Pride in the human heart longs for control, and there are many expressions of that control. In its essence the controlling heart says, “I know better than God.” Christians spend a lot of time looking for new and clever ways to deal with control when the gospel perfectly speaks to this issue. In this short piece I want to briefly look at several manifestations of a controlling heart and how to lay the truths of the gospel over that foolish desire for control.
In Galatians Paul speaks to a type of control often described as self-righteousness or legalism. Paul says in Galatians 3:2-3, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The control being addressed in these verses involves adding something to the gospel for being righteous before God.
The Galatians had adopted the belief that justification does not just come through Christ alone; it also requires “works of the law.” They were so taken in by this perspective that Paul described them as being “bewitched.” The control in their hearts saw the gospel as a partial justification for their sin. Their righteous works and pursuits had to carry them the rest of the way. As I read this I wonder how they could be so foolish. Yet their propensity toward self-atoning control in their hearts was no different than a similar desire in our hearts.
There seems to be a subtle temptation with Christians to buy into the lie that spiritual maturity moves us past the gospel. The nature of the flesh is controlling and self-ruling—even to the point of looking for ways to self-atone. Trying to control our own justification or sanctification with the law in no way gains us more favor with the Lord. There is no current or future version of us apart from the gospel that pleases God. Paul’s admonishment is clear: faith in Christ alone justifies us before a holy God (Galatians 3:3-5).
So, how do you know when your heart is controlling?
1. How often do you approach (perceived) wrongs with a relentless pursuit for justice?
Be slow to answer this question. Seeking justice is not necessarily wrong. The Bible talks about God’s perfect justice. Isaiah 61 talks about God’s love for justice. In these situations control in your heart can be revealed when you either do not want to wait on God’s perfect justice, or you desire to take His justice several steps further. Both are evidence of a controlling heart.
The gospel frees you from this. As a fallen finite being you do not have the capacity to bear God’s justice. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Christ absorbed God’s judgment so that you can be set free.
2. How often or how quickly do you give your résumé of good works to others?
You might have to think about this one a little bit. If the gospel is seen as only entry level or elementary Christianity, then the pursuit for spiritual maturity will be through a means other than the gospel. A heart that controls in this way does not rely on the gospel for sanctification. In these situations, the process of spiritual growth occurs by self-centered good works, which is why there are constant comparisons to others.
In Galatians 3:1-3 Paul says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The same gospel that saves you also sanctifies you.
3. Do you have a lack of trust, especially with the Lord?
People often vacillate between mistrust of others and too much trust of others. Trust in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, it can be misunderstood and therefore misplaced (Jeremiah 17:5-8).
Someone lacking trust controls by keeping people at arm’s length. The distance creates a sense of regulation that feels safe. The Bible has so much to say about trusting in God, and the gospel presses into this firmly. If Christ is our hope and trust, then we are building our lives on the rock. From that foundation the allusion of control is washed away and surrendered to Jesus.
4. How often do you shut down emotionally or rise up with aggression in the face of perceived threats?
Both of these responses are birthed out of a controlling heart. A threat is perceived, and control is quickly seized in a way that is familiar and reliable. When people shut down, they shut out a threat by drawing inward. Rising up is also a form of control, but instead of going inward the response bursts outward to gain control.
Isaiah 30 describes control as making an alliance with something or someone other than the Spirit. In response to an Assyrian threat the children of God quickly schemed to make a plan. They assessed the threat that was upon them and tried to control the outcome. God called them to rest and repentance, which was a call to let go of control.
But what about you? In order for you to let go of control:
1. Admit that your heart is controlling.
Recognize that this is a manifestation of pride and a failure to believe the gospel in the particular area of your life.
2. Confess the area of control that looks to self as sufficient above Christ.
Admitting this to the Lord and revealing it to other brothers and sisters are steps of repentance. These steps once again align your heart with the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:27-34-40).
3. Replace control by laying the truths of the gospel over all areas of the heart (especially vulnerable areas).
Jesus is enough! His work on the cross perfectly satisfies your need for justification and perfectly fuels the work God is doing in your life through sanctification. Relinquish control in your heart by looking to the beauties of the gospel over and over again.
The questions above are just several examples I have used in my own life and with those I have counseled. We must prayerfully lay our hearts and lives before the Lord for him to reveal areas of control—which are really a lack of trust in the gospel. Our controlling efforts only lead us to disappointment and despair and to more pride. To turn away from a controlling heart is to confess the self-centered pursuit of redemption apart from Christ as futile.