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Why Good People Do Bad Things

Let Me Control Your Life

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 12, 2000

Selected highlights from this sermon

Control lies at the heart of sin. We’re all born controllers. But when does wanting to control something become, not just a sin, but evil?

Trying to hold on to his kingdom by destroying those around him, King Saul gives us a good example of how an obsession with control can become evil.

Pastor Lutzer shows us that we have our own kingdoms —career, money, even our giftedness— and how we can easily fall into the same snare as Saul did. By comparing David’s reaction to Saul’s attacks, we also learn what we can do to keep from sinning.

Some of you know that on the Oprah Winfrey Show there was a story recently about a couple where the wife wanted to control the husband. In some respects it isn’t an entirely new story, but what gave it interest is the extent to which she wanted to do it. She told him how to comb his hair, how to hold his fork, what to eat and what he couldn’t eat. She kept a calendar to see how he was doing so that she could keeps tabs. She had notebooks full of rules. Fold your jeans in half, mine in thirds. The one I liked the best is “Never give yourself anything without asking me what I want first.” (laughter) 

Where did all this business of control come from anyway? Actually it comes from the Garden of Eden when the serpent said to the woman, “You shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” I’m god over my little turf. You’re god over your little turf and because our turfs intersect we can’t get along and I want to control you, and you want to control me. And so control lies at the heart of sin. Sin, in fact, could be spoken of as self-will. Sin is setting up my kingdom instead of God’s. Sin is being willing to do anything to protect myself and to exalt myself and to be king over my little territory whether it’s big or small.

Jesus said that it is the Gentiles that exercise authority. I like the translation that says, “They exercise dominion over people,” but He said, “It should not be so among you because you should be servants.” It should be different in the Church than in the world.

You know when you think of the essence of sin it says in Proverbs 6 that there are sins of the spirit. It says, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to Him.” Let’s just tick off a few and see how control lies at the heart of them. The Bible says God hates haughty eyes (because I want to control what people think of me), a lying tongue (I want to control what people believe), hands that shed blood (I want to protect what it is that I think that I have), and on and on it goes. And at the root is this whole idea of control.

We are all born controllers. You’ve heard the expression control freaks. That’s somebody who is a controller to a huge extent as we shall see today in the Scriptures.

As you know this is a message in a series of messages entitled Why Good People Do Bad Things, and we’ve talked about shame and anger and addictions and all these things. Our purpose in this series of messages is to shine God’s word into the human heart and to see it in all of its ugliness and then to understand God’s message of grace and redemption and how we should respond to it.

I’d also like to say a word about psychology. Much of psychology is an enemy of Christianity but there is a part of psychology that is helpful. Psychology for the most part is based on the idea that we aren’t sinners and also that God is not the foundation of all things and the answer to the human need. That’s why it is such a visceral enemy of the Bible. But there’s a part of it that is very helpful and that is its analysis of human behavior. You read some of these books and you say, “Yeah, I know somebody just like that.”

There are people who have spent their life studying human behavior so they give us insights even if they don’t have the right answers. Today I may at times mention a psychological term, and I want to point out that it’s not because I bought into psychology. It’s just that I sometimes am fascinated by the accuracy with which human behavior has been able to be analyzed.

At the end of the day what we are going to do is talk from the Bible. I am going to preach about a man who turned evil, and we’re going to try to find out why he turned evil, but we’re also going to speak about his evil controlling and how someone reacted to that controller and the lessons that God taught him in the midst of the conflict. That’s where we are going. So at the end of the day we are going to have a word from God for all controllers but also for the controlled.

You see, there is something such as what we sometimes call a co-dependent controller. I’m just going to spend a few moments so we understand what it is that we are talking about and recognizing these kinds of human behavior.

A co-dependent controller is somebody brought up in an alcoholic home, a home that is disordered. He or she is absolutely determined that they are going to do everything right, therefore they become very controlling to hide their shame and minimize their pain. They tend to cajole, to use guilt and to manipulate. They want to criticize and nothing in their life seems to be right unless they really deal with this before God. 

