Since I’ve been training to try a Strongman competition, but I’m also trying to lose some fat, I have to exercise self-control. I have to eat x amount of protein, fat and carbs. I have to follow particular exercising programs. When I wake up in the morning I eat a certain amount of protein, three hours later a little something else, something before I lift, while I lift, etcetera. I couldn’t do this all at once (I’m still not doing it all at once!) and so I started slow and have been gradually working my way up. I’ve seen the programs of Olympic athletes and their schedules and programs are insane!
In today’s Epistle to the Galatians St. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit. There he says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5.22-23). Christ says that a healthy tree bears good fruit (Mat. 7.17) and it seems like St. Paul is giving us the list of ‘fruits’ that the good tree should produce. We can use this list to ask ourselves if the Holy Spirit is working in our lives; are we bitter instead of joyful, angry instead of happy, hateful instead of loving? If we’re not producing these kinds of fruits, what type of tree are we?
A monk on Mt. Athos, named Fr. Maximos says that we should look at this list in reverse, love being the highest of these virtues. We start at the bottom of the ladder, self-control, and work our way to love. We can’t even practice gentleness without first grasping self-control. Without a measure of control, love becomes selfish and distorted. And just like a ladder will help me get up into my attic instead just jumping and pulling myself up and probably hurting myself, this ladder helps us get to love through the other virtues. Self-control is the first commandment of the Bible!
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen. 2.15-17)
Self-control is something we don’t hear a lot about anymore. The media and advertisers, want you and our children bent on fulfilling wants and desires at the moment. If you want sex, have it. If you want to eat a whole pizza, why not do it? Why not play on Facebook while you do it! Husband or wife becoming a burden? We have easy divorces! You don’t need a new TV, but this bigger one is better and there’s financing! We have every excuse to provide ourselves with every comfort possible, and if you have the money, the sky’s the limit. But this doesn’t help us at all.
Just like an athlete can’t perform properly without control, neither can we. Can I squat 500lbs if I’m not sleeping at night, and just doing whatever feels good to me? Nope! How can we fulfill Christ’s command to take care of one another if we’re constantly concerned about ourselves? We can’t respond in love to someone who is offending us if we have no control over our emotions. How do we get better at prayer and loving one another without practice? Sports is a good metaphor for the Christian Faith. To be a good “athlete” requires endurance, perseverance and control. It’s through control and self-denial that we really are stretched and can grow. And the Church is here to coach us. We have a long history of holy men and women who have studied and struggled with the Word of God and have given us helpful practices for our lives.
You see, long before the intermittent fasting craze, the Christian Church practiced fasting from meat (or meat and dairy, or meat and dairy and oil) during periods of the year, and some also practice a marital fast. We do this regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays, but then during the Advent season, Great Lent, the Dormition (Aug. 1-15). We’re denying ourselves something so that we can focus on a higher thing. The Church is telling us, ‘Wait, wait a little longer. Wait for what’s coming.’ There are also many prayers and services we can perform that can put us into a better mindset, to prepare us to face anything in the day.
These rules aren’t meant to make us miserable, but to train us! Just like the athlete gets strong and faster by following guidelines, so we Christians can become more gentle, loving, and peaceful by following our own. Our lives are governed by God’s commandments and time-tested rules that guide our lives. And it’s in these guides that we can gain self-control in our lives and begin to grow the other fruits.