Fruit of the Spirit – Gentleness, Self-Control

See the study on Love and Joy for a full introduction to our continuing study of the Fruit of the Spirit.  One paragraph from that introduction bears repeating here:

The intent of this study is not to send us out to work hard at bearing fruit.  It is impossible to simply decide to be gentle and self-controlled.  The fruit comes as a result of walking.  It is important to remember that this is the fruit of the Spirit.  When we make knowing God the center of our lives, when we walk with Him in loving obedience, when we live thankful lives based on the gospel – THEN we bear the fruit that marks us as one of His.  The intent of this study is to recognize the fruit and assess where we are in knowing our Creator.  If the fruit is not there we should examine ourselves to make sure we are in the faith.  And then we should prayerfully work at knowing our Father and walking by His Spirit.

It is amazing that a characteristic of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, sovereign Creator of the universe is gentleness.  A Being described as a consuming fire, the Lord of Hosts, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and God Almighty is also One who speaks in a still, small voice (I Kings 19:12 – KJV) and describes Himself as a tender Shepherd gathering nursing lambs into His bosom (Isa 40:11).  Gentleness is an element of the Fruit of the Spirit because our Father in heaven is gentle.

We see this most clearly in Jesus.  Isaiah prophesied about Him (quoted in Matt 12:20) – A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out.  This is quoted in regard to Jesus ministering to the multitudes.  His approach was so gentle that it would not break off a battered reed hanging by a thread or snuff out a smoldering wick barely burning.  Jesus described Himself as gentle and humble in heart (Matt 11:29 – see also II Cor 10:1).  He said the gentle shall inherit the earth (Matt 5:5).  He continually had compassion on the physically weak and mercy on the spiritually sick.  He told the weary and heavy-laden to come to Him for rest (Matt 11:28).  He had compassion on the multitudes because they were distressed and downcast (Matt 9:36).  We serve a gentle Savior! 

Gentleness in the Bible describes how believers are to learn (Jas 1:21), how we restore those who have fallen into sin (Gal 6:1), and how we confront opposition to the gospel (II Tim 2:24-25, I Pet 3:14-16).  In short, it should govern all of our interactions with others.

An excellent example of gentleness is a mother with a newborn.  If you watch a woman holding a tiny baby you see gentleness in every action.  Everything about a baby screams fragility.  Thus the mother will hold him tenderly, making sure to support his head since he cannot hold it up himself.  His skull has soft areas and his skin is delicate so she must hold him so he does not fall, yet gently so as not to hurt him.  She lovingly cradles him and takes care of his every need.

In many ways this is the picture of how our Father treats us.  He realizes how fragile we are.  We are emotional, we are prone to discouragement and hopelessness, we are easily distracted by the world – mostly we are just sinful.  Our Father knows us completely so He treats us with the utmost gentleness.  He comes alongside of us, He gives us strength, He promises to never leave or forsake us.  Even when He sends trials that do not seem very gentle He tells us to give all of our worries to Him and to let Him take care of justice and vengeance.  He is merciful and loving.  He gently leads us and invites us to talk to Him without ceasing.

Thus when we walk with the Spirit of our gentle Father we become gentle.  We become gentle because He is gentle but also because we reflect the gentleness He shows us.  We will treat others not as we think they deserve, but as fragile people who need tenderness and care.  We will meet opposition with compassion instead of anger, and difficult people with mercy instead of scorn or disgust.  We will see them as our Father sees them – as people in need of a gentle Shepherd.

Self-control is the ability to resist the flesh.  It is really at the base of what it means to walk by the Spirit.  In 5:16 when Paul said, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” he defined self-control. 

The generic definition of self control is the control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will.  For the believer this definition is lacking since reliance on self is the exact thing walking by the Spirit fights against.  We walk by the Spirit precisely because self-control leads to the deeds of the flesh (as Paul defines them in 5:19-21).  From that perspective perhaps a more accurate term would be “Spirit-control” since it is only through Him that we truly resist the flesh.  Either that or we need to add “Spirit-led” between the words own and will in the definition.