Now when you begin to ask how control manifests itself, well the list goes on endlessly, but let me give you a few examples. First of all, there is the “Let’s deal with your sin” controller. I know of a young man who would make friends of young ladies. During the dating process he would find out all of their secrets and all of their sins, and then in the end he would use those against them as a means of control that was leverage so that he could get to them and control them.

There is also the “Don’t forget that I’m your husband” controller, and the Bible says that wives are to be subject to their husbands. And there are husbands who take that out of context and use those verses in the worst possible way.

There is the “I will control my body” controller, the person who is so insecure regarding the way in which they appear that they will have an eating disorder and starve themselves to death, still thinking that they look overweight.

There’s the obsessive-compulsive controller who wants everything in his hands, and there is this unstoppable repeated pattern of behavior where they expect to control events and other people. Having been sinned against, they sin against others by exercising this control.

It’s all a mistake of course. When will you and I finally come to the conclusion that we can’t change people - that only God can? And how much better it is to simply say, “I can’t change human nature because even if people do what I tell them to do or think they should, or criticize them, when I turn my back they are going to go back to their old ways anyway.”

Of course parents have the responsibility of (quote) controlling their children, using that word in the right way, but there comes a time when even parents have to simply give their children to God. I’ve known parents, and the child may be older and on his own, who just keep saying, “You should be coming to church,” or “I told him he should be doing this, I told him he should be doing that, I told him….” And you want to just smile and look into their face and say, “Well, is it working?” And the answer is no, of course it’s not working. How much better to give the children to God and to simply say, “God, only You can change them, and I will love them, and it’s all up to You.” I think Henry Blackaby had a point when he said, “There are many children in whose lives God cannot work because the parents are constantly getting in the way.”

Well, there are other kinds of control. There’s the disordered controller, and this is what is sometimes known as borderline personalities because there are people when you meet them you think that they are normal, and you get to know them and they aren’t normal at all. In fact, because they are impulsive they have a tendency to addictions. They dread being alone. They are flighty. They run from place to place, seeking significance. They can’t hold down a job and disorder is the name of the game, and so to them disorder is important because they constantly keep people off balance. Nobody quite knows where he’s at with them, and that’s very important because it masks their own deep unmet need that they refuse to face. And so they control things by mood shifts, by constantly changing the rules. The wife of a man I know made him fried eggs. He threw them on the floor and said, “You should know that I don’t like fried eggs.” Okay, well the next time she boiled them as he had wanted, and then he threw the boiled eggs on the floor. And on and on it goes because the disorder within him constantly is there. And as a result of that these sorts of people when you are with them, or if you have to live with them as some people do, you’ll find that you can’t have people over to the home even because you are constantly walking on egg shells because you don’t know what their mood will be. You don’t know what kind of phantom illness they may have at the last moment.

Now also these folks, like all the rest of us, are very slow to accept their faults. In fact, they can’t. The reason I speak about these things is because in counseling you see this all the time. I know of a situation in which a Christian man is determined to destroy his daughter and her husband in Christian ministry. He’s determined to do it, and he uses manipulation and control. When the daughter was growing up he would slap her, which no man should ever do to a daughter, and if she told her mother then he would say, “Why did you tell your mother? It is you that is making your mother and me fight.” All the responsibility rests with the child. He receives none of it.

Now what I’d like to do today is to look at evil by looking at an evil man in the Scriptures. You say, “Well, when do you make the transition?” The folks that we’ve described so far are bad because they’ve not dealt with their own insecurities before God, but when does a person actually become evil? And I’d like to give you a definition and then turn to the Scriptures, and then see the answer for the controller as well as the controlled.

I believe that a person becomes evil when he destroys those around him for the purpose of self-protection, and self-exaltation. When somebody does that we can say they are just not bad, they are just not struggling with sin, as all of us do. That person is evil.

