray him (Matthew 26:21). We find in John 18:10-12 that when these things were being fulfilled that Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the servants! Jesus healed the man (Luke 22:50-51) and repeated that his suffering and death must take place:


“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way” (Matthew 26:52-54)?


In these verses we also see another example of Jesus exhibiting self-control. He knew that he would suffer and die at the hands of these men. He also knew that he could call on “more than twelve legions of angels” to prevent it! He pushed aside his own desires to avoid the pain in order to fulfill God’s redemptive promise (Matthew 26:39).


Self-Control Guides Our Decisions

walking on arrows painted on the ground (straight or left turn)

Self-control guides our decisions and how we display the Fruit of the Spirit. We have already mentioned that denying our impulses, by taking a moment to thoughtfully consider our response, allows the Holy Spirit opportunity to work in us. But, what does that really look like?


If we consider the other fruits (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness) we might be tempted to think that they are listed in order of importance. After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and we are told in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that “the greatest of these is love.” Love is supposed to color everything we do! So, where does this leave the other traits mentioned?


Let’s consider how all of these “fruits" are related. Really, if we look carefully at Galatians 5:22 you will notice that Paul uses the singular noun “fruit”, not fruits, indicating that all of the traits listed are linked. “But the fruit of the Spirit…”


Consider the example of faithfulness. We often think of this in terms of romantic relationships, but it is more than that. God is described as faithful because we can trust that he will do what he says he will do. We can rely on him. As Christians, we are faithful in any relationship when others can have confidence that our words and our deeds will be loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, good and gentle. But, how can we exhibit all of these traits without self-control? How can we resist the temptation to violate the trust of others if we cannot control our impulses to cheat on our spouse, or renege on a promise to a friend, or to slack in fulfilling our responsibilities as an employee?


The discipline cultivated by the sanctification (Ephesians 4:20–24) process leads to the self-control needed to demonstrate the traits of character that are the “fruit of the Spirit”. Love is still the most important since we would have no desire to develop our character into Christ’s likeness without it. But, we would not be able to execute that desire without self-control.


Achieved Through Jesus

Psychology Today defines self-control as “the ability to manage one's impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals.” We often associate words like “discipline” and “self-control” with negativity. No one wants to manage impulses, or control themselves, because someone else told them to! I like this definition. It tells us ‘why’ we do it. It doesn’t say “to avoid consequences.” It says “you have goals to achieve!”


What are our goals as Christians? Do we view self-control and discipline as four-letter-words because we are focused on denying our impulses rather than the goal of being like Jesus? It's a lofty goal, for sure. But, God has promised us a Helper.


Self-control is a result of our relationship with Jesus Christ (connected to the vine - John 15). We need the overcoming power of Jesus through the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in order to bear this fruit.


“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, instructing [disciplining] us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly [self-controlled], righteously, and in a godly manner in the present age,” (Titus 2:11–12 NASB).


Discipline is the guidance and training that leads to obedience. Self-control is the resulting character trait that makes obedience possible. In Part 3 of this series we will take a closer look at the role of punishment.


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