The Only Thing I Can Control Is Myself… Well, Not That Much Actually.

I imagine that most of you, like me, have learned that you really can’t control other people, places or things, and also that it’s an exercise in frustration to try. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to control our spouses, children, friends, relatives or coworkers. Often the more effort we make in that regard, the worse outcomes (from our own perspectives) we seem to get. It’s usually liberating, to us and to them, when admit our powerlessness over others, stop the controlling behaviors, and focus on ourselves. After all, the only thing you can control is yourself.

Not only is this idea liberating, it’s empowering. Wow. I can control myself! So, what do I choose to do! What’s my plan to change? How will I live, regardless of how others choose to live? I can control myself! It may take an emotional struggle to get to this realization, but once you’ve arrived you’re ready to take charge of yourself and make positive changes. For me personally, this concept has been life changing. I enjoy much better emotional health and better interpersonal relationships that I used to because of my ability to focus on myself and to choose different thoughts and behaviors.

But lately I seem to be running up against my limits. Or perhaps I’m noticing them more. Really I think God is doing it. He seems to be showing me my own weakness and impressing me with the weakness of people in general. Although I probably have more willpower and self-discipline than most people, truly I still struggle to control myself. I give in to laziness, comfort seeking, arrogance and my other character faults pretty often. Compared to some others, I look okay (from the outside anyway); compared to who I should be, who I want to be, I’m out of control.

It’s not just me. Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about this issue:

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.  –   Romans 7:14-25 NLT

That is the way it is for most of us. God has given each of us a certain baseline measure of self-control, which we can grow over time with some effort. Maybe just a little, maybe a lot. Whatever. It won’t be enough. Fundamentally we are all weak inside. All of us have an inner sin nature that prevents us from living the lives we want, and we are not able to overcome it on our own. At the deepest level, we really cannot control ourselves.

The good news is that the Holy Spirit has been sent to help us overcome our old nature. One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. I’ve written before about this idea that the Holy Spirit changes you from the inside, but I don’t think I emphasized it enough, and I don’t think I have lived it enough. The Holy Spirit isn’t just a backup for when I reach my own human limit; he’s there to lead me in the way I should go and to empower me to get there.

Now, in my attempts to improve myself, I’m starting to pray differently. Instead of requesting more strength for the struggle, I am admitting my weakness and asking God to change me from the inside, to change my character, in order that I may not struggle so much. I don’t want to be empowered to “fight harder” to be better; I want to not need to fight at all. My prayer might go like this: God, the only thing I can control is myself, and, really, I’m not that good at it. But you have all power. Please change me from the inside. Take away my selfish desires, so that I don’t need to struggle so much. Help me be the person you’d have me be.

I now feel that asking for God’s help, and specifically asking for his direct intervention in my internal nature, should be the first thing I do in my personal change effort, no matter how small or large the issue. What do you think? How do you approach God on the issues with which you struggle?