Pride in the human heart in its essence longs for and looks to control, and yet there are so many expressions of a controlling heart. 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 criteria that point towards a controlling heart while laying the Truths of the Gospel over the control.
In the book of 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 this these verses deals with their mindset of adding to the Gospel for righteousness.
The Galatians had adopted the belief that justification does not just come through Christ alone; it also comes from the works of the law. They are so taken in their hearts by this that Paul describes them as being “bewitched”. The control in their hearts sees the Gospel as a partial justification for their sin. Their righteous works and pursuits must carry them the rest of the way. As I read this I wonder how could they be so foolish. They saw Christ crucified with their own eyes. If they had a propensity towards self-atoning control in their hearts, then the reality is that our hearts are not that different.
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-ruled, while also looking for ways to self-atone. Controlling 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 you apart from the Gospel that pleases God. Paul’s admonishment is clear that faith in Christ alone justifies us before a holy God (Galatians 3:3-5).
So, how do we know when our hearts are controlling? By laying the Gospel over our hearts, here are several areas to prayerfully press into:
- How often do you approach (perceived) wrongs with 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 our hearts can be revealed when we either do not want to wait on God’s perfect justice or desire to take His justice several steps further. Both are evidence of a controlling heart.
The Gospel frees us up here. As fallen finite beings we 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 we can be set free. A heart of control declares Jesus’ payment for our sin no good enough. Going back to Paul’s admonishment early in Galatians 3 he calls this foolish.
- 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 entry level or elementary Christian then the pursuit for spiritual maturity will be through a means other than the Gospel. A controlling heart in this way does not rely on the Gospel for sanctification. In these situations, the process of spiritual growth is manufactured by good works, which is why a consistent comparison to others has to happen.
Again using Galatians 3 Paul says in 3:1-3, “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 us also sanctifies us. The gift of Christ’s crucifixion is forever best.
- Do you have a lack of trust in general, especially with the Lord (although we would rarely see or acknowledge a lack of trust in him).
I find trust to be a very loaded idea to begin with. People often vacillate between trust issues with most people and putting too much trust in people all together. Trust in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is so often misunderstood and therefore misplaced (Jeremiah 17:5-8).
Someone lacking trust in general controls by keeping people at arm’s length. The distance creates a sense of regulation that allows a person to feel safe. The Bible has so much to say about trusting in God, but the Gospel presses into this firmly. If Christ is our hope and trust then we are built on the rock. From that foundation the allusion of control is washed away and rendered to Jesus.
- 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 perceived threat makes itself known and control is quickly seized in a way that is familiar and reliable. When a person is shutting down they shut out a threat by drawing inward while retreating to self. Rising up is the same control that retreats to self but instead of going inward the response bursts outward to display or 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 scheme to make a plan. They are simply assessing the threat that is upon them and trying to control the outcome. God calls them to rest and repentance, which is the picture of letting go of control. In Christ there are no threats that can condemn us. This is the picture in Romans 8:31-39. In Christ, no charge can come against God’s elect.
Letting go of control:
- Admit that your heart is controlling.
Recognize that this is a manifestation of pride and failure to believe the Gospel in the particular area of your life/heart.
- Confess the area of control that looks to self as sufficient above Christ’s sufficiency.
Admitting this to the Lord and bringing it into the light with other brothers and sisters is to take steps of repentance. It is to once again align our hearts with the Greatest Command (Matthew 22:27-34-40).
- Repent of pride.
Our sinful hearts posture outside of the Gospel is always going to be pride-filled. As the Spirit convicts of sin it is important to acknowledge those sins at their root – pride. Using Isaiah 30 again the call is to forsake self-made alliances and surrender to God’s redemptive plan.
- 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 our need for justification and perfectly fuels the work God is doing in our lives through sanctification. Relinquish control in your hearts 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 those I have counseled. The hope is to prayerfully lay our hearts and lives before the Lord for him to reveal areas of control. Ultimately all control of the heart is a lack of trust in the Gospel. Turning away from a controlling heart is to acknowledge and confess the self-attempting pursuit of redemption apart from Christ. Our controlling efforts only lead us to disappointment and despair and or more pride.