|Image from dogwalkerstarterkit.com|
Let's talk about dogs for a bit. How do you walk a dog? Well, I checked around and here is some advice from dog trainers:
1. Remember you are leading, not the dog.
2. Be aware of your focus, your body language, what you are communicating to your dog.
3. Keep the leash short but not tight. Make it easy to communicate with your dog. Don't let her go wherever she wants.
4. Get your dog around calm, disciplined dogs.
5. Practice, practice, practice!
Now let me change just a few words and make it about controlling our desires. I believe the same principles apply.
1. Remember you are leading, not the desire.
2. Be aware of your focus, your body language, what you are communicating to your desire.
3. Keep the leash short but not tight. Make it easy to control your desire. Don't let it run off and go wherever it wants.
4. Hang out with calm, disciplined people who control their desires.
5. Practice, practice, practice!
One of the other principles in dog training is that you can't teach a negative. People often want a trainer to teach their dog not to bark, but Justin, a professional, says that you cannot teach what not to do, you can only teach what to do! In many cases, a barking dog is a dog looking for a job, for something to do. If you give the animal a clear directive, they can, in most cases, easily be trained.
The ten commandments, for the most part, are negatives. They are giving us warnings, telling us that for our own well-being, we should stay away from these destructive behaviours. Negatives are good in that they only forbid one small thing (don't touch the hot stove) but leave you with a lot of other options (pretty much the rest of the house!). The problem with negatives is that they don't tell you what to do, only what to avoid, so they can keep you focused on the negative. I believe that negatives are always meant to go together with positives, that prohibitions should be paired with directives. That way we know where to put our energies. (Read the creation story sometime with this in mind, looking for the positive, broad options which go along with the warning not to eat of one particular tree.)
For instance, if I tell you not to look at the floor, you can do that, but you will probably be so focused on not doing something that you might actually be more prone to do it. This is because it takes up so much of your head space. However, if I tell you not to look at the floor but to be attentive to the person who is talking to you, you will have a much easier time avoiding looking down, because you know where to focus your energy and attention. Likewise, when we see a prohibition in the scriptures, we should always search out the positive directive in order not only to heed the warning, but to know where our energies should be directed. In the case of the ten commandments, we have to read a bit more of the story to find the positive directive. What we find is that God is a covenant God, a God who values faithful relationships and proves himself faithful again and again, even when the other party is unfaithful. So this prohibition against adultery is telling us that since we have a covenant God, he wants us to be covenant people as well. Adultery is letting desire or lust run away with us. It is a lack of self-control and discipline. It happens when we lose sight of our covenant God and our covenant to another person.
Desires like hunger, thirst, sex, and success are good desires given to us by God. Desires done right have great potency for goodness; but desires out of control end up sabotaging our lives, the lives of others, and the well-being of our communities. To use a car analogy, desires are powerful engines. They need skilled, knowledgeable, and responsible drivers. And we develop these skills by practicing restraint, demonstrating consistency, being knowledgeable and safe, and showing perseverance, In other words, we practice. We practice love and intimacy in the contexts of marriage, loving friendships, family, and community, learning to serve and give, not just feeding our own desires. We practice responding to our physical hunger and thirst by giving our bodies what they need to be strong and healthy, not just feeding our cravings. We channel our drive for success into reaching our full potential, but never at the cost of anothers well-being, and never to feed our own ego.
Self-control is the result of being filled with and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is a fruit of the Spirit which grows in us because we are rooted in relationship with our covenant God. As a result, our motivations, our identities, our senses of satisfaction are not found in feeding our desires, but in communion with God. When we submit our desires to God, we are asking God to rightly direct them, giving them a job to do which is constructive and not destructive. Right before he died, Jesus prayed, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22). Jesus did not desire to endure horrible humiliation and suffering and die a painful death. Nevertheless, he submitted his desire to God and offered himself as a sacrifice for many.
That's what love does. That's what faithfulness looks like. Because we have a covenant God, let us be covenant people, people who point our desires, like skilled archers, in the direction of lovingkindness, justice, and mercy.