Our small group sat around the polished wood table, eating Subway sandwiches and kettle-cooked chips off paper plates. Licking up the last crumbs, the little children hopped off their chairs and ran to the kitchen to claim an ice cream cone.
While ice cream dripped and children wiggled in their seats, Will turned the conversation toward our topic of the evening–the fruit of the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)
All of us sitting around that table wanted the qualities described in Galatians 5. Who wouldn’t desire a life infused with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? But the ever-pressing question hung thickly over us…how do we change?
If we are showing bad fruits, how do we change that? How do we produce good fruits?
“Our best effort,” Will answered, “is often indirect.”
Those words stuck with me, and I thought of them again recently while listening to a popular speaker talk about self-control.
Self-control is one of those subjects that makes me shift uncomfortably inside, because offhand I can think of a dozen areas in which I need more self-control.
I speak sharply to my children when my patience wears thin. I eat too much chocolate, even though I like healthful food. (Because…chocolate is yummy.) I’m addicted to reading, and read when I could be doing better things. I waste time on social media. The list could go on and on.
This speaker whom I was listening to talked about the importance of exercising self-control. It’s true, an undisciplined life is miserable.
But self-control, I kept thinking as she preached on, is a fruit of the Spirit. Making lists and trying harder doesn’t get me much of anywhere.
Trying harder either makes me proud that I’m being (temporarily) successful, or despondent that I have failed yet again. And always, trying harder puts the focus on me.
If self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, than only God’s indwelling presence can work this virtue in me. When I’m living in the flesh, I don’t have to be taught to be bad. Living in the flesh produces flesh-fruit. In the same way, walking in the Spirit produces Spirit-fruit.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Galatians 5:16 (ESV)
When it comes to changing behavior, my best effort is indirect. The behavior is only a symptom of a battle that must be fought in the spiritual realm by the power of Jesus. This applies not only to the area of self-control, but many other areas as well.
Sometimes I get discouraged about things I wish I could change about myself. Praying, waiting on God to do His work, seeking to deepen my relationship with Him, and letting go of my own efforts is hard. Yet I’ve found a deep rest in allowing Jesus to carry the burden.
This also affects how I parent. Too easily, I get distracted by the symptoms and try to modify the behavior of my kids. After all, having misbehaving kids is embarrassing and disruptive. I do need to teach and train them, but so often I miss the opportunity to develop their spiritual awareness. What would happen if I consistently focused on strengthening their spirits?
The best effort my family and I can make is to focus on walking with Jesus, listening to His voice, and letting Him do the hard and creative work of changing us.
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:13 (ESV)
What other areas can you think of, where indirect effort is more effective than trying harder? How has God brought about change in your life?