This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.
Back in the 1980's, when drug use became epidemic among young people, and teen pregnancy and AIDS were on the rise, and gangs were turning urban neighborhoods into war zones, someone came up with a simple solution to these risky behaviors: Just Say No. If we could just teach young people to say "No" to drugs and sex and violence, we could save many lives and perhaps reshape youth culture in America.
The idea caught on, and with some help from 1st Lady Nancy Regan and the cooperation of the mass media, the Just Say No campaign blanketed America with school curriculum, TV advertisements, and celebrity endorsements. Police Departments joined the effort and developed the DARE program that schoolchildren and parents all across the country are familiar with: Drug Abuse Resistance Education. It's a simple strategy: teach young people the dangers of these risky behaviors, and then train them how to respond to temptation and peer pressure.
When you're at a party, and someone tries to put a drink or a pill in your hands, just say "No." When you're alone with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and they're pressuring you to do something you don't want to do, just say "No." When someone taunts you and you're tempted to strike back, just say "No."
20 years later the DARE program is a well-funded and award-winning program. It can be found in almost every school system in the country and in 50-some other nations around the world. There's only one problem: it doesn't work. Surveys and studies over the past 15 years have revealed again and again that educational programs not only fail to reduce risky behaviors, but in some cases they actually increase them. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General officially placed the DARE program in the "Does Not Work" category. The reason it doesn't work is that it doesn't go deep enough. Saying "No" isn't something we do with our minds or our mouths, it's something we do with our hearts. Saying "No" requires something deep inside that most teenagers don't have: self-control.
As we come to the end of our series on the fruit of the Spirit, we come to what may be the most curious, most elusive of these Christ-like qualities. It's curious because self-control seems to be a private, personal virtue, and yet we've said all along that these were supposed to be relational qualities. What does self-control have to do with the other people in my life?
Self-control is elusive, because we'd all have to admit that young people aren't the only ones who have a hard time saying "No." When that chocolate cake in the refrigerator is calling your name, when pornographic websites are just a click away, when that difficult person is pushing your buttons and you want to let them have it, it's not so easy to just say "No."
As important as it is for young people to say use self-control as they become adults, it is equally important for Christians to use self-control as we function as the Body of Christ. Let's look once more at Galatians 5, and see what God has in mind for our relationships with each other in the church and beyond.
Love, we learned, is acting in the interest of others, no matter who they are, how we feel, or what it costs. Joy is taking delight in each other as we become the people God created us to be. Peace is enjoying harmony and unity, in spite of our differences. Patience is offering each other time and space for God to do a fresh work in our lives. Kindness and Goodness involve softening the world's harshness in simple and practical ways. Faithfulness is keeping our word to one another, even when it's difficult. Gentleness is giving up the need to control people and instead trusting them to God. Let's turn our attention to the last one in the list: self-control. What is it? Why is it so important? And how do we get it?
What is self-control?
The English dictionary tells us that self-control is the ability to exercise the will so as to restrain one's desires, emotions, and behavior. I'm struck by the word, "restrain." That word suggests there's a problem with our desires, emotions, and behavior. It implies that if we don't control them, they'll get away from us; like wild horses, they might take us places we don't want to go.
Secondly, notice that it requires an exercise of the will. In other words, the strength to restrain our desires, emotions, and actions has to come from within rather than from some outside source. Why is it that we can wake up in the morning to get to school or work, but we can't wake up to go to the gym or have devotions? It's because getting up for school or work involves an external motivator. Your teacher can dock your grade, or your boss can fire you. But no one is forcing you to get up to exercise or to spend time with God. It has to come from within you; it's a matter of the will.
The Greek word used here runs along the same lines. It's a compound word that begins with the word for "strength" or "power" and attaches the prefix meaning "in or within." So self-control in Scripture is strength within. It's the ability to govern your own behavior. Plato described it as self-mastery.
Paul uses the word a couple other times in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, he uses it to describe an athlete who masters his emotions and his body in order to run a race. He says, "I beat my body and make it my slave." In every long distance run, there comes a moment when you just want to stop; the lactic acid builds up in your muscles, your lungs can't get enough air, your mind tells you that you still have a long way to go, your spirit begins to sag, and you wonder why you ever started the run in the first place. It's not only a matter of physical strength at that point, but mental and emotional strength—the will-power to keep going when your mind and body and emotions are telling you to stop. That's self-control.
Paul also uses the word in 1 Corinthians 7 regarding sexuality. He acknowledges that our sexual drive is a powerful force that can easily take us places we don't want or need to go. We know what he means. When society treats sex so casually, when it's common practice to be sexually-active outside of marriage, it takes great self-control to say "No." In fact, he counsels single people that it's better to get married than to risk being ruined by lust or immorality.
But notice one more thing: self-control isn't an end in itself; it's always for some greater purpose. The athlete masters his body and mind in order to win the race. A single person restrains their sexual desires in order to enjoy sexuality fully in marriage. Self-control is the ability to say "No" to your self in order to say "Yes" to something else.
Why is self-control so important?
Why is self-control so important to relationships? Remember, Paul is writing this letter to Christians who weren't getting along with each other or with him. Why does he include self-control in this list of virtues?
