They were sitting my office with a counselor. I was watching him work, seeing how it’s done. He was a trained counselor and fellow pastor from a nearby town, and had agreed to meet with this particularly troubled couple if I would be there with them. So I watched him work. It’s amazing to see a gifted person do his thing.
“I don’t know,” said the angry husband. “I just lose my temper sometimes.” He had done that many times, sometimes violently. “I just can’t control myself.”
I don’t recall just what my colleague said just then, but I was prepared to duck, perhaps to run out of the room. As I recall he said something that was intended to provoke some anger. I thought he was asking for it. But he knew what he was doing. He knew the young angry man could hold his anger in check.
“What do you mean you can’t control your anger? You just did, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but that’s different. She eggs me on. I just lose my cool.”
She was cringing. I was worried for her. They had confided in me that he could get out of control. That’s why I had asked my friend to come counsel them.
“Yes. But you didn’t lose it with me. How did you do that?”
“I don’t know.” He was calmer now. “I just did.”
“Yes you did. And you can…if you want to.” I was amazed at how this brother in ministry was able to tread on the dangerous territory of angry emotions, without falling into the abyss of full-fledged rage. I also recall how he lovingly confronted the angry young man: “You can control your temper when you want to.”
That’s a good lesson for all of us who wrestle with any lingering and recalcitrant sinful struggle. We may be able to do more than we give ourselves credit for in terms of self-control and resisting temptation. We may never be 100% successful. But we may be more successful than we care to imagine. In fact we may use the “I can’t help it” line a little too quickly, and take ourselves off the hook too easily.
There are excuses akin to the I can’t help it kind. How about, I’ll never do it as well as I should? Or, I don’t want to do it for the wrong motive? There’s also, I don’t want to say it wrongly. All of these are excuses not to do the thing we know we ought to do. They will ultimately drag us down into the pit of defeat and discouragement. There is no true joy in living on excuses.
We certainly do not want to be arrogant. We don’t want to brag. But we can do good by the power of God’s mercy and love. We can hear Jesus speak to us in our moments of excuses or denial:
Jesus: Love your neighbor.
Excuse Giver: O, Lord Jesus, forgive me. I have failed to love my neighbor as I should. I have hurt and harmed him. Forgive me!
Jesus: I know that. I forgive you. Now, love your neighbor.
Excuse Giver: Thank you Lord Jesus! And I will try to love my neighbor, but I know I won’t do it perfectly. Even my best efforts will fail to love him as I should.
Jesus: I know that. I forgive you. I will help you. Now, love your neighbor.
Excuse Giver: Lord Jesus, I will try to love my neighbor, but I don’t want to do it with false motives. I know I cannot please you or earn your favor by loving my neighbor, for I am a sinner.
Jesus: Yes. I know that. But you are also a saint. Now, love your neighbor.
We are sinners. It is true. But we are also saints, and as saints we may honor God by doing the good things we know we ought to do. It might be taking a walk to get some exercise and fight the doldrums of depression. You could simply push away the extra helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. A neighbor may need your kindness to be shown by mowing his lawn. A coworker needs a word of encouragement you can give. Your spouse does need your forgiveness from your heart. By the power of the Holy Spirit you can do those things. Yes you can!
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:1-4
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:11