The story of Samson in Judges 13-16 is NOT the story of a really strong guy who gets a really hot girl because he has really cool hair.
It IS the story of a man whose life ends tragically, buried beneath the rubble of his own consequences. Consequences that come from a life where there was no gap between his impulse and his action.
Impulse control, or lack of it, bears on much more of life than we realize. For some it may be road rage. Someone passes you on the right, cuts you off, causes you to blow a fuse in traffic. Your impulse is to yell at the other driver, to honk, to give him half the peace sign. And it only takes one time for those impulses to escalate out of control. Then all of a sudden, because of an inability to grow the gap between your impulse and your finger, there’s a mess. People hurt and property damaged. Police, even. All it takes is one time for things to go really wrong.
For others it may be the impulse to be right. You have such an appetite for correction that you’ll even correct the wrong people (like your boss) in the wrong setting (in public). And you wonder why there’s no promotion! Or you give in to that desire to be right too often around your loved ones, and your relationships suffer because of it. Or maybe it’s the impulse to buy. To purchase. You didn’t know the product even existed until you saw it, but once you saw it you couldn’t live without it—even if you had to go into debt to get there.
In each of these instances and many more, there’s no gap between our impulse and our action. And because of that, there’s a big gap between who we are and who we could be. Each time we give in to those harmful impulses rather than resisting them, we settle for a little bit less out of life. We choose something a little bit lower than our full potential.
You know what your impulse is. You know where and how it is that you repeatedly surrender to that impulse. And each time you do, there you go again, being a crash test dummy just like Samson and the Israelites. So: how do we stop being crash test dummies? How do we make sure we don’t become like Samson, dead in the middle of the rubble that we caused? How can we avoid God needing to work in spite of us, rather than inside of and through us? How can we become God’s partner rather than God’s obstacle?
Here’s where our friends in recovery from addiction live the gospel whether they know it or not. Steps two and three of the twelve-step Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program involves acknowledging that only a Higher Power (we call him Jesus, the Highest Power!) can restore one to sanity. They also involve a decision to turn one’s will and life over to God’s care, as God is understood. In other words, the key is to turn our will, lives, impulses, and emotions over to God. Daily. Hourly. Repeatedly. It’s one moment of surrender followed by a million other moments of surrender. It’s where we acknowledge that if we don’t surrender this impulse to God, we’re going to have to surrender to it. And whatever it is (drinking, shopping, arguing, anger), it will imprison us. So here’s the key. Here’s what Samson could never do, and what I long for us to be able to do: Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them. Those are our choices. Surrender those impulses to God, acknowledging that we are powerless, or surrender to those very impulses and all their nasty consequences.
When we surrender those impulses to God, I’m convinced that the most amazing thing happens: the gap between our impulses and our actions grows. Because we surrender, we’re no longer governed by our appetites. We govern them instead. And God does it. God restores the sanity, grows the gap. What I mean is, the more we surrender those impulses, the greater control we will discover we have. The less power those impulses will have over us. It takes time, patience, and perseverance. But by the grace of God, it happens. Instead of giving the finger on the road, you breathe, pause, and realize you’ll get to your destination more quickly without the conflict. God does it. You see an ad online or a display at the store and you realize: if I resist, I can give. And God does it. And you are tempted towards an unhealthy relationship, and then a quote from my friend and fellow Abingdon author Chris Ritter comes to mind: I want to join the passionate ranks of the sexually restrained. And God does it. Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them.
What I am talking about is like what happened wih my friend Emmanuel who attends Good Shepherd and is originally from Liberia. Emmanuel and I are also Bless This House partners, and one day he and I were out blessing houses, and as we met people in their homes I introduced us and explained why we were there. With each new person we met, I kept saying that my friend was from Ghana. Except he’s from Liberia, and I’ve known that forever. He just stood and smiled, every time. But eventually, after my third time of mis-identifying his country of origin, we got in the car and he confronted me about it. “Pastor, I’m from Liberia, not Ghana,” he said. And then he went on to say, “When I was a younger man, I would have corrected you in front of those people. But now that I’m older, I know better. But don’t get it wrong again!” He showed restraint, he controlled his impulse even though he would have been fully justified in correcting me in front of others. And I received a blessing as a result. Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them.
I received a similar lesson from a fellow pastor once. Speaking to a group of assembled clergy, he told us “Whenever you want to get the last word in, don’t.” Inwardly, I protested. I have so many last words! You’re quenching my spirit and cramping my style! But don’t. I knew he was right. The benefits of restraint far outweigh the impulse to launch whatever zinger comes to mind. So by and large, I don’t get the last word in. And my relationships have benefitted from it. Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them.
And then the recovering alcoholic who experienced a miracle when he surrendered his impulse to God. A fellow pilgrim asked him if he really believed that Jesus turned water into wine. He replied simply, “I don’t know about that. All I know is that in my house he turned beer into furniture.” Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them.
The above is an excerpt from my most recent book, Crash Test Dummies, published by Abingdon Press. You can order your own copy here.