We’ve all experienced it, the insanity of trying to get through security at the airport. “Please remove your shoes, belt, jacket. Place your laptop and other large electronics in a separate bin. Put any liquids in a clear bag.” Opting out of the full-body scan means opting for a full-body pat-down. What happened to basic metal detectors and walking carelessly from landing strip to plane?
Failure to keep the 9/11 bombers from getting through security. Failure to detect their presence on the plane. Failure to stop them. Swearing never to let this happen again, we contain, and control. If we can maintain complete control over the environment—who comes and who goes, and with what—we will be safe. This thinking extends to all areas of our society.
Having failed to keep our children from dying in car accidents, we make sure they are triple-strapped, padded, secure. Our failure to practice the self-control needed to lose weight has funded services that prepackage, weigh, and measure all we eat. When we fail to impress our friends, we set rules and regulations on those nearest us: eat like this, say this, wear that. Control, then, is just as much an idol as comfort and acceptance. It appears equally accessible and equally tantalizing. Many of us can afford the Cadillac car seat, the home-delivered meals, the clothes. Nor is that wrong.
Just as earthly comforts are not inherently evil, neither is the desire to have the approval of others. Neither is creating or maintaining control—or at least order (1 Cor. 10:23; 1 Tim 4:4). The trouble lies in our excessive desire for and love of control when we exalt it above God, thereby letting it control us (1 Cor. 6:10). “Or as Calvin stated, ‘The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much.’” How do you know if you want control too much? If it has mastered you, instead of you it?
Does chasing control eat away our time and energy? Do our thoughts constantly run back and back and back to how we can get it? Or is your worst nightmare one of losing control? For example, you may spend fretful hours constructing the perfect schedule or researching how to raise the perfect child. You dread the unexpected and unplanned. Or perhaps at each meal you tally each calorie, planning how you will do penance for that extra cookie or glass of wine. Your obsessive fixation and accompanying anxiety are evidence that you have made “a good thing, an ultimate thing.” So, it only makes sense that you would run to this “ultimate” thing when facing failure. But often we don’t realize what we are doing until it hits us squarely across the eyes. Such happened to me in Tanzania, Africa.
I spent several months living and teaching in Tanzania. I spent several months tasting failure. I’d gone hoping to transform lives, impact villages, save Tanzania. Instead, I often failed to communicate the most basic information. I failed to keep awake bleary eyes. I failed to keep flunking students afloat. My response: wake up earlier, work later, organize and account for each minute–control all I could. I coveted those things which I failed to attain and thought bowing to control could get them for me. My covetous heart made me an idolator (Col. 3:5). The result was bitterness toward God, isolation from my team, depression, burnout. Rather than fix my failures, my idol of control controlled me. Such is always the case. Consider the following examples.
Embarrassed and ashamed at your failure in parenting, you start cleaning your home. It relieves stress, gives you a sense of accomplishment, and assures you that though you have lost the control and approval you covet, there is the possibility of attaining it elsewhere. But soon it becomes your escape, then your pride, then your identity. You are no longer Sally of the rebellious teenager, but Sally of the pristine home. Protecting this new identity, you create new house rules. No shoes on the floors, wipe down the tub and toilet after each use, no touching the widows, walls, shelves, furniture. You get panicky over dust or footprints. Your attempt to control has begun to control you, just like counting calories does for an anorexic.
It started as a way to deal with the pain of always failing to attain to her parents’ high academic standards. If she couldn’t get the grades she coveted, at least she could get thin and fit. She started tracking calories and added a few more minutes to her workout routine. Every day she would try to figure out a way to eliminate a few more calories and get in a few more minutes of exercise. Then she stopped eating meat, then dairy, then carbs. She was exercising over an hour daily and eating vegetables and fruit. Her weight plummeted, and she was losing basic functionality. But she couldn’t stop. Always was running her mental calorie counter.
Using control to deal with failure leads only to losing control. Because really, what we are doing is letting our lusts (lust for grades, good kids, approval) entice and lure us to sin (via idol worship), which leads to death—something we cannot control (James 1:14–15).
Maybe you are thinking, that is good to know, but I don’t struggle with working too much, or needing a clean home, or keeping a trim figure. Here is a little test.
If you seek control (self-discipline, certainty, standards) . . .
• Your greatest nightmare: Uncertainty
• People around you often feel: Condemned
• Your problem emotion: Worry
So, if you are like me, and realized that you use control as a means of dealing with failure, what are you to do?
As I have said concerning approval and comfort, the only answer is to repent from your sin and worship the Lord. Repenting is a two-step process. First we must confess that we have lived and acted as though we are God—we are in control (or at least know best). Confess your using control as a means of dealing with the pain of failure and an attempt to satisfy your cravings, rather than turning to God. Then we must turn (or rather, flee) from our idols to him—surrendering that which we hold most dear (1 Cor. 10:14). In the words of Timothy Keller, “The only way to free ourselves from the influence of counterfeit gods is to turn back to the true One, the living God . . . is the only Lord who, if you find Him, can truly fulfill you; and if you fail Him, can truly forgive you” (Counterfeit Gods).
But we cannot, as Keller adds, do this through thinking lofty thoughts about God’s sovereignty, power, and control (Counterfeit Gods), though God surely is sovereign and all-powerful (Eph. 1:22, Isa. 45:7, 1 Chron. 29:12). Rather, we walk from our idols to God by becoming enthralled by Christ and his great love. If we truly understand the unimaginable love displayed on the cross, and its implications in our lives, we will want only to worship God (read Eph. 2:1–10). If we truly understand that Christ laid down his life for us while we were yet dead in our sins, will we praise his name (Eph. 2:5). If we truly understand that through his work we are freed from our bondage to sin, we will shout for joy (Rom. 7:21–25). Christ has set us free from idolatry and blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). He is Lord over all; all things must bow to and worship him (Eph. 1:22, Phil. 2:10–11). How do our lifeless idols compare with this living God?
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in His wonderful face,
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
in the light of His glory and grace.
—Helen Howarth Lemmel
Mrs. Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Hammond, WI. and a house cleaner and aspiring writer currently residing in Griffith, IN., while her husband is studying at Mid America Reformed Seminary.