When someone’s life seems to be spiraling, and the problems pile up faster than they can be resolved, some well-meaning friends may say, “You have to get control of your life.” This may sound like a good message (tough love!), but it can also be a replacement for helping the troubled person deal with things beyond their power to change, and teaching them how to manage what they can control.
With the right instruction and practice, though, there are things that we can control in our own lives, at least to some extent. Consider God’s word to Cain, when God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice (which, I suspect, may have either been taken from less than the best of Cain’s crops, or offered in a way different from what God asked).
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Genesis 4:6-7 NASB
God didn’t validate Cain’s anger here, nor did God change His mind about accepting Cain’s offering, just so that Cain would feel better. The fact that Cain’s sacrifice was deficient remained intact. This was a truth that wasn’t dependent on Cain’s feelings.
Instead, God explained to Cain about the risk of doing the wrong thing, and warned him about the danger of sin encroaching upon Cain’s life. Cain had an opportunity to change, whether offering a new and better sacrifice (or doing so with the proper attitude – see Hebrews 11:4), or perhaps just cleaning up his act in general. In addition, Cain was at a key inflection point in his life. If he let sin take over, things would get worse. (Regrettably, as we learn in Genesis 4:8-16, they did.)
There are some good lessons here (from God, no less) about how we can respond to those who need to make changes in their actions and their attitudes. If a loved one in your life is struggling with wrong actions and the battle against sin, notice how Cain was guided in this situation. Following God’s example, we can use a tone of loving instruction and warning, rather than offering compromise or condescension.
However, I think that we’re often in Cain’s shoes (not the part about killing our brother, I hope, but being on the cusp of letting sin take over). We do the wrong thing, but when given a chance to repent and do the right thing, we face the temptation to just get angry and defensive, without changing our actions for the better.
While many (but not all) of God’s instructions in the Old Testament, including His comments to Cain, seem to focus on our controlling our actions, Jesus emphasized a point that is sometimes more subtle in the Old Testament: In addition to our behavior, our hearts must be right, not only because we can sin with our thoughts, but because good actions come out of the condition of our hearts.
Paul, in a letter to the church in Corinth, similarly complemented God’s early instructions to Cain about doing the right thing, with an example of getting control of our thoughts:
We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,
2 Corinthians 10:5 NASB
Note that in both Genesis 4:6-7 (above) and 1 Peter 5:8-9, sin and the promoter of sin aren’t just passive concepts, whose territory we might inadvertently wander onto by mistake. They are described as actively wanting to get to us. As a result, if we are not keeping an active hand on the rudder of our lives, empowered by the direction of the Holy Spirit to make the right choices, we are in danger. We can’t simply try to keep on the path; in addition, we must proactively battle against forces that seek to pull us off of it. Like being in a riptide1, just remaining where we are isn’t an option. It takes regular work just to keep on the right track.
How can we do this? For one thing, we can be aware that there is a battle going on. Before I could drive, I used to think that if the steering wheel in a car was aligned symmetrically with the dashboard, the car would always drive straight. Once I started to drive, though, I found that winds, road slopes, and other phenomena (as well as misaligned wheels) can cause the car to turn even when the steering wheel is straight. Furthermore, constant adjustments to the steering wheel are required to keep on a forward path.
In addition, we must take control of our lives and apply the proper practices (call them Spiritual Disciplines, if you would like) to maintain our heading in the direction that God gives us. This includes getting regular direction from Him on what needs to change in our lives, and what decisions we should make. It also includes tried-and-true methods of improving our ability to remain in control, like studying God’s word, talking with (and listening to) Him regularly, as well as spending time with other believers who help strengthen us against the forces of sin.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we can control everything around us. We don’t control our circumstances, and some would say (not incorrectly) that we should let the Holy Spirit control our lives. However, we do control how much we listen to and follow the voices that offer to direct us. Both evil forces and God want to claim us for their own, but the devil wants to take souls away from righteousness to their own destruction (or sometimes, simply to make them ineffective) out of hate. In stark contrast, God wants to rescue souls to a perfect, abundant, incredible relationship with Himself (out of His love for us).
For those around us who need help to get things under control, may we be loving and considerate in how we treat them, so that they can succeed. In our own daily walk with Jesus, though, let us actively take control of our personal fight against sinful forces that would pull us away from a better life. Cain made the wrong choice, but we should be able to do better.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
- I’m not much of a swimmer, but I was walking in moderate-depth water one time and got pulled into a riptide. It’s an unusually alarming phenomenon. ↩