I want you to take your Bibles now and let us look at King Saul of the Old Testament. In many ways King Saul was incredibly gifted. That’s the thing that makes him such an interesting study. He was very, very gifted. And what I’d like to do very briefly, and this has to be brief, is to give you characteristics of a man who turned from being a relatively good king at one time, winning tremendous battles and receiving a lot of adulation, to being a man that we would define definitely as evil. What happened in the process? Let me give you the characteristics.

Do you remember in 1 Samuel 13 that Saul was supposed to wait for Samuel before sacrifices were offered because only the priest was supposed to offer the sacrifices? But Samuel was late. Saul is desperate because he fears that somehow the Philistines are going to get the upper hand on him, so he goes ahead and does it in violation of the commandment of the Lord.

Look at what the text says. And today, by the way, we’re going to hurry over this man’s life in all kinds of chapters just hitting some high points. I feel as if I am cheating you as a congregation in doing it that quickly, but I’m not if you were to go home and to read the whole story of Saul because he is indeed a very interesting person.

So Samuel comes to Saul then, and this is 1 Samuel 13:14. Samuel is speaking. “Because you disobeyed the word of the Lord your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as a ruler over his own people because you have not kept what the Lord has commanded you. Your kingdom shall not endure.” And Saul said, “Okay, if God takes the kingdom from me He is God and therefore I resign.” (laughs)

Oh boy! Saul is going to hang on to that kingdom.

What is the first characteristic? The first characteristic of this evil man is he is obsessed with possessing the kingdom. He is going to hold on to that kingdom until his knuckles turn white. He is going to hold on to that kingdom until the day he dies because he will not acknowledge God as king to give it to whomsoever He will.

If you ask the question, “Why do good people do evil things?” that puts our finger on the heart of it – the unwillingness to submit to God as the ruler of our kingdom. Now, of course, we’re not kings in the sense of Saul, but our kingdom can be our career. We’ve seen people hang on to their careers long after they should have given up long ago. We’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen pastors continue to be pastors of churches even though the churches were splitting and fragmenting, and there were all these difficulties, and even after he has lost his mandate to be able to rule and to be able to be a pastor, he hangs on until everything around him is destroyed because he does not believe the kingdom belongs to God. It belongs to him.

It can be your career. It can be your money. The kingdom can be your giftedness. All of those things can be our kingdom and if we do not recognize that these things come from God we are going to want to possess and to control and to hang on and not give up, and that is going to so distort us that we’re on the verge of becoming evil.

Let me give you a second characteristic – insane jealousy. Look at 1 Samuel 18:7-8. You remember David now has killed Goliath, and by the way, Goliath was no problem at all. It was Saul in David’s life that was the problem, but you’ll notice that the women celebrated after David returned, and probably they should not have done this. Notice what it says. “As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, ‘They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?’ And Saul eyed David [with suspicion] from that day on.’”

It is just fascinating to see Saul’s paranoia, always thinking that David was ready to steal the kingdom. David was waiting for God. He was not looking for a good time to steal the kingdom, but Saul was so paranoid because he was so insanely jealous, just like you and I can be if there’s a younger understudy beneath us on the totem pole who is doing much better than we are, and who is receiving greater adulation and greater success. There’s something within us that wants to destroy those who make us look bad, and that’s where we begin to cross the line and become evil. Once again it comes down to this. Is the kingdom God’s or is it ours? Saul saw this as such a threat.

A third characteristic is obsessive anger. Notice it says in verse 10, “The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and the lyre, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David evaded him twice. Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul.” And Saul absolutely cannot handle it. He is the one who is now going to take the spear and try to kill David. He is obsessed.

You say, “Well, why did the evil spirit come from the Lord?” Where else do evil spirits come from? That might be a surprise for you to hear from me, but God is the controller of the demons of this world. They cannot so much as wiggle unless God allows them to, and what God was doing was judging Saul and saying, “Saul, in light of the fact that you don’t believe that the kingdom is Mine, I’m going to drive you to this insane schizophrenia.” Not all schizophrenia may be demonic but Saul’s was.

