Question: "How can I control sinful impulses?"
Answer: Impulse control is never easy. All of us struggle with overcoming sinful impulses. James says, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14). Part of the human condition is to feel impulses, and part of the Christian life is to control them.
Impulse control has been a struggle for us since the fall. Eve saw that the fruit was “desirable” (Genesis 3:6), and she chose to take it rather than control her impulse. Today, we still struggle. Often, impulses seem so strong as to overpower all scruples, commitments, and common sense. We feel that giving in is our only option. We have impulses to make frivolous purchases, to overeat, to have illicit sex, and to do many other things we know we shouldn’t.
It seems that Samson had quite a bit of trouble with impulse control. He is the perfect illustration of the proverb, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). Samson saw a Philistine woman he wanted to marry, and he married her, despite his parents’ objections (Judges 14:1-2); the marriage lasted a week. He found honey, and he ate it, even though, in the process, he had to break a vow and ceremonially defile himself (Judges 14:8-9). And, of course, he could never say “no” to Delilah (Judges 16). Ironically, Samson is best known for his great physical strength. It goes to prove that the flesh is no ally in the battle against the flesh. It is a spiritual battle that must be won spiritually.
Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” As believers, we are new. We are no longer bound to our sinful natures (Romans 6:17-18), but we are in the process of sanctification. The coming of the new usually takes time and discipline. Even mature believers struggle with impulse control (Romans 7:18-25), but the Bible provides ample hope that we can overcome.
Praise the Lord, the Spirit produces self-control in those yielded to Him (Galatians 5:23)! We have been given the spirit of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). First Peter 1:13 and 15 exhort us to “prepare [our] minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. . . . But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” Our self-control is not simply an exercise of volition; we must rely on the grace of Jesus. Knowing that we have been called by God, we work to control our impulses from a foundation of love for God.
We also work from a foundation of truth. When we know the truth, we can more easily dismiss impulses that seek to lead us into falsehood (John 8:32). Because we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), when a sinful impulse comes into our minds, we can recognize that it is not of Him and summarily dismiss it. The impulse comes from the sin nature, to which we are no longer slaves (see Romans 6). We can act on 2 Corinthians 10:5 and take our thoughts captive. When we know the truth – that we have been declared holy (Romans 5:1-2), that we have the mind of Christ, and that we have the power of the Holy Spirit – we are better able to challenge our thoughts and choose our actions.
The Bible calls us “overcomers” by faith (1 John 5:4). We are not at the mercy of our impulses. We can control them through the power of God in us (Ephesians 3:20). As we learn to say “no” to our sinful impulses, we may experience pain and a sense of deprivation, yet we trust the promise of Hebrews 12:11 that we will eventually reap “a harvest of righteousness and peace.”
In the struggle to control impulses, many people derive benefit from accountability partners or counselors. Sometimes, impulse control is a made more difficult due to underlying anxiety or some type of brain abnormality. Overcoming an impulse involves both knowing God’s truth and using the functional tools of behavior modification. Regardless of the exact methods we employ to control our impulses, we say with Paul, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).