Neural network , detailed illustration

Impulse Control

After hearing of yet another horrific shooting in Connecticut—and witnessing another mindless act of evil much closer to home at Clackamas Town Center, the news will have its usual stories, interviews with eye-witnesses, and ultimately search for some explanation. We will hear words of grief and shock. People will say that Jacob Roberts was a good kid (his aunt referred to him as a “warm and loving person”). Others will say that they never saw it coming.

The recent NFL tragedies have a similar theme. Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, and shortly after committed suicide in front of team officials. The memorial service remembered him this week as a “humble, kind, young man.”

What is it that causes a young man to take an AR-15 assault rifle and burst into a crowded mall and spray bullets randomly, all with the intent of creating havoc and destruction? Mental illness? Maybe. Rage? Perhaps. Need for attention? Why would Jovan Belcher destroy the life of one he loved, drive over to team practice, and do a horrifying act that will haunt his coach forever? Why would Josh Brent, with everything going for him as a professional athlete with the Dallas Cowboys, consume enough alcohol to exceed twice the legal limit, then get in a car, flip it, and kill his teammate? I’m not sure.

The easy answer, the answer we Christians often share, is that it is all part of living in a fallen world. Sin is always crouching at the door, always aimed at destroying a life. And that is true. Behind all of these acts is a self-centeredness that replaced (or never gave room for) a God-centeredness. Others will point to an out of control culture when it comes to gun control.  And I believe this is true as well. I honestly cannot understand why it is we protect the right for people to buy assault rifles and gun magazines that have the capability to fire off a significant round of bullets. And maybe some, those with enough courage, will point to alcohol and the way we have let it define much of our culture. I found it interesting that on the sports radio I listen to, no one brought this up. My guess is that both Jerry Brown and Kasandra Perkins would still be here if alcohol consumption wasn’t so glorified.

But I wonder if what we are witnessing is a culture that is no longer aware of the need to control its impulses. My guess is that behind the above mentioned tragedies are impulsive young men who have not been guided to restrain their emotions. Maybe it is a steady diet of film, where people fall in love in a moment, followed up in the next moment with both in bed. Maybe it is the constant narratives where people are in a rage, immediately followed by some act of violence. Impetuous, spontaneous behavior is the present storyline, be it on the screen, in video games, or in real life.

All of us are given to some impulsive behavior (a 12-12-12 air ticket for 12 dollars-who wouldn’t move fast?). The holiday shopping is aimed at impulse buyers. We pause to give thanks on Thanksgiving for what we have (it’s only a pause), because Black Friday invites us to remove restraint and reconsider what we don’t have and think about what we must have this minute! And the good news is that online shopping has made it unnecessary for one to get up at 3:00 am and wait in the Best Buy parking lot.

We are no longer conditioned to restrain desires—no longer prepared to pause and reflect. We are encouraged to gratify our desires, whatever they may be, and do it now.  AT&T may have given us the tag line of our culture: “The Freedom to Do What You Want When You Want It”. There was a time you waited two weeks for a return letter. There was a day when it was expected that your sexual longings were reserved for the one you married, restrained until the right moment, the honeymoon. There used to be such things as Layaways. You waited until you could afford it. But caution and restraint are something of the past (and thanks to recent lending practices, our economy is now paying a severe price). Impulse control has shifted to impulse out of control. We refuse to abide by time boundaries—or any other—and this has had the broader impact of redefining everything from marriage to ministry.

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas story is Mary beholding her Son Jesus. She is pondering, treasuring, and meditating on all these things in her heart (Luke 2:19). There is nothing impulsive in the story. She must yield and wait and reflect. Her freedom is to be what God wants when He wants. It’s a centering image that informs how we should both celebrate Christmas—as well as how we should live, especially in an age that is so out of control.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary. He also has a strong commitment to building the church worldwide, partnering and teaching ministries in Lebanon and India.

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