“And there are going to be moments now when you are going be in these moods where nothing is going to be able to calm you except the playing of David’s harp, and there are going to be times when you are going to be in distress and you are going to be in convulsion of spirit because of the judgment of God. You do not admit that the kingdom is mine and you’re hanging on to something that isn’t yours.” And God is going to drive him to despair.

You say, “Well, how can Saul kill a boy like David?” which obviously he was trying to do. What you have to understand is that when people give themselves to evil they no longer have feelings. People say about a father who abuses his child, “Well, doesn’t he love his little kid? Here’s this kid crying for mercy. Can’t he hear the plaintive cries of this little boy?” and the answer is, “No, he cannot, for he has zoned out. His emotions have shut down.”

One of the things I wanted to do in this series but I don’t have time this time, but eventually I will, is to speak about the conscience and how people deaden their consciences until they can no longer feel the pain of others. They are incapable of entering into other people’s worlds. They are so filled with a narcissistic view of life, a self-willed view of life, that what happens in somebody else’s life simply does not matter. That’s the nature of evil. So you have obsessive anger.

Number four, you have cunning manipulation! Oh, we don’t have time to tell the story but the rest of the chapter shows us that Saul misses David. The spear comes toward him and he ducks, and what happens is Saul thinks of another way to kill David. He says, “David, take my daughter here and I want you to marry her,” and he believed that therefore there would be a war with the Philistines. In fact, he sent David out to kill Philistines with the hope that the Philistines would do what he was unable to do.

My dear friend, the more evil a person becomes, the more manipulative he becomes, the more distressing this all becomes because he tries then to set traps for people.

We have to hurry because I want to get to the good part as to how God works all this for His glory.

Number five now is beguiling religiosity! Do you know what the shock is? Saul is evil. In fact the Bible calls him that, but it says in 1 Samuel 19:23 that Saul proceeded to Naioth in Ramah and the Spirit of God came upon him also so that he went along prophesying continually. You say, “The Spirit of God did that?” Yeah, that’s the enigma of it all.

Can’t you just see Saul justifying what he’s doing because he’s saying, “I’m still being used of God?” You say, “Well, why would God use somebody like this?” You are ahead of the game. I hope to answer that in a moment, but here’s a person who teaches a Sunday school class, a person who is involved in religious work, and yet if you really knew what he was doing, he may be doing very, very evil things.

Let’s hurry on to number six - false humility! Five times Saul says, “I have sinned. I am guilty.” For example in chapter 24 David has an opportunity to cut off his coat, proving that he could have killed Saul very, very easily. He’s right there in the cave with him and he doesn’t. Saul spills out his heart and says, “You know, you are much better than I am. May God be with you because you didn’t kill me.” And what he’s basically saying is, “No more fighting. I’m finished. Let’s lay down our weapons.” A couple of chapters later what’s he doing? He’s gathering more men together to find David to kill him. 

What you find in the evil personality is this. You have these moments of goodness. Even this is true of those borderline people that I talked about just a moment ago. There are moments when they have such charming personalities and you can connect with them, and you think to yourself, “You know, I think they really are changing. I see some hope here.” But the simple fact is they will respond like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There will be a part of them that will seem on days to be very, very nice, and you think, “You know, I really think that it helped.” And then they blow it all because the very next day they are back to square one.

Also, the evil person makes exceptions for himself. That’s number seven. We don’t have time. Read it on your own. It says in 1 Samuel 28:3 that Saul put out all of the mediums and the witches from the land and forbade them to work. The Bible had condemned it. Saul said, “I’m going along with it. If this is what God said, we’re going to put all the mediums to death, or at least to exterminate their work.” Four verses later he is in a dilemma and God isn’t speaking to him, and he finds a medium. This is known as the law of the grand exception. What evil people will do is they will always find an exception for themselves, and the rules that they make for others are not rules by which they themselves live. And so that’s the way Saul lived. At the end he tried to commit suicide and was not able to do it, and asked an Amalekite to finish him off. That’s his story.