Self-control applies to all areas of life.  If I resist over-eating I am self-controlled.  If I resist the temptation to gossip I am self-controlled.  If I resist letting my eyes wander where they should not I am self-controlled.  If I control my temper, if I do not seek revenge, if I fight laziness and do the things I know I need to, I am self-controlled (self-control does not refer only to what I avoid, it also describes the will to do what is right when I want to do nothing).  It is the ability to resist the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes (I Jn 2:16).  It is a disciplined life that does right because it is right and resists wrong because it is wrong, regardless of feelings.

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as told in Genesis 39 provides a perfect example of how Spirit-led self-control should work.  Joseph has been sold into slavery by his brothers and ends up in Egypt in the household of Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard.  As Joseph works for Potiphar, Potiphar’s confidence in him grows to the point where he makes Joseph the overseer of the whole house and puts all he owns under Joseph’s authority.  Potiphar’s trust in Joseph is so great that he stops keeping track of his affairs or even asking how things are going.  Verse 6 of Genesis 39 says the only thing Potiphar worries about is the food he eats.  He knows everything is in good hands and that God blesses his house because of Joseph.

After Joseph becomes a leader in the household (Joseph likely entered slavery in his late teens – Gen. 37:2 – and does not become a ruler in Egypt until he is 30 – Gen. 41:46 – so he possibly has been in Potiphar’s house for a number of years) he is noticed by Potiphar’s wife.  We do not know anything about her other than she is the wife of the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard.  As such she likely has money and apparently some leisure time on her hands.  She also has an eye for handsome young men and lives in a culture known for its loose morals and sexual appetites. 

The Bible tells us at the end of verse 6 that Joseph is well built and good looking (NET Bible).  [This is the same description used of Rachel – Joseph’s mother – in Gen. 29:17.  It is another example of how real the Bible is and what a great gift it is that God caused it to be written by real people about real people for the use of real people.  This is not a religious book that addresses us only in pious pronouncements or mythical stories.  It is God’s will oftentimes told through very human stories and addressed to people with emotions and urges and feelings.  How wonderful is it that God gives a book like this to us?]  As such, he becomes a target for Potiphar’s wife.  She decides one day to advance on him and bluntly asks him to sleep with her (she does not exactly take a subtle approach – this is likely because he is a slave and she assumes will do whatever he is asked, or it could be indicative of the culture she is in).  The Bible does not tell us anything about her looks or age, but it is worth noting that for her to make a claim later that he tries to rape her means she is attractive enough to make it credible and she has the money to avail herself of all the beauty enhancements of the day.

Joseph’s response to her is telling.  He rehearses for her the status he has in the house and the confidence Potiphar has in him.  He tells her that Potiphar has given him authority over everything he has with the exception of her – his wife.  He then ends with a key statement (39:9) – “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” 

This is what it means to be Spirit-led.  Joseph does not just see this as evil against a man who has put great trust in him.  He sees it accurately as sin against God (as David will after his sin with Bathsheba – Against You and You only have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight – Ps 51:4).  His time of pleasure would ultimately be a sin against the One who has protected him and blessed him in Potiphar’s house.  Joseph has put himself entirely in God’s hands.  To take advantage of this temptation would be to violate the One he has trusted completely since leaving Canaan.  Joseph has a RELATIONSHIP.  How can he violate the God who has walked with him every step of the way since he was betrayed by his brothers, sent to a foreign land and sentenced to a life of slavery?  He walks with God and cannot fathom sinning against Him.

When I regarded God as a tyrant, I thought sin a trifle; but when I knew Him to be my Father, then I mourned that I could ever have kicked against Him. When I thought that God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.  – CH Spurgeon

Joseph practices Spirit-led self control not just once with Potiphar’s wife, but continually over a period of time.  Verse 10 says she continues her advances day after day.  The sin she represents does not go away but continues to tempt.  Joseph not only continues to refuse but takes steps to not even be around her (also verse 10).  He avoids the temptation where he can but repeatedly refuses it when he cannot escape it.  The relationship he has with God and the power of the Spirit who walks with him continue to be stronger than the allure of the pleasure she promises.

Joseph’s example is spectacular.  He is young, he is good looking, he is faced with a temptation tailor-made for a man his age – and he does not give in even once.  He does not even consider it – does not come close, does not decide to just hang out with her while convincing himself he will not do anything dumb.  He avoids her altogether and ultimately runs away when she finally loses patience and grabs him.  His behavior is exemplary in the face of enormous temptation.

