If you could just snap your fingers and instantly have greater self-control over some area of your life what would it be? I’ve asked a number of people that question recently. The most frequent answer I’ve heard is “eating.” Others included smoking, television, shopping, shoes, sports, and the internet. Several responded “my mouth.” Some people named emotions like anger, impatience, pride, envy and jealousy. How would you respond?
Walk through any bookstore and you will find volume after volume in the self-help section that will teach you all sorts of strategies for getting yourself under control. And the advice in most of those books boils down to the same basic message: self-control means that you have to control yourself. Pretty profound, huh? When our culture talks about self-control it means you’ve got to get a grip, suck it up, pick yourself up by your own bootstraps, get disciplined, quit being a wimp. So, how’s that workin’ out for ya?
Chances are you’ve discovered that the more you say “no” to your impulses the more those impulses say “Oh Yes!” I love the way that St. Paul talks about this in Romans 7:
“For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! 18 I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. 19 I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. 20 My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. 21 It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up.”
Does that sound familiar to you? It sure rings bells for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided to lose a few pounds, only to find myself with a bowl of Chunky Monkey at 10PM.
So where does that leave us? Hopeless? Overweight, overspent and addicted? As long as we practice our culture’s notion of self-control, yes. But that is not God’s intention for us. God’s intention for us is freedom, and freedom comes when we get out of control and yield control to the Holy Spirit. Self-control is a dead-end. We don’t have the power to control ourselves. But a life yielded to the Holy Spirit is freedom.
Perhaps no one understands this paradox better than a recovering addict. An addict swears over and over again to break whatever habit binds them. And they mean it every time they swear it. But they cannot control themselves. They live in a cycle of bondage, defeat, guilt and despair. But an addict that gets connected to a Twelve Step community learns the power of surrender.
Want more self-control in your life?
It all begins with confession, an honest admission that you have a problem that is bigger than your ability to deal with it. As long as we try to handle our problems on our own we’re still working out of our culture’s definition of self-control. But the ancient wisdom of the Bible and the practical wisdom of the Twelve Steps teach that spiritual health and freedom begin when we admit that we have a problem that we can’t control.
The journey to freedom continues with the second step, trust. Here’s how the Twelve Steps say it, “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” As a Christian I would name that higher power as the God who is revealed in Jesus.
The final step (for the purposes of this blog) is surrender. Let go, and let God. This is the step of yielding your heart, your mind, your life to the power of your higher power. Letting go and letting God can be tough. Most of us would much rather be in control, but by now I hope you’ve come to realize that trying to control yourself will only lead to disaster. Trusting our lives into God’s care and asking for His will instead of ours is the only way to freedom.
Want more self-control? Let me recommend to you one of my favorite prayers, “I can’t. You can. Go ahead.” I can’t control my behavior, but I believe that God’s Spirit has the power to set me free. So go ahead, change me God! Pray it like your life depends upon it…because it does.
In what area of life do you need greater self-control?
Jeff Marian is the lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN.