In thinking over many moments, events, and relationships, if I were to have to select one of the most life-changing things to occur, I would have to say it was the deep character change God brought about in me in 1999 when he graciously revealed to me my lack of self-control and uncontrollable anger. In plain language, I had a temper that was sinful, carnal, and destructive. I needed to “lose it” once and for all!
You see, years ago I grew tired of mending my family relationships week after week. I had regular flare-ups – adult temper tantrums – that were destroying the people I loved the most – my own family. I was less patient with my own family than anybody, and it really showed. Bottom line? Pride was rising up in me and causing me to want to control at all costs. And when I couldn’t, well, people paid the price.
And yes, I was in the ministry. I had been a youth pastor. On a church staff. I was even training other youth pastors and leaders. But don’t kid yourself — men in the ministry are not exempt from what most men struggle with: their temper. Unbiblical anger was a real problem in my life, and what Solomon wrote was slowly but surely revealing itself in my life — “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” I was vulnerable to sin in ways I didn’t even realize due to my lack of self-control, and had God not mercifully stepped in, I would’ve no doubt, at some point, been ransacked and ravaged by the enemy.
Finally, enough was enough. I had “had it” with my own sinful behavior, and God set a sanctifying process in place that to this day is unshakeable and unforgettable. In fact, I’d say this has been the deepest, largest, most fundamental change in my life in the last 18 years. It has affected so many other things as well, both personally, relationally, occupationally. And why not? When a man, by God’s grace and power, addresses and arrests his out-of-control appetites, he becomes victorious, not vulnerable.
Many have asked, “So what did God do? What did you do?” That’s the question I’ve been asking in these recent days of reflection. And though there’s no way to fully describe the supernatural intervention of God at that point in my life, let me at least offer some of the elements that I think God used to bring about such a lasting change in me. Believe me, I’m a work in progress; but God has for sure started some good things in me regarding self-control. And I began to do some things daily and weekly — and still do some of them now — that have helped me have more God-like character qualities and less man-like traits. I sense from the Spirit that my journey could help other men as well as they may be journeying in some of the same “mine fields.”
1. Respond with intense confession and repentance to those you hurt. For me, it was first and foremost with Julie and the kids. This was a long, afternoon conversation with my wife first. The details don’t matter in this post, but let me simply say unbiblical anger and uncontrollable appetites are birthed in selfish ambition (Phil. 2, James 4). And when a man’s end game is himself — when a man’s bull’s-eye target is first and foremost his own satisfaction — explosive problems are bound to occur. Confessing wrong priorities and repenting of placing the wrong people and things on the throne of my life were the essence of this conversation. Ironically, she knew what my real god was, and she was more than glad to finally see me take an ax to that idol.
When it came to the kids (who were all still very young), I simply acknowledged my sin to them and how it had hurt them, and promised unconditionally that daddy would be different. All the background didn’t need to be shared with them, but there had to be genuine confession and repentance to them as well so that the road ahead was paved biblically.
Essentially, I distinctly remember having no fear of confession because the hatred of my sin had gripped my heart so tightly that I wasn’t worried at all about perception. Frankly, only God can bring about that kind of conviction, and I’m so thankful he did. It is precisely what propelled me to take that crucial first step, which Solomon explains this way: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
ACTION POINT: Confess and repent to God and others.
2. Upgrade the Scriptural intake! I have discovered and believe, based on Psalm 119 and James 1-3, that the amount of Scripture in my heart is directly tied to the amount of spiritual control on my mouth and in my life. Furthermore, Galatians encourages me to “walk in the Spirit” and have the “mind of the Spirit,” not the flesh. The ability to do this is directly proportionate to the amount of Scripture in my mind. This has been the number one thing that has helped me find deliverance from my own control issues and rest in the Spirit’s control of my own mind and mouth. In no uncertain terms I had to double and triple my Bible intake! I had devotions, but I found that casually reading the Word beyond devotions (8-10 chapters a day if possible ) paid the greatest dividends when it came to self-control and personal security. It’s how God instilled in me his perspective and mindset, and that is what I needed most.
To this day, this is the number one element that keeps me grounded — lots of time in God’s Word. In fact, two specific routines that have been a tremendous help have been the commitment to 1) read the Pastoral epistles weekly, and 2) be continuously reading the Gospels. Why? In the Pastoral epistles I learn God’s view of shepherding, and in the Gospel’s I learn how Jesus lived. Those two constant “classes” that I’m enrolled in really help tether me to God’s priorities.
ACTION POINT: Increase the quantity of your Bible intake.
3. Check in for a Check up. For months I called a man daily to check in for a check up! We would ask each other, “How are you today?”, “How can I help you today?” and “Let’s pray for one another right now.” It wasn’t like deep accountability, but it was a regular and encouraging reminder to not quit, which really helped me!
Though I don’t call that man now, I do look forward to starting each day with some of the same encouraging questions from people I love and work with, like my family or fellow staff members. A quick check-in helps me see how I’m/we’re doing personally, not just organizationally. I have found if I start right, more often than not I finish right.
ACTION POINT: Check-in daily for a check-up!
4. Ask me anything! You guessed it – this is when I met with my weekly accountability partner. And yes, it was a little deeper, and we only met weekly for 6 months. But once I found some consistent victories, he pushed me out of the nest and expected me to fly. That was key to avoiding a co-dependent relationship. Truth is, this guy wasn’t a real close friend, but he was the right guy to talk to because he had 1) been through similar experiences, 2) had no hidden agenda, and 3) was very honest. Believe it or not, we don’t talk a lot now; but God used him at a specific time in a specific way, and I surely respect him and love him.
What I’m saying is this – this relationship doesn’t have to be long-term or with a close friend forever; just someone who can jump start you. The key is deep accountability that’ll get you moving. It hurts at first, but feels good later.
ACTION POINT: Find an accountability partner for a set time period with defined benchmarks.
5. Put it in long-term memory. This has been the second greatest thing to help me! Verses about self-control, patience, and the mind of the Spirit were – and are – very instrumental to me. While driving or running or showering, these verses keep me in the right frame of mind. And since self-control is really a matter of the mind, that’s the place to make long-term installments: in your mind.
I’d write them on cards, put them in my car or on my mirror, clip them to the outside of my Bible, make them into playlists for my iPod … whatever I could do to keep it visible and audible! Likewise, do whatever you have to do to get God’s Word into your long-term memory.
ACTION POINT: Learn a set of verses on the topic of self-control and say all of them weekly for the rest of your life.
6. Can I get a witness? I found that testimonials and books that talk about how others have gained victory in the area of humility and self-control were very helpful, such as Ordering Your Private World (Gordon MacDonald), The Divine Conspiracy (Dallas Willard), Humility (Andrew Murray), and Raising a Modern Day Knight (Robert Lewis).
ACTION POINT: Read a couple of books each year with a friend (about the issue of humility/self-control), then talk about them over lunch one day every six months or so!
7. Hold your breath and bite your tongue! This has helped me tons as well! Each morning as I get up and each evening as I pull into the drive way, I take a deep breath and remember what matters most! Simply put, sometimes I just have to learn to keep my lips together longer and avoid talking till I can really see what is most important. You see, I still battle this every week. My mouth is still my greatest asset as well as my greatest liability. Whether at home or church, often I see things and think, “We can do better than that.” Or, “That shouldn’t be that way.” It is part of who we are as leaders to want everyone to do an excellent job, so we have high expectations. But I am learning to lead people there, not drive them there. Too often I chased the “dream” at the expense of people, only to find out that a dream without people is actually a nightmare. Sometimes when I see things that need immediate attention, I have to remember to bite my tongue and, instead, stretch out my arms. After all, building a bridge is a far better way to have impact than burning one.
ACTION POINT: Hold a deep-breathing session every morning (don’t worry, you won’t turn into a New Ager!) and align your priorities for the day. Even count to 10 before you head into the arena of life and engage all the people!
Bottom line? I’m not the man I used to be, but only because of God’s faithful sanctifying grace and power. His deep work in an area of my character that I felt was untouchable and unreachable has proven to be a game-changer, and I’m forever grateful.