We’ve come to the last of our fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility, and finally, self-control. From the flourish of love, joy and peace, this last word can feel like a bit of a flump back into reality. What is Saint Paul talking about with this final fruit, self-control?
The Greek word translated here as “self-control” shows up in three verses of the New Testament.[i] Why self-control? Why do we need this? Perhaps the operative question is what happens when our life is out of control? At best, our life will be disappointing, unfocused, and unfulfilled; at worst, we face or create trouble, and run the risk of losing our companions in life or getting lost ourselves. Self-control helps us to live the life we desire to live with intention and purpose – which also can contribute to our growth in all the other fruits of the Spirit.
Since the earliest days of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, monks have redressed the need to focus life’s energies by developing what they called a rule of life. The word “rule” comes from the Latin regula, describing a way of regulating and regularizing our lives so we can live fully and freely within our own skin and alongside those who companion us in life. A rule of life is like a garden trellis, offering support and direction for a plant, helping it to grow upright and blossom. A rule of life is a document that is both descriptive and prescriptive: descriptive, in that it articulates our intentions and identifies the way of life for ourselves; and prescriptive, pointing us to how we can return to the path and recapture our vision for life when we miss the mark. A rule of life helps bring rhythm, order, and balance to our lives.
We want to cultivate life practices that invite us to live our lives responsively, not just reactively. A rule of life helps us to name up front what we know to be our priorities in life, letting our highest priorities and deepest desires inform what we do, day by day. In the ancient monastic vocabulary we find the Greek word askesis, from which we get the word “asceticism.” Asceticism may sound extreme and off-putting; however, the word simply means “practice.” The English word “exercise” comes from the same etymological root as “asceticism.” Not unlike the exercises we use to learn a sport, or to play a musical instrument, or to become fluent in a second language, so too the askesis of a rule of life gives us structure to hone our best practices in life. A rule of life creates a container that fits your life.
Life is precious and it has a terminus, we know not when. A rule of life mitigates living life regretfully. Bonnie Ware, who is a palliative care nurse, interviewed many hundreds of her patients who had gone home to die. She compiled a list of regrets she heard from those who were dying.[ii] The most common regrets expressed were:
- “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I had not worked so hard,” which she heard especially from men.
- “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings and desires, not settling for a mediocre existence.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
- “I wish I had let myself be happier.”
A rule of life is not some all-encompassing elixir for living life without regret; however, a rule of life will help enormously. It will make a world a difference for you personally and – if you share your life with a spouse, or partner, or other people – you will either come to a common mind and practice, or you will come to a mutual understanding and respect for how to share life.
I’ll give you a sample of the energy and creativity of a personal rule of life that comes from a friend, and with her permission. She is a business executive and married; their children are now grown.
- Her rule of life informs how she and her husband share meals, paying attention to the food, however simple. Breakfasts and dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, allowing space to listen and speak about the day – joy and gratitude; sadness and frustration; questions and conclusions.
- Her rule of life creates greater capacity to take the needs, sorrows, and desires of others into her life, work, and prayer.
- Her rule of life helps her to remember “that the person in front of me, in conversation with me at that moment, is to have my full attention, the undistracted capacity of my heart and mind.”
- Her rule of life recalls her to the practice of listening for both sorrow and joy, strength and struggle in her family, friends, and colleagues.
- Her rule of life helps her to make decisions about her calendar and time, so that there is the necessary spaciousness and freedom from distraction, though not without much difficulty, she admits.
- And finally, her rule of life gives her ways of entering more intentionally into practices of solitude, the nurturing of creativity and delight, and, for God’s sake, times of doing nothing except abiding in God, what she calls “sabbath time.”
If you were to develop (or re-develop) your personal rule of life, here are some suggestions:
- Invite God into the process. Pray as you ponder your life.
- Take time. The goal is not to be perfect, but to be real. There is not a right way to do this; there is only a real way to do this.
- Be gentle with yourself. The intention is to celebrate your life, not to chastise yourself.
- Draft your rule, whether in flowing prose or with cryptic bullet points. Whatever.
- Test the fit of your rule (for a week, or for a month, or whatever you decide), then review and revise your rule.
- Make commitment to a soulmate, to regularly check in with them how goes it.
For your personal “rule of life,” here are some aspects of your life you may want to consider:
- Your relationships. Identify who is (or should be) important to you, and how you practice that importance in the cadence of your life. Consider your relationship to:
- Your family and friends.
- Your colleagues and neighbors; your fellow volunteers, or parishioners, or members of some organization.
- Your enemies. (If you were to tell me you don’t have enemies, I don’t buy it. Jesus had enemies! If “enemy” is not a word in your vocabulary, then incorporate “people who are not helpful to your program,” or “irritating people who get under your skin.” What about them in your rule of life?)