Well, why does God do this? Why does God sometimes put people in positions of power who are unworthy of it? Why does God allow this relationship between Saul and David to go on for ten long painful years? That’s how long it was that David was running from this guy from cave to cave.

Let me say that first of all, we’ve all known people like Saul, haven’t we? There have been Christian leaders who are excellent communicators, excellent visionaries, excellent in all they do, but they are also excellent spear throwers. Why? Why? Why? I think there are two reasons. First, what God wants to do is to reveal the darkness and the incredible evil of the human heart in all of its nakedness, in all of its awfulness. And I think that what God wants us to realize, when we see that kind of evil, that that potential exists in us as well. Many people have not come to grips with the fact that under the right conditions and under the right circumstances you and I are capable of anything we have ever read about or seen on television. All of the thieves of that deception and evil, apart from God’s grace and intervention, exist within us, and God oftentimes takes the human heart and just lays it bare to stand in awe of its wickedness. Why? “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?”

There’s another reason though, and that is that God uses evil people. By the way, Gene Edwards in his wonderful book entitled A Tale of Three Kings says, “Saul is in your blood stream, in the marrow of your bones. He makes up the very flesh and muscle of your heart. He is mixed into your soul. He inhabits the nuclei of the atoms. King Saul is one with you.” Why did he write that? It’s because he is pointing out that God allowed this conflict between Saul and David to make sure that David would not become another King Saul.

It is Gene Edwards’ contention that if David had not had a Saul, David would have been King Saul number two. He had it in him, but the conflict was what wore David down and kept pressing him in the direction of God. What God does, you see, is He uses this conflict to develop a great deal of patience and heartfelt pain in David’s life that is going to be used mightily for the glory of God. 

What does David teach us when you have to put up with a controller? Well, first of all, it’s okay to get away from them if you can. When the spear was coming in David’s direction he didn’t wait there and say, “See if you can hit me.” I mean he was out the door. That’s fine, and that’s why if there is abuse going on in your home, or if there is abuse taking place, don’t just simply take it. Go for help. David did and that’s fine, but let me give you some lessons that we can learn from David.

First of all, he did indeed exercise restraint. The Scripture says on one occasion that Saul threw his spear at David, and David fled and the spear stuck into the wall. To David’s everlasting credit he didn’t wrench that spear out of the wall and throw it back at Saul. He didn’t say, “We’re going to have a spear-throwing contest.” 

You know there are some homes where there are spear- throwing contests. They go back and forth. David said, “No. You throw a spear at me. I will not throw a spear back.” Twice he had the opportunity to kill King Saul, as I pointed out, when he was right in Saul’s vicinity while he was sleeping. He even cut off a part of Saul’s coat just to prove that he was right next to him, and he would not touch him because he said, “I commit him to God and he is in God’s hands.” He even calls him the Lord’s anointed. Now, my dear friends, that is greatness. When you are with a spear-thrower you never win any battles by throwing spears back.

Secondly, David waited on God. He exercised restraint and he waited on God. Now after so many years in the ministry (and by the way, I am enjoying getting older - not old but older and there is a difference) and watching so many situations, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s a reluctant conclusion but I’ve come to it. There are some people whom God calls to live in pain and oftentimes it is because they are called upon to live with a controller. It may be a religious controller using the Bible for means of control. It may be a secular controller. There are all kinds but God uses that deep pain to produce a sense of dependence and knowledge on God that is absolutely overwhelming that perhaps cannot be learned in other ways. 

Now as I was thinking about that this week, if it were not for Saul we would have never had a Psalm like this, because this Psalm was written when David was fleeing from Saul.

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.

Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together! 

