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 virtuous habits.
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 the fruits.
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 lives.
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.
We can be victorious.