- The maturing of your mind. Jesus said that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[iii] What of your study in times past has been intellectually formative, challenging, inspiring, motivating that is worth retrieving? And for now, what is going on “out there” that is new, intriguing, stimulating, puzzling, even off-putting but clearly has captured attention – yours or others’? Push yourself. What venues can you access – whether books or audio books, periodicals, podcasts, online courses, public lectures, participation in study groups – that provide intellectual stimulation? How is your mind growing, not constricting, as you age?
- The custody of your body. For many of us, in our younger life our body was like a well-trained personal assistant: responding to our desires and demands, and taking us to destinations near and far, wherever and whenever we chose. Sickness and the limitations that come either in younger life or with aging change the relationship between our soul’s desires and our body’s abilities. We need to keep on good speaking terms with our body. Incorporate into your rule of life the custody of your own body with diet, sleep, exercise, and health care. How will you cherish and care for your body?
- The stewardship of your resources. You have inner resources in your personal gifts and abilities. How can these be cultivated, enjoyed, and shared? You also have physical assets that you hold now and from which you will part at the end of your life. You will likely need to be in communication with your family, friends, and with your lawyer; however also be in good communication with your own soul. Identify practices in your rule of life how you will have, hold, and share the resources entrusted to you.
- The release of your creativity. We say in our Rule of Life, “Each of us has been given the divine spark of creativity and imagination, and as we grow in our conversion to Christ, so should our gratitude and reverence for these gifts.”[iv] What cultivates and expresses your creativity? If you are out of practice, what could you try? To what could you return that you enjoyed as a child? Try some things. You need not be a master. The author, Brian Andreas, writes rather whimsically: “I had a dream and I heard music and there were children standing around, but no one was dancing. I asked a little girl why not? and she said they didn’t know how, or maybe they used to but they forgot and so I started to hop up and down and the children asked me, Is that dancing? and I laughed and said, no, that’s hopping, but at least it’s a start and soon everyone was hopping and laughing and it didn’t matter anymore that no one was dancing.”[v]
- The enjoyment of your life. Many of us began life by playing… and then life became increasingly earnest and complex. What to you is enjoyable? What gives you delight? Some years ago, our late brother Paul Wessinger was asked by a group of students the single-most important practice for thriving in life. Br. Paul was a holy man, and I knew he would respond with some wisdom about prayer and his relationship with God. Wrong! With a rather mischievous look in his eyes, Br. Paul said, “what we need for thriving is a good sense of humor,” and then he laughed heartily. Enjoyment should figure into your rule of life. You’re worth it! I particularly enjoy fun with language. Did you hear how Winston Churchill, after being reprimanded by Lady Astor for ending a sentence with a preposition, retorted, “This is the kind of thing up with which I will not put!”
- The observance of sabbath time. Jesus was formed by the practice of sabbath rest, and he presumes our similar need.[vi] In our Rule of Life, we devote an entire chapter to “Rest and Recreation.” Our sabbath day of rest (which for us Brothers is on Mondays) gives us the opportunity to refresh and deepen our friendships, and it enables us to rest, exercise, and play. Our sabbath observance encourages a space for music, art, entertainment, hobbies, and other for pursuits that interest us. We even say in our Rule that each and every day should include an element of sabbath. Let your rule of life enshrine sabbath rest figuring into every day, something more every week, something more every month, something more every year.
- What else? What else is essential for you that I have not named here? What would contribute to your thriving: something that you need to add into your life; maybe something that you need to limit in your life; maybe something you need to exclude from your life?
Was all this what Saint Paul meant when he named self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit? I don’t fully know. But I do know that, after thirty-five years of living as a monk, and by a rule of life, I have found a rule of life enormously helpful to me – and to those with whom I share life – in naming and claiming the way we intend to live. When we live not haphazardly, not accidentally, nor just reactively, but with purpose and intention, we have a much better chance at discovering the freedom that God wishes for us, the freedom to be fully alive.
Self-control will help you to claim meaning in life to be fully and freely alive, now.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- In the course of your own life, whom have you seen that lived their lives with a pattern and practices that you found inspiring or inviting? Why?
- Where in your life do you need to say “yes,” and where do you need to say “no”? (Unless we find the freedom to say “no,” we are really not free to say “yes.”)
- What is your prayer for self-control?
Before we leave, a few final words of encouragement from the Scriptures:
“You 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.” 2 Peter 1:5-7
[i] The Greek word ἐγκράτεια (self-control) appears as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23, and also at Acts 24:25 and 2 Peter 1:5-7: “For this very reason, you 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.”
[iii] Matthew 13:52.
[iv] The SSJE Rule of Life, chapter 44: ”Maintaining Our Health and Creativity.” For your inspiration, SSJE’s entire Rule of Life is available online at no cost: https://www.ssje.org/worship/rule-of-life-resources
[v] Brian Andreas in Mostly True; Collected Stories and Drawings.
[vi] In the Ten Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The explanation is given in Exodus 20:8-11 and in Deuteronomy 5:12-15.