“But the fruit of the Spirit is…self-control…” Galatians 5:22-23 NIV
“A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.” Proverbs 25:28 NLT
Recently, I spent some time in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a man of God, used by God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down. While reading this, I was drawn to the purpose of Jerusalem’s walls.
The walls were established to protect God’s people – to keep their enemy at bay. They were a refuge and a stronghold. As long as the Israelites continued to obey God’s commands, they would be able to live within those protective walls – experiencing safety and freedom.
However, His people chose a life of continuous rebellion, a significant lack of self-control. God had given them ample opportunity to repent and turn to Him, but their own sinful desires got the best of them, and in the end – they lacked the self-control it took to live righteously.
Eventually those walls were demolished, and the majority of God’s people were taken captive by an evil king – King Nebuchadnezzar. Only a remnant was remaining – the poorest and the weakest of the Israelites.
When Nehemiah entered the scene, the remnant, those who were not taken captive, of Jerusalem had been living for 150 years in a city whose walls were broken down. They were living in “great trouble and disgrace” (see Nehemiah 1).
There was nothing between God’s people and their enemy. No refuge. No stronghold. No safe place. Can you imagine what life must have been like for them?
God also provides walls for us to live within today. These walls are not physical walls, per se, but they offer the same measures of protection, refuge, and freedom as the physical walls of Jerusalem. These walls, better known as boundaries, help us know the way we are called to live our life.
The ten commandments are a great example of boundaries where we can see clearly the expectations of God for His children. We can find further examples in the New Testament like loving our neighbor as ourselves, living at peace with each other, forgiving one another, and so many other commands and exhortations for Christian living.
Seems simple – just do what God tells us to do and we get to live in safety. God is our refuge and our fortress, and all we need to do is listen and obey. If only it was so easy!
The problem lies in the fact that the human heart is naturally drawn toward sin! Because of our broken nature – we cannot help but be drawn toward the things that stand against God.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Romans 7:15, 17-19 NIV
Even the super-apostle Paul struggled with self-control! How should we expect to be different? In fact, we aren’t much different than the Israelites, so long ago.
We know how to behave. We know the difference between right and wrong. We know that it will go far better for us if we choose right then it will if we don’t. And yet we – as human beings – still naturally go towards rebellion. And because of this, we often find ourselves living in a city ‘without walls’ – where the enemy is able to come and go as he pleases, creating havoc in our lives.
Is there any hope for us? Hallelujah, yes!
We have something the Israelites did not have back then. We have a Savior – Jesus Christ. And because of the work He has done on the cross, we do not have to live a hopeless existence.
Yes, we are still human beings and still have a natural bent toward sin. Yes, we are flawed and imperfect and are going to choose wrong choices in our lives. But this doesn’t mean that we are hopeless. Not at all!
One of the most precious gifts we receive when we accept Jesus into our heart as Lord and Savior, is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – the empowerment to live out the life that Christ died for us to live. And the fruit (or evidence) of the Holy Spirit living in us is everything that we could never accomplish on our own – love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (See Galatians 5:22-23).
It is the Spirit living within us that empowers us to stay within the boundaries of God’s commands for our life. We could never obey God in our own strength for any significant period of time. We can grit our teeth and live on our own willpower for a while – some longer than others – but we can never fully obey God apart from His strength within us (See John 15).
It is continual surrender and submission to the love and leadership of God through the Holy Spirit that keeps us grow good fruit in our lives. Without that, we simply cannot live within the boundaries God has set for us, at least not with any real measure of spiritual growth.
In my own life, self-control has been a painstaking area of growth for me. I lived most of my life in rebellion against God – doing whatever I pleased, whenever I pleased, with whomever I pleased to do it with.
I had no regard for the things of God, even though I did have an understanding of His commands. And even when I did desire to do good – I was unable to do it, with any consistency at least.
The wrong choices in my life quickly swallowed up any resemblance of right living, and eventually I ended up living a life where the walls were completely destroyed. I lived a nearly boundary-less life, where pretty much “anything goes”.
It almost killed me – quite literally. I knew the difference between good and bad, between right and wrong – I just couldn’t make the harder choices with any conviction, and eventually I stopped really trying to make the right choices. I just went with what was easiest, and I wound up in a world of pain and trouble.
I hit my personal bottom in 2010. Just like God used Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls that had been destroyed, He also used people and circumstances in my life to begin to rebuild the boundary lines in my own life.
As I entered into relationship with Christ, I began to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out the life that Christ died for me to live. Slowly, over time, I saw the fruit of the Spirit become evidenced in my life. I began to grow in each area, a little bit at a time.
Just like fruit doesn’t grow overnight in the natural, it is a process in the spiritual as well. Self-control is something I must practice at. It is a choice I must actively make, to turn away from what I am naturally drawn toward and to choose what is best.
Practicing self-control involves keeping my future self in mind while making choices for my present self. It means putting down the remote and picking up the Bible. It means grabbing that bottle of water instead of diet soda.
It involved walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Speaking out my feelings instead of holding them in until I burst. Choosing honesty over deception. Facing my fears instead of running from them. And so much more.
God gives me multiple opportunities daily to grow, and my character is being transformed every single day. I seek progress and not perfection, knowing that one day I will stand before God complete and whole – operating in the fulness of my God-given identity. Today, I just seek to be a little further along in the process than I was yesterday – one opportunity at a time.