It is important to note a description of Joseph that is repeated in the text (verses 2, 3 and later in 21 and 23).  The author tells us that the Lord was with Joseph. This is how we know Joseph is Spirit-led.  He walks with God on a daily basis and so is horrified rather than tempted by the fun Mrs. Potiphar promises.

Walking by the Spirit enables self-control because the walk itself is sweeter than the rewards and temptations of the world.  When a Spirit-led man is faced with the opportunity to sin, the prospect grieves him because of what it would mean to the relationship he has with the Father.  He understands intimately what it means to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8).  Why would he want to mess up the sweet communion he has with his Father with something that is ultimately empty and harmful?  And how can he offend the One who is everything to him and the center of his life?  The one who walks by the Spirit is appalled at sin not because of consequences or guilt, but because it is against the very One he walks with.  He is appalled at sin before he makes the choice – not just after he commits.

Another point to consider about walking by the Spirit is God’s nature.  God cannot be tempted by evil (Jas 1:13).  It makes sense, then, that those who walk by His Spirit and grow in His likeness are not as easily tempted either.  It sounds simplistic, but the more we walk with God the more we become like God and the less enamored we become with sin.  We become more self-controlled as we grow in godliness.

The one who lacks self-control is the one who walks in his own strength and who ultimately values temporary happiness over communion.  When I walk in my own strength (true self-control) I will always be susceptible to sin because ultimately my commitment to God is about me.  I am the one who makes it work.  Eventually the focus on me is going to lead me to want to make me happy.  And since there really is not any daily communion with God I cannot – in the face of temptation – compare what is in front of me with anything better that I have in God or weigh what it does to my relationship with God against the temporary pleasure it will provide.  Sin is always a choice between what I see and what I believe (we walk by faith and not by sight).  When my hope is placed in myself, the things that make me happy almost always win out over the promises of God.  Lack of self-control – in any area – is a key sign that I walk in my strength instead of the Spirit’s.

Summary of the Study
The nine elements of the Fruit of the Spirit are characteristics of God that will be ours to varying degrees when we walk with Him.  If we walk by the Spirit we will grow in godliness.  If we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desires of the flesh because we will become more and more like the One we walk with.

God is love.  God is perfectly joyful within Himself and the fellowship of the Trinity.  God is peaceful because He is sovereign.  God is perfectly patient and kind because He is love.  God is good and as such is the author and standard of all that is good.  God is perfectly faithful – He cannot be unfaithful.  God is gentle because He is love and He is self-controlled because He is omnipotent and sovereign and cannot be anything else.

The key to understanding this is to remember that it all comes back to walking by the Spirit.  We either walk by the Spirit or we walk in our own strength.  To walk in our own strength is to invite the deeds of the flesh to characterize our lives.  Walking by the Spirit produces fruit – walking in our own strength produces discouragement and failure.  If we oftentimes feel overwhelmed by all that is required of a Christian or if we continually fall to sin and live lives of repeated discouragement – then it is very likely that we are trying to live as believers in our own strength.  People leave the faith after walking in their own strength because they find Christianity impossible.  And that it is impossible to do on our own (…for apart from Me you can do nothing – Jn 15:5) is why we must determine to walk by the Spirit and enable Him to bear His fruit in our lives.

Four of the elements of the Spirit’s fruit are focused on the one who walks.  We will be joyful, peaceful, patient and self-controlled when our focus is on God and we rely on His strength.  Six of the elements are others-centered.  We will be loving, patient, kind, good, faithful and gentle in our interactions with others when our focus is on God and we rely on His strength. (Yes, there are only nine elements and we have just listed ten – but that is because patience can go in either list and so is shown twice).

As mentioned many times in our study, these elements are not individual.  We are not to aspire to some and give ourselves a pass on others that we think do not come naturally to us (especially since in truth none of them comes naturally).  There is one Fruit and it is made up of all nine characteristics.  When we walk by the Spirit He will bear all of them in us to some degree.  This cannot be any other way because all the characteristics are in God – and as we already said we grow in godliness when we walk with Him.

Walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.
Walk by the Spirit and you will become loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.

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