You ever struggle with something you just can’t overcome? Yeah, me too.
For a long time I was not able to control anger. That and other “control” issues landed me in the hospital emergency room on more than one occasion and was disastrous for relationships. From my own hellish experiences and from similar situations that scores of people have related to me during my 25 years of pastoring and counseling, I have come to realize that “control” is at the root of most of my struggles and that I still am not able to “control” anger, etc.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that God didn’t wire me up to “control” my anger…or anything else, for that matter!
I can’t. But He can…and He wants to! Fortunately…otherwise I would have no hope…the Holy Spirit of Christ who lives in me wants to also live His life through me. When I let Him, He does what I am unable to do by my own human efforts.
Prior to what He has done, I found that I simply could not overcome anger and couldn’t control my mind and emotions. I couldn’t stop judging and wanting to be in control. I tried and tried and tried. I did everything Christian mentors told me to do. I read and studied my Bible hours every day. I faithfully prayed and tried to “change my behavior,” “be more like Christ” and be a “more productive Christian.”
There was outward change, but inwardly I was wound up tight and anger would erupt at the most inappropriate times. I was simply taking the human talents and abilities God had given me and now applying them to religious things rather than business, army and music. I was an accident waiting to happen. I would be pleased when I could go a length of time without blowing up and hurting people (of course that quickly turned into pride and telling others “how I did it”), but when anger would erupt again, I would spiral down to almost inconsolable depths.
At first I went to counseling. That reinforced how bad I was. I was always told, in so many words “there’s something wrong with you…but you can fix it.” I was always given things to work on and told “you can change.” Didn’t help. Then I would go to my mentor for help. He would tell me how bad anger was (I knew that). He would show me Bible verses that talked about anger, tell me to memorize them, and then quote them when I started to get angry. That seemed to make things worse.
Even worse for me was the fact that hardly anyone else whom I knew was achieving lasting victory in the areas in which they struggled. Christians just could not seem to overcome things. They might quit drinking for a while, maybe appear to have given up pornography, stop doing drugs or quit cheating on their spouse, but there would always be something else come up…along with great condemnation, shame, doubts, anger and some degree of depression.
Somewhere I heard or read the question “How’s your theology working for you?” I could give the party line answer to that… “Fine, praise the Lord!” But the next question devastated me: “How do your wife, your friends, and your kids think your theology is working for you?” I knew what I was doing just wasn’t working…for me, or really for most others.
I started having major doubts about whether or not God was really good…whether or not He really loved me—or others.
My prayer time consisted mainly of me asking God to help me with things I struggled with…praying the same for other people, and, of course, for people to get jobs, get healed, change their behavior, sell their house, not be persecuted, etc. I would “talk at God” for at least an hour a day (most days two hours) and maybe listen to Him for a minute…on a “good day.” I did hear from God…when I would quiet myself and listen to Him. But it was mostly about me.
I studied my Bible a minimum of an hour a day…but rarely with an attitude of “show me what You want me to know about You.” I talked a lot about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” but in reality my life was about me spending time doing things that other people had told me I needed to do to gain and maintain a right relationship with God: to keep Him pleased; to earn His blessings; to persuade Him to answer prayers and help me and others. I worked as hard as I possibly could to “be successful for God.” I equated “personal relationship” with “trying to do good,” spending time at ‘spiritual things,’ and reading or listening to teachers who believed the same things I did. I felt like I was strong in my doctrinal beliefs…therefore if I worked hard at doing the right things…God should make things go well for me.
Eventually Jesus brought a few people into my life who were considerably different than most everyone else. Some people who were genuinely happy, who seemed free, who really seemed to know Jesus and talk to Him and hear from Him and who didn’t seem to struggle with the same things I did…and, maybe even more importantly, didn’t seem to go down the tubes when they did mess up. They weren’t uptight. They were much more easy going with their kids than I was. They had come out of some religious systems that I thought produced pretty good churches, but my new friends…without disparaging others…starting teaching me about grace, resting in Christ, trusting in His Finished Work at the cross for everything in my relationship with Him, about hearing from the Holy Spirit consistently and being obedient to what He asked me to do at any given moment rather than trying to keep a list of rules that I and others had come up with.
I would go to my new friends with my problems, they’d listen, then always ask me what Jesus was saying to me. At first I got really upset because I hadn’t asked Jesus at all…I just wanted them to tell me what to do and I thought whatever it was, I was a hard worker and I could do it. Rarely would they tell me specifics about what to do or not do. They always led me to seek Jesus and listen to what He wanted me to do. The fact that they had way more scripture memorized than I did and were super well-read and very insightful…but yet resisted telling me what to do, was very compelling.
Then one day…after a few months of “doing well” and not getting angry, it all came out at a most inopportune time and I really hurt my wife emotionally and scared her. It scared me so much that I had to go & lock myself in another room and cry. I absolutely knew I could not overcome anger. Or depression. Or doubts…not really. I just broke. I told Jesus that I knew I could not keep from getting angry, I said “I tried everything and nothing works. There must be something wrong with me. Jesus, if I’m ever going to change, it’s going to have to be You that does it.”
He spoke to me right away, gently & lovingly: “Paul, that’s what I’ve been waiting for. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s Something right with you…you just don’t know it. Let Me live My life through you. I’ll show you how. Get to know Me.” I started really listening to Him and writing down what He said. He started teaching me about “Christ in me, the hope of glory” and showing me that I – as well as all humans – are incapable of living like Christ – He’s the only One who can. It’s a setup for failure to try to do what only He can do. He would impress on me over and over that He was for me…really for me! And He started teaching me how to let Him live as me and through me.
To be continued ~ Paul Gray