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

We would have never had that Psalm – Psalm 34. We would have never had Psalm 59 where David talks about his hope in God and says, “Though my enemies surround me I thank you that at the end of the day You pour grace into my soul, and that You show me the depths of my own need, and there through these difficulties I am pressed close to the heart of God.”

There are all kinds of Psalms like that, which we could paraphrase that end up in the very same way. It is hard for us to understand, but what God does is He uses these conflicts to deepen our relationship with Him.

You know, I think that there’s a better illustration even than David, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. What I find to be very interesting is that Jesus, of course, had total control. “All things are given unto Me in heaven and on earth,” the Bible says, so He had total control. He exercised none of it.

One day I was reading the book of Luke and there was a phrase that just popped out that I’m not sure I had ever seen before and I was almost swept away by it. When they are coming to get Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He says in Luke 22:53 to those who were coming toward Him and wanted to kill Him and eventually did, “This hour and the power of darkness is yours.” He was saying, “I’m giving you this hour. Today you win. Go ahead. Do it.”

He’s the one who could have called 10,000 angels. He’s the one who could have spoken the word and they’d have been incinerated. I mean all of this power was to His advantage and He accepted none of it. Why? It’s because that Jesus knew, as David did, first of all that God was in charge. This is very important. David knew that God was in charge, and Jesus most assuredly knew that His Father was in charge, and what Jesus was saying in effect is this. “If I am in God’s hands and if My controllers (the people who want to destroy Me) are in God’s hands, I am thereby content because (and notice it now) if all of this is in God’s control it does not have to be in My control.”

I speak to those of you today who are the controllers. You want to change people. You want to hang on to your little kingdom. You are not open before God. You do not rejoice in the success of people who are more successful than you in the business or the career path that you have chosen because what you are doing is you want to control. And I speak to you today and I ask you to acknowledge that the kingdom, whatever that may be in your life, belongs to God and not to you. And you and I should be able to surrender it with joy and say, “Father, do as seems good in Your sight,” because if God is in control, you and I don’t have to be controlling.

I speak to those of you who are controlled. You live with those controllers. I’m not giving you simply a pious platitude. I realize that there are implications here that could be talked about, but you also must realize something and that is if God is in control of your life and the life of your controller, in that you can rest knowing that God is using this for His glory. 

Think again of Jesus. Here He is. He submits Himself to those who want to kill Him. He dies on the cross. As a result of the death that He had on the cross, you and I can be redeemed today. We can be saved, and there are some of you who are listening today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, but I want you to know that the reason that He is available to you is because He died as a sacrifice for sinners. And that evil event of control where they nailed Him on the cross is the great stream of blessing that we often refer to when we say, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” And we look today to the cross as the great focal point of history. There was a clash between the controllers and the controlled, and look how God used it. And I can urge you today to believe in Christ because that happened. 

Back in 1907 a woman by the name of Adelaide Pollard was at a prayer meeting and in the prayer meeting someone prayed, “Lord, just have your own way,” and that phrase stuck in her mind as she then wrote a poem that has been set to music. Now notice that this is for the controlled as well as the controllers. 

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Thou art the Potter. I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.

What does God want? He wants us to submit control and let Him be in charge. And that’s why you have such deep needs today, my friend. And that’s why some of you are going through the pain of living with people who are difficult to live with. At the end of the day David said, “Wait patiently on the Lord and He will grant you the strength to carry on.”

Would you today, and would I today, be willing to relinquish control to God? Saul didn’t. David did.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we think of these two men and the implications and we pray today that You might grant us hearts that are willing to say, “Yes, Lord.” Oh we pray, Father, that we might be able to commit individuals to You in such a way, knowing that we cannot change them. We thank You that You have taught us that a thousand times. May there be a commitment to You, Father, that we will do our part and trust You to do what we can’t.

Meanwhile, for those who may be here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, we pray that the control of their lives will also be submitted to Him, and as we sing together may this prayer, oh God, change us and set Your people free we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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