Self-control is also listed by the Apostle Paul as a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5.22). This virtue is one which is not often easily attained because people forget that, like patience, it is a grace of God and they must seek it from the Lord. Instead they think that it can come from human effort and will power alone.
Self-control is one of the main characteristics of God and is one of the main gifts to man as created in God’s image. According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator. When one is perfectly free by the grace of God—“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3.17)—there is also perfect control over oneself.
Man loses his self-control when he sells himself to sin and becomes a slave to the corruption of his fleshly passions. Such a man has been characterized well in the second letter of Saint Peter.
. . . those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority . . . bold and willful . . . irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant . . . They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation . . . They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin . . . They have hearts trained in greed . . . They have gone astray . . . These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm . . . For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved (2 Pet 2.10–19).
The man without self-control is enslaved. He is the captive of sin, the willing instrument of carnal passions, the victim of all foolishness and evil. He is bound in his mind and heart by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 Jn 1–17). He is a “child of the devil” (Jn 8.44, Acts 13.10, 1 Jn 3.10) and possesses a “carnal mind” (Rom 8.7).
. . . following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we also once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the body . . . (Eph 2.3–4, Rom 1.18–32).
Self-control, according to the spiritual tradition of the Church, is the spiritual mastery over the lusts of the mind and the flesh. It is often called “passionlessness” by the spiritual masters. Passionlessness (apatheia) does not mean the destruction of the natural drives and desires of the body and soul, such as the need for sleep, food and drink; or the emotions such as spiritual desire, zeal, excitement, joy, awe, sorrow or fear. It means rather the control of the feelings that are normal, natural and healthy, and the mortification of the feelings that are wicked and evil.
Evil is to be seen, not in the nature of creatures, but in their wrong and irrational movements.
Passionlessness is a peaceful state of the soul in which it is not readily moved to evil.
In the soul are its spiritual powers. In the body are its senses and members. Around the person are food, possessions, money, etc. A right or wrong use of things, and the resulting effects show us as being either virtuous or sinful.
The scriptures . . . do not forbid eating or bearing children or having money and spending it rightly, but they forbid gluttony, fornication, and so on.
They do not even forbid us to think about such things . . . but only forbid us to think of them with passion and lust.
When the mind is not the master, the senses hold sway, and as a rule the senses are mixed with the power of sin which, through pleasure, leads the soul to pity the flesh . . . As a result, it undertakes, as if it were natural to do so, a passionate and lustful and pleasure-loving care of the flesh and leads man away from the truly natural life, urging him to be for himself the instigator of evil . . .
Evil for a rational soul is to forget its natural good, thanks to a passionate attitude to the flesh and the world. When the mind becomes the master, it abolishes such an attitude . . . rightly interpreting the origin and nature of the world and the flesh . . .
As the mind, keeping passion in its power, makes the senses the instruments of virtue, so the passions, captivating the mind, move the senses to sin. It is necessary to see how the soul should keep a suitable mode of action by using for virtues what was formerly used for sin.
A soul moves rationally when its desiring power has acquired self-mastery, its excitable power strives after love . . . and its mental power abides in God by prayer and spiritual contemplation (Saint Maximus the Confessor, 7th c.).
Thus it is only communion with God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, that gives the power of self-control to the rational creature of God.