The first few days of Lent always find me singing to my children.
With every whimper and complaint, I belt out the tune to which we’ve memorized
Galatians 5:22-23. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I put
particular emphasis on “self-control.”
The practice of denying ourselves willingly through our Lenten
sacrifices is one that calls for self-control. Lent is a good time for
self-control awareness, for strengthening our exercise of self-control, because
Jesus reminds us that “if any want to become my followers, let them deny
themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Everyday
life calls for self-control. We will be called to take up our crosses daily and
actually carry them. Lent is the perfect time to do the real work of planting
the seeds that will bear such fruit of the Spirit.
I also find myself saying, “Buck up, cowboy” quite a bit. It’s
not a particularly pious saying, but it’s definitely part of our family
vernacular, especially when one wants a cheeseburger on Ash Wednesday. It
implies effort. Children need to learn how to exert effort.
Truly, we all need to learn how to exert effort better — more
cheerfully, more graciously and with more generosity. Self-control is a fruit
of the Spirit, but we can’t just sit under the tree and wait for it to fall on
our heads. Our self-control isn’t ours, it’s of the Lord, but He calls us
insistently to cultivate it.
St. Paul offers a metaphor that works quite well in my family of
athletes. He reminds us that “Athletes exercise self-control in all things;
they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do
not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body
and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be
disqualified” (1 Cor 9:25-27).
Self-control is given to the athlete by the Spirit, but the
athlete exerts his will to exercise it. We are to be active in cultivating
We have to practice virtue in a disciplined manner in order to
accept the fruits of the Spirit and use them to live a life alive with faith.
God respects our freedom. He’s ready and waiting with sufficient grace for
whatever Lenten resolutions we’ve made according to His will, but He wants us
to ask for it and to cooperate with it. God desires nothing more than for His
Spirit to bear fruit in our souls — not just the fruit of self-control, but all
He calls us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit by faith and
to actively live it out. When we do, we see that the Father cares enough to
conform us into the image and likeness of God. Cooperating with that grace, we
live and breathe in Him, with the blossoming fruits of the Spirit expressed increasingly
as we grow closer to our Creator. We are each called in our unique ways to bear
this fruit in the world, manifesting the character of Christ with our own
Lent is a gift. If we let Him, God will allow us the grace we
need to remove the obstacles between us, to strengthen our response to His
fruits in our lives. When we ask and ask again for His grace and strength to
keep our commitments and to flex the muscles of self-control, He’s there in the
struggle. Often, we find that over the course of the season, He changes us. Our
wills conform to His. No longer do we desire the things we did when Lent began.
Instead, we desire something better, and Easter bears witness to the fruits of
His Spirit flourishing in the garden of our souls.
Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance
writer from Northern Virginia.