Thank you for your patience over the last few weeks as this installment is late!
In the last installment, we addressed some of the “elephants” in the Christian control room. In this fourth and final installment, we'll take a look at a few of the “foxes”: issues that are subtler and less stereotypical, but which still stem from a fear of not being in control – or perhaps more accurately in many of these cases, from a mistaken feeling of being obligated to be more in control than we really are.
The Fox Without a Fence
Many Christians live with very weak or unhealthy boundaries, albeit with very good intentions. We believe in being kind to everyone, forgiving unceasingly, and putting others before ourselves. These are right and good ideals, but in our commitment to them we can often forget that the Bible also teaches us to lovingly confront people when there's been wrong, to tell the truth, to set consequences for unhealthy patterns, and to support people being responsible for themselves rather than enabling irresponsibility. We're afraid to confront people, afraid to say “no,” and afraid to not “be nice;” afraid that by living with boundaries we'll hurt someone or fail to show love.
What we're really afraid of is the fact that we can't control another person's reaction to us. Or, rather, we feel we're obligated to control the other person's reaction – to keep them from feeling hurt or angry, or to make sure that we don't cause them to resent God by speaking tough truths in His Name.
However, these are things that are ultimately outside of our control, and we show greater love and respect when we trust people to be autonomous humans and deal with their own hurts and disappointments, than when we try to shield them from reality. Moreover, we cannot give them ourselves if we're not willing to be ourselves – to own our own opinions and be real with each other.
Boundaries take a while to develop, but are exceedingly important; if you're looking for help in this area or are just curious to read up on this subject, the book Boundaries Henry Cloud and John Townsend is an excellent resource.
The Fox that Don't Ask No Questions
Fear of questions is, ironically, one of the things that undermines people's faith the most. We're afraid that if we come up against questions we can't answer, we won't be able to control our own beliefs or those of our children. Christians can be especially susceptible to this fear since the Bible teaches that we are saved by belief in Jesus, and that we can't be saved by anything else. Thus the thought of possibly losing that faith is particularly troubling to us, and many of us subconsciously shy away from anything that could jeopardize it.
However, truth has nothing to fear from inquiry. In fact, faith is lost when we stop asking questions, not when we start. After all, asking a question implies that one expects an answer; loss of faith happens when we conclude that there isn't a good answer and stop looking. Fear of questions implies that either we don't really believe our faith is true, or that we're afraid we're not strong enough to carry on through those periods of doubt or mystery when we haven't yet found compelling answers to tough questions. But even this latter fear implies that we are in control and expected to be in control of our hearts; what the Bible actually teaches is that even faith comes from God and that no amount of faithfulness is possible without His help.
There will always be more in life than we can possibly understand. We need to trust that God is big enough to not just have “the answers” but to be The Answer for all of it – the things that are beyond us and the things we naïvely think we've grasped – and to trust that He is more than enough to keep us going through the mystery if we let Him.
The Fearful Fox
Cowardice comes in a variety of ways. We avoid situations that scare us – work that seems beyond us, conversations that have potential to cause us to be rejected – rather than risking failure. Sometimes it comes from an overly acute fear of offending people. This is particularly sharp for us in our culture right now because not only is “offensiveness” a major buzzword, but we've also got the difficulty of balancing Jesus' frequent reminders that Christianity is always going to offend people with the hard truth that many people have been legitimately hurt by Christians. Other times our cowardice comes from simply overestimating our own power to fail.
In both cases, though, we're assuming more control than we actually have – in the first case, we're assuming that we have control over someone else's reactions and thought processes; in the latter we're assuming that we have control over whether anything ultimately succeeds or fails (and assuming we know what constitutes true success or failure, which may not be quite true either). But who am I to think that my failure could foil God's plans?
The Bible takes cowardice very seriously, and makes it clear that potential to mess things up is no excuse for not showing up. (I say this as someone for whom cowardice is a constant temptation.) The Bible also makes it clear that our failures are not the end of the story, that God works even through our imperfections and that He's glorified in our weakness, not despite it. We need to trust that God is big enough for all of our weakness, and to be willing to focus on His honor and reputation, not our own.
The Hardworking Fox
Workaholism can be another well-meaning symptom of a skewed relationship with control (she writes from midair on a cross-country flight). We're told to be wiling to sacrifice, to set our minds on God's Kingdom, to be responsible and work hard – however, we're also told to rest, to receive from God, to be still. In fact, the command to observe the Sabbath – the day of rest – is repeated throughout Scripture, and is surprisingly prominent in the messages of the Hebrew prophets, alongside seemingly much more important things like not oppressing and murdering people.
Perhaps God emphasizes this so much because He knows our tendency to return to that original sin of trying to be Him. He knows we tend to forget Him, to downplay His power and involvement in the world and overemphasize our own. When we do this, we not only disrespect Him but also put a load on ourselves that we could never have the strength to bear. We need to remember that while God works through people, God is the one who saves the world. He's big enough that we don't need to replace Him, and He loves us enough that we don't need to impress Him.
