Our Stranglehold on Life

World Challenge Staff

Trying to control our circumstances is so tempting because we are called to steward our lives, but only God truly has control, and our sin nature wants to ignore that fact.

“The woman’s name doesn’t matter. Just picture anyone you know and love,” Susannah Cahalan wrote, “She’s in her mid-twenties when her world begins to crumble. She can’t concentrate at work, stops sleeping, grows uneasy in crowds, and then retreats to her apartment, where she sees and hears things that aren’t there — disembodied voices that make her paranoid, frightened and angry.

“…Her family’s worry grows. They take her in, but she runs away from them, convinced they are part of some elaborate conspiracy to destroy her. They take her to a hospital, where she grows increasingly disconnected from reality. She is restrained and sedated by the weary staff. She begins to have ‘fits’ — her arms flailing and her body shaking, leaving doctors dumbstruck, without answers.” She sees floating eyes in the bathroom; she attempts to jump out a window; she loses the ability to speak.

The only part of this story that isn’t true is that the woman’s name doesn’t matter. It does, and it’s Susannah.

She was describing her own descent into what was diagnosed as psychosis but later discovered to be autoimmune encephalitis by a creative and inquisitive doctor who took interest in her case just in time to stop the disease from destroying her brain.

Later, she reflected in The Great Pretender, “I am stalked by the ever-present threat that psychosis will return. Writing this now, halfway through my pregnancy with twins, I can’t forget the ways my body can (and has) failed me. As traumatic as being diagnosed with melanoma was in my late teens, it did not feel like the disease touched a part of my soul the same way that my experience with psychosis did. …We are all hanging on by a very thin thread, and some of us won’t survive our fall.”

Despite frequent evidence to the contrary, we often want to believe that we can control our health, careers or relationships.

Now, we do have stewardship and some responsibility for the care of our bodies, work and friendships or family members. As scripture says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24, ESV). We are to labor diligently, caring for our bodies as if they’re the temple of God (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), glorifying God in our work and loving others (see John 13:34).

Can we control our health, though? Can we will away cancer or force our bodies to heal faster? Can we ‘manifest’ the career we want, when we want it? Can we force others to treat us the way we want and be our friends or stay away from us? Many people would probably answer yes to some or all of these questions.

We want control so badly that we will often manufacture our own ‘reality’ in which we can make our health, jobs and loved ones be as we imagine and do as we say. Part of this is born out of our natural longing for the security humanity once knew in Eden and what we are designed to experience in the presence of God. The other part comes out of our terribly broken and twisted hearts that whispers to us that we are all-powerful and all-knowing like God.

“Humans have persuaded themselves into thinking that other created things will satisfy their deepest longings. The apparent wisdom in this is the illusion that created things can be more easily controlled than the Creator,” Dr. Richard Lints, dean of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, sagely observed. If we can’t manipulate God, we can at least manage the world around us. So we believe until health issues arise that weren’t anticipated, our position at work is eliminated or people whom we wanted to stay leave us. Sometimes our lives seem very easy to drive in the direction we want, then at the drop of a hat, everything seems to spin out of control. Even then, we white-knuckle the steering wheel.

The Bible unflinchingly describes the outcome of this mentality. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).

If we’re in the church, we often assume that religion will help ward off manipulative interactions, bullying fights or frustration over things not going to plan.

However, we grossly underestimate our own capacity to twist even biblical commands toward control. Take for example an oft-quoted verse from Paul’s directions to the early church: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27, ESV). Obviously we don’t want to be bursting with anger and lashing out at people. Rather than letting God deal with the anger in our heart, though, we often suppress our rage and allow it to bubble up elsewhere in a less recognizable form.

Neil Rhodes, preacher and missionary, gave a fabulous example of this very thing in his own life. “The way I used to deal with an argument, which we call ‘intense fellowship’, is that I would go down into the basement. I would go lock away and get into some book. But the Bible tells us all the time — and this is what God spoke to my heart — that it doesn’t matter if you walk away. See, when we had ‘intense fellowship’, instead of resolving it in a Christ-like manner, I would go down into the basement. What I was doing was allowing the door of my household to be opened to a spirit of control.

“Most people don’t understand that. Most people think ‘Well, I’m just going down to allow these things to work themselves out.’ No, you’re not. You’re punishing the person who you haven’t resolved the situation with. It’s a spirit of control.

“…I remember this one time I was in the basement, and I got down on my knees to pray, and that scripture from Peter came very clearly to my heart and mind. He says, ‘Don’t you realize that your prayers are hindered? That if you don’t resolve the issue of your heart and you continue to control the situation by your silence, why do you think your prayers are going to be heard…?’” 

Do we recognize silent-treatment as anger every bit as damaging as if we shouted at someone? Do we recognize frustration and passive aggressive comments as a bitter attempt to control other people? Do we see our efforts to manage others as allowing ourselves to be used by Satan to torment these individuals?

The desire to control our environment has plagued humanity since the very beginning of time; it was what drew Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Out of the root of pride comes the sprout of control. In order to control our own lives, we must be able to control anyone who enters our sphere. “My life would be so much better if this person would just treat me in the way I deem most loving, respect me by accepting of my advice because the Bible says they should be humble, and never point out anything too convicting because they need to remove the speck from their own eye first.” We justify our warped desires with scripture, then we strip away their dignity and deny the direction or work that God may be putting before them. 

How are we then supposed to steward our resources and protect people we care about without being controlling? How do we use the power and authority God’s given us without falling into this trap?

In her book The Cost of Control, Sharon Hodde Miller wrote, “God created Adam and Eve in his image (Gen. 1:26), which means that we possess power like God does, but we are also called to wield power as God does. …This point then raises a question: What does it look like to use our power in God’s ‘image’? How do we use power to reflect God’s character instead of to control? One answer comes to us directly from the garden. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see God using his power almost exclusively for two things: to create and to empower.”

Let’s go back to Pastor Neil Rhodes’ example. We get into a conflict with someone, and the temptation is either to attack them with our words or withdraw and punish them with our silence or maybe gossip about them so that we’re in control of the narrative. All of these reactions are based out of our desire to control that person or the situation.

What if instead we asked them what they were feeling that led to the disagreement and empowered them to examine themselves within the safety of a loving relationship? What if we confessed our own sins or poor motivations that contributed to the problem and made room for God to change our hearts? What if we lovingly refused to take responsibility for things that aren’t ours or encourage bad behavior and created a space for that other person to learn and mature?

That’s much easier to write about than it is to do.

As often as we want anything from anyone, we must ask ourselves, “Am I trying to control someone or a situation? Am I using my abilities and influence to create something or empower someone else? God, help me if it’s the former and not the latter!” Psalm 44:21 promises that God “knows the secrets of the heart.” In the New Testament, scripture declares, “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). As we make space for him to renovate us and heal our manic desire for control, we will find a greater peace both inside us and in our relationships.