It's very simple: if we can't say "No" to our own comfort and convenience, we'll never be able to serve one another. If we can't say "No" to our preferences or agendas, we'll never be able to defer to one another. If we can't say "No" to our pride, we'll never be able to admit we were wrong, or to reveal what's really going on in our lives. If we can't say "No" to fear, we'll never walk across the room to meet a stranger or come alongside someone in a season of grief. You see, we have to say "No" to ourselves in order to say "Yes" to one another. This isn't easy to do.
I received an email recently from someone in the congregation. They've given me permission to share a few lines:
For me, the biggest obstacle to my relationships in and out of the church is handling conflict and differences. Some people just irritate me more than others. And I know that I irritate people. I'm working on that, but it's mostly due to my own lack of self-control. I just want to "tell it like it is," instead of speaking the truth in love, but I know that leaves a trail of hurt that I can't always see when I'm in the middle of it.
When we can't control our emotions or desires or behavior, we end up hurting one another. That's exactly what was happening to the Christians in Galatia. That's why Paul wrote this letter. Their differences of opinion had broken out into open conflict, and people were being hurt. Instead of serving one another, deferring to one another, and accepting one another, they were provoking one another, envying one another, and judging one another.
How do we exercise self-control?
Where can we find the strength to say "No" to ourselves? The verses leading up to our main verse read: "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with one another, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" (Galatians 5:16-18).
The reason it's so difficult to exercise self-control is that we have this fallen, sinful nature within us—these self-centered desires and tendencies that always seem to get the better of us. The Galatians were trying to wrestle that nature to the ground in their own strength by obeying the law, by gritting their teeth, by trying harder. But it's a losing battle.
Earlier we described our desires and emotions as wild horses that need to be restrained. I've never ridden a wild horse, but I have ridden some ornery ones, and I can tell you from experience that when a horse has its own idea about where it wants to go, there's not a whole lot you can do to stop it. I don't care how hard you pull the reins or shout "whoa!" In the same way, you can never overcome the sinful nature in your own strength—at least not over the long haul.
That's why the Just Say No campaign doesn't work. We can teach young people about the dangers of sex and drugs and violence, and we can train them to say "No" in the controlled environment of the classroom. But when they get out there in the real world—when they're lonely and want to feel loved, when they're sad and want to feel better, when they're angry and want to take it out on someone—their emotions and desires get the best of them, and they can't control themselves.
It's no different for adults. We know the dangers of living beyond our means, of eating or drinking too much, of losing our temper, of committing adultery in our hearts or imaginations. We promise ourselves we're not going to do those things again. And we don't, for a while. But eventually, the pressure or pain or temptation is too great and we give in.
Just say "Yes!"
Like the Surgeon General, the Apostle Paul takes the Just Say No approach and puts it in the "Does Not Work" category. In its place, he proposes a new strategy: Just say "Yes." Not "Yes" to ourselves but "Yes" to the Spirit.
Look again at 5:16: "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." Only the Spirit of God is strong enough to overcome our fallen, self-centered nature. So when we yield to the Spirit, when we surrender our will to his will, then and only they are we able to control our desires, emotions, and action.
He says a similar thing down in 5:24-25: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." When we turn to Christ in faith, he not only forgives us for our sin, he frees us from our sin. He places his Spirit within us to lead and empower us. When we say "Yes" to the Spirit, we can say "No" to ourselves. And when we say "No" ourselves, we can say "Yes" to one another.
Now we understand why Paul put self-control at the end of the list. Paul begins his list with love, because it's the foundation of all the other words, and he ends his list with self-control, because without it, none of the others are possible.
Remember these are not works of the Spirit that we accomplish in our own strength. We cannot produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness by ourselves any more than you can cut a branch off an apple tree and expect the branch to keep producing apples. The branch has no power to produce apples by itself; it has to remain with the tree, because that's where the life comes from. In the same way, it's only by remaining in Christ that we can see these fruit being produced in our lives and our church. And we remain in Christ by saying "Yes" to the Spirit.
How Jesus did it
All through this series we have been admiring the way Jesus demonstrated the fruit of the Spirit. He did it even in the face of criticism, disappointment, weariness, betrayal, injustice, pain, and abandonment. How did he do it? Where did he find the strength?
He found this strength in the Holy Spirit—the Spirit who descended on him like a dove at his baptism; the Spirit who led him into the wilderness to be tempted; the Spirit who anointed him to preach good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind. Throughout Jesus' ministry it was the Spirit that directed him and sustained him and empowered him in accordance with his Father's will. And on that final night before the cross, when his flesh wanted to find some other way, Jesus fell to the ground and prayed, "Not my will, but Thine be done." There he found strength to say "No" to himself, and "Yes" to the cross, where he would die for the sins of the world. So it is for you and me. We gain control by surrendering control.
You may feel out of control of your passions and desires today. You'll never be able to change this in your own strength. But if you're prepared to turn to Christ and confess your sin and receive his forgiveness, you, too, can receive the Holy Spirit, and the strength to become the man or woman you were created to be.
Saying "Yes" to the Spirit isn't just a one-time decision; it's a day by day, and sometimes moment by moment proposition. Even if you're already submitted to Christ at some point in your life, chances are there areas within you that are still out of control—habits or desires or behaviors that you just can't control. Surrender your control of these things to Christ.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.