The Fox With the Fire
One of the areas that's most rife with control issues is also one of the most difficult to talk about. The theology is nuanced, there are a lot of differing ideas, and a lot of people have complex history with fairly high personal stakes.
Those with more charismatic theology (theology that emphasizes the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit) often warn against “quenching the Spirit's fire,” that is, refusing to be open to what God wants to do. Some believe that those who don't display visibly supernatural gifts – gifts such as healing or speaking in tongues – aren't open to the Holy Spirit. And sometimes they're right. Sometimes the supernatural freaks us out because if we're honest, we're afraid of giving up control of ourselves. The supernatural is by nature foreign to us and we're afraid of not being ourselves anymore; we're also intimidated and threatened by the presence of a Power that is so clearly beyond us. However, an insistence that everyone conform to one idea of how to relate to God, or that everyone must display a certain gift, can also be a control issue. It's assuming that one's own understanding of how God works is perfect (almost never a good assumption), and it's also assuming that if a person doesn't display a certain supernatural gift, it's their fault. A fairly natural corollary – and the painful burden so many people feel placed on their shoulders – is that we're obligated to be in control of the supernatural, something no human can ever rightly be expected to do. Certainly we need to be open to the Holy Spirit, but that also means we need to be open-minded about what He wants to do.
A related issue comes when we're making requests in prayer. The Bible tells us to ask God for things and emphasizes the importance of faith when we ask. However, sometimes we focus on this emphasis in ways that get unhealthy. When we're focused on the faith itself, instead of on the trustworthiness of God, we often find ourselves trying to manufacture “enough” faith. Because of passages where Jesus says to “believe and not doubt,” we often find ourselves afraid to consider any other possibilities than an exact fulfillment of every detail of what we prayed, even our request being granted in a slightly different way than we imagined – as if allowing ourselves to consider that God might have other plans constitutes “doubt” and then it won't “work”. We fear that praying “Thy will be done,” is a cop-out (as indeed it sometimes can be, when we're trying to cover up our fear of being disappointed – another form of grasping at control).
When being open to what God might want to do is considered “lack of faith,” we have a problem. Our desire to be obedient to God's call to faith ironically twists into an obligation to control God. We run the same risk that Naaman did: the risk of missing the beauty and power of God because He's working in different ways than we expected Him to. We also run the risk of pressuring ourselves and others to control God – again, something that no human can rightly be expected to do – which wounds countless people by essentially blaming them for their unanswered prayers. If all of this depends on us, on the amount of faith we can drum up, then it's not really faith in God. Faith in God must include faith that God's ways are trustworthy, and that controlling the universe doesn't depend on us but on Him.
My understanding of all of this isn't perfect, and I do not yet have the depth of faith that I would like. But I know that my prayers for increased faith, and to have the kind of faith He wants me to have, will be answered. We were never meant to live the Christian life alone, to find, in and of ourselves, the goodness, strength, love – and even the faith – that we need. God does not condemn us for our weakness of faith or ask us to hide it from Him, but rather to bring it to Him and let Him do His work in us.
The Devoted Fox
The last “fox” is a quiet one. It's not a sinful little creature or even an overtly destructive one, he just frustrates people quite frequently. This fox is found most often in our devotional times – when we're reading the Bible, or praying, or trying to listen to God. It's the impulse to “do it right” (whatever that means when you're trying to cultivate a relationship). When we're trying to listen for God's voice, it's the attempt to “listen harder,” to make ourselves hear something. When we're reading the Bible, it can be the need we feel to make sure we come away with an amazing new insight; when we're praying it can be the idea that we “ought” to feel something more.
One of the most important lessons as I was trying to learn listening prayer (this is an ongoing task, and in fact an ongoing lesson) was “stop trying to make something happen.” Ironically, I don't remember reading this somewhere or being told by someone; I seem to remember it more as a thought that just crossed my mind – in which case, I was hearing God's voice telling me to chill out about trying to hear His voice.
We won't always feel deep and inspiring feelings when we're reading the Bible. We won't always hear profound mysteries when we're listening to God. God is with us for the long haul, and often faithfulness isn't flashy.
Frequently we put too much pressure on ourselves to “get something out of” our devotional times – to “make something happen.” We need to remember that this is a relationship – that there is value in just being together with God, that can't be quantified by some criterion such as “this is the lesson I learned today.” And we need to remember that God, who spoke the world into being and makes everything in it to grow, is the one in charge of speaking to us and making us grow.
In Conclusion (For Real This Time!)
Thank you for sticking with me through this longer than usual, 4-part meditation on this subject! Obviously it's not exhaustive, but I hope it's sparked some fruitful thoughts for you. Control is not wrong -- God has always, from the beginning, designed the world such that He works through humans. But the limits on our control are important for us to grapple with, as we balance our calling from God with the fact that we are not God!
May He continue to help us trust Him more.