THE VIRTUE OF SELF-CONTROL

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Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues, is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

We find a similar list of virtues in 2 Peter presented as a plan for those who seek to make progress in the Christian life.

[Y]ou must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:5–8 NRSV).

To help understand the flow of the argument in 2 Peter, it is helpful to arrange the words in a different, more structured, way.

You must make every effort to support your:

Faith with goodness (lit. virtue)

Goodness with knowledge

Knowledge with self-control

Self-control with endurance

Endurance with godliness

Godliness with mutual affection (Gk. Philadelphian, lit. “brotherly love”)

Mutual affection with love

Love….

In the classical Greek thought of Aristotle, the word “virtue” refers literally to an “excellence,” a behavior, that we develop over time.  We gain virtue from practice.  Virtue, in other words, is gained much like a skill.  We learn as we fail and as we succeed, always building and growing.  We don’t gain virtue all at once but rather we develop it over time.

In 2 Peter we find the outlines of a program for the formation of Christian virtue; it begins with faith and ends with love, the pinnacle of Christian virtue (“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1Cor. 13:13).  The purpose of the program is so that we may not be “ineffective” or “unfruitful.” In more positive terms, the program is presented so that our lives in Christ might bear fruit, genuine fruit.

When we compare the list of virtues that St. Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) with the list in 2 Peter, we find some similarities and differences.  “Patience” and “endurance” have similar, but not exact, meanings as do “gentleness” and “mutual affection” (lit. “brotherly love.”). [The virtue of endurance refers to the ability to hold up under difficult circumstances.  For that reason, I wrote about that virtue previously relating it to the “resilience” we need to bounce back from upsets, disappointments, and failures.]

The only two words, however, that are precisely the same in both Galatians and 2 Peter are “self-control” and “love.”

I would like to focus further attention on the virtue of “self-control.”  “The virtue of self-control” “involves the restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, and desires.” *

The New Testament writers were familiar with Greco-Roman philosophical ideas about moral virtue of self-control.  The idea was common to the Greek philosophies of Epicurus and Zeno, the father of Stoicism. It is also found in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 25:28, for example, we read: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”

A staple of Hellenistic moralism, we find self-control central to the argument of 4 Maccabees, a book not found in our Bible, but one that is canonical in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

[I]t is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain (4 Mac. 1:4).

Modern psychological study and research now recognize that reason does not always go hand in hand with self-control, especially when it comes to addiction. People facing addiction realize all too readily that they have no power within themselves to control themselves. That is why the beginning of treatment starts with the recognition of the powerlessness of the human will in the face of addiction.

To live and work with others productively in community, we have to exercise some measure of self-control.  We should always think before we speak. In James 1:19 we find just such an admonition: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….”  Notice it does not say quick to speak and slow to listen, but “quick to listen and slow to speak.”   Here a practical example is given to help us understand what it means to exercise self-control in our dealings with others.

The New Testament is full of advice on how to live together in community.  While there is much more I could say about this, the words of St. Paul sum it up best when he says that we should “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  Striving to do that first and foremost lays the foundation for the “self-control” of our impulses and emotions.

*Michael J. Harrington, S.J, Jude and 2 PeterSacra Pagina Series. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 244-5.