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Getting a Grip

“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”

Proverbs 25:28

I was in a coffee shop the other day and a mom announced to her little guy – maybe 2 and a half years old – that it was time to leave. Little Guy didn’t want to leave. At first he ignored her, then he defied her, then he assailed her. To her credit, she remained calm. She spoke quietly. She stood her ground. She didn’t bargain. In the end, magnificently composed, she carried Little Guy out the door, thrashing and wailing all the way.

It got me thinking. It got me thinking about the difference between control and self-control. These two things – control and self-control – stand at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum. The toddler was a live-action reel of a fierce effort to control. And he was a spectacle of immaturity. The mom was a breathtaking portrait of impeccable self-control. And she was the epitome of maturity.

Toddlers brim with the impulse to control (even as they bungle the execution). A 3-year-old will resort to wild-eyed tantrums, incessant whining, ear-piercing screams, coy manipulation, and flat-out demand to try to get their way: to control their parent, or sibling, or playmate, or the situation at hand.

The irony is bitter: as the toddler’s attempts to control things escalate, his ability to control himself deteriorates. His need to control makes him more out-of-control. The results are not pretty.

This all looks different in adults – usually. Certainly, we’ve all met 28- or 33- or 59-year olds (sometimes in the mirror) who, in an increasingly desperate effort to control people or situations, throw tantrums, power up, make threats, emotionally blackmail, and so on.

But most of us, by age 19 or so, have an epiphany of sorts: that the louder we shout, the less others listen. That the more we manipulate, the further others back away. That the more we toss a fit, the more others look at us and think, “What a sad strange little man.”

That’s the epiphany. But what we do with it matters a great deal. It determines whether we really grow up or not. The truly wise become deeply humble. They realize that the only kind of control the Bible endorses – indeed, commands – is self-control. The New Testament has 16 separate exhortations to be self-controlled. It’s a major theme.

So the wise heed that, and work with the Holy Spirit to get a grip on themselves. They receive the comfort, the rebuke, the strength, and the instruction of God himself to discipline their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions. They give up trying to control others and step up being in control of themselves.

The lovely irony is that the self-controlled exert wide influence. People listen to them. Heed them. Seek them. Follow them. In other words, the self-controlled accomplish the very thing the controlling desperately want but only ever sabotage.

Fools do the opposite. A full-on fool keeps up the toddler-like behavior right into their dotage. I saw this once in an 82-year-old man. It was… pathetic. But a semi-cocked fool has the epiphany – that just becoming louder, meaner, wilder only ever backfires – and instead of changing themselves they simply change their strategy. They seek to control by subtler, more socially acceptable means: withholding affection, icy silence, veiled threat, simmering anger, nagging, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve learned: every impulse to seize control is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to practice self-control. Every nerve jolt to freak out, melt down, start yelling, fly into rage or panic is a divine cue to slow down, breathe deep, start praying, and lean into God. Every instinct to control something is God’s nudge to control myself.

I don’t always get it right. When I don’t, I not only lose self-control: I lose influence. I lose respect. I lose dignity.

When I do get it right, I gain all around.

Lord, help me get a grip on myself.

Questions: When have you seen this dynamic at work – the more you try to control, the more it backfires? What heart disciplines have helped you get a grip on yourself?

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