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Control freaks and the candifloss thief

Don’t you find it hard when things don’t go to plan? When things outside your control prevent your plans working out? I hate it. Recently I’ve been doing some thinking on why, and how to cope with control as a Christian. Here are some thoughts to accompany a cup of coffee…

The candifloss thief

The history of the world is of people who know what they want, looking for it in all the wrong places. And of the purveyor of those goods taking to the road to come and find us, give us what we always wanted – give us himself. One of the ways in which the Bible speaks of this thing we all want is in terms of food. We want to be filled, satisfied, and full. We want sweetness. The problem is that we don’t know where to find it. We’re more drawn to the spiritual candifloss store than to the spiritual bakery. We lick and lick and lick, but still we aren’t full. The Bible calls this idolatry – worshipping the wrong things. And idolatry leaves us hungry. And the purveyor of the bread of life comes to us in the person of Christ and displays his wares. He offers the bread of life. He is the bread of life. He offers himself.

But – and here’s the thing – in order for us to have him, he needs to take the candifloss off us. In order to fill us with himself, he needs to become the candifloss thief. He needs to be ‘the idol thief and destroyer’ because “his glory he will not give to another” (Isa 42:8). And so as we think about control and how it can be an idol for us, the question we’re faced with is this, “Am I willing to have him steal my idol away from me, trusting he has something better for me?” Am I willing to exchange my candifloss of control for his bread?

The God who’s in control

Since all idols are distortions of the good to be found in God, we need to begin with him. And see how the idol of control is fulfilled in him. He is the God who is in control. Here’s a romp through some key verses to do with God’s control. Feel free to look them up if you have time…

Prov 21:1
He is the one who guides the King’s heart as if it were a stream of water to be channeled. Legislature, lobbying, elections – all under his control.

Matt 10:29
Not one sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge.

Job 38:34-39:3
He is in control over weather (38:34-35; 37-38); mental health and cognitive function (38:36); provision of food (38:39-41); Life (and we presume death) (39:1-4).

Eph 1:10
His control is harnessed to a great purpose. He has a plan “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”

Rom 8:28
Indeed he even has control over evil, so that he can use all things so that they work for the good of those who love him. As Joseph says of his brothers plan to leave him for dead – “you intended it for evil, but God meant it for good…” (Gen 50:20).

If there’s a driver’s seat in the universe, he’s in it. If there’s a head office, he occupies it. If there’s throne, he’s on it. If something exists, he controls it. Existence is the only prerequisite for God to control a phenomena. A thought, a word, an intention, a step, a memory, an instinct, a coincidence. All with God’s signature underneath them. He’s never caught out, or off-guard or asleep. He’s the God who’s in control. It’s one of his defining characteristics.

Control-freaks

When it comes to us – control is the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good:

And so we come to us. We want to be like God. In part that’s good and necessary, in part that’s disastrous. In part that’s good – Gen 1:26ff. Do you remember the creation account? The very reason Adam is created and then in turn Eve, is so that they and we may steward God’s good creation. So that we may have dominion over it. It’s an idea of control that every gardener knows well. The garden well tend towards chaos in the absence of the controlling work of the gardener. Indeed it seems to me that this is the supreme meaning of what it is for us to be made in the image of God. We’re designed to control and steward the world around us, to an extent. God controls, and so we as his vice-regents control on his behalf. And so it’s right that we strive for control and order in our society. Traffic lights, laws, courts, police, insurance, driving on the left, trains which run on time. These things are good.

The Bad:

But our desire to be like God is excessive. And like any good desire – when taken to excess – it’s a dangerous thing. That’s when a godly appetite spills into a sinful lust. Our sin means that we cannot be content with being like God – we want to escape him and replace him and be him. We don’t want to control under his control – we want to control on our own. We want to clamber into the driving seat and the universe HQ. This is what’s going on in Ps 2 where the kings of the earth conspire to “burst [God’s] bonds apart and cast away [his] chains.”

The Ugly:

Do you remember King Saul? Began positively, anointed as King by Samuel. But then he sows the seeds of his own demise. And it’s a control issue. He gets frustrated waiting for Samuel the priest to conduct a sacrifice. Takes control into his own hands and takes on the priestly duty himself. “What have you done?” asks Samuel, “You have acted foolishly.” Not long after God’s Spirit leaves Saul and David is appointed King. It was a sinful desire for control, and it was the ugly catalyst for the demise of his reign.

And don’t we all struggle with it ourselves? Here’s Tim Keller’s diagnostic question which I’ve found helpful: We’re struggling with the idol of control when “Life only has meaning/ I only have worth if I manage to get mastery over x/y in my life.”

Here are some marks of the control freak…

We prize certainty highly
And so we exercise control over our diaries to try to wrestle the odds the future holds in my favour. When we fail to do that, we’re filled with anxiety about ‘tomorrow.’ ‘What if…

We prize self-discipline
It’s not just my circumstances I need to control, but my very self and so I control my diet, my sleep, my exercise, my bodyweight.

We prize high standards
These are the very things my control enables me to maintain. Maybe we recognise that there are lots of ‘uncontrollables’ around us – the weather, traffic, my parents’ break up, my health condition and so we pour ourselves into trying to control the controllables (as the cycling behemoth Team Sky would say).

People around us may feel condemned
After all our standards are higher and our work ethic stronger (if you ask us).

People around us may feel belittled
As we try to micromanage them. We don’t encourage innovation or initiative perhaps. Control freaks don’t make good bosses.

It’s an idol. It’s like that candifloss; we lick and lick and lick, but it doesn’t satisfy us. It only makes us more neurotic, harder to be around, and makes us push people away. Jesus needs to be the kind candifloss thief for us. Here’s why we need him to take it from us…

Control and the glory of God

It’s because it’s more important for God to have his glory than it is for us to be in control. If you have a moment give Job chapter 1 a read.

We meet Job in vv1-5. Life has gone according to plan for him. He’s a man most would say is in control. A wealthy family man, who fears the Lord. A man in control if ever there was one. But did you follow the conversation in heaven here? The Lord is rightly delighted with Job – v8 he fears the Lord. Satan, however, wants to test him. And he’s got a point.

‘Maybe Job only worships you God, because of what you give him. Because you’ve been like a divine vending machine giving him all he wanted. You’ve hedged him in with a hedge of control and blessing – he’s been allowed to feel in control. Maybe he worships control more than he worships you? How about we put him to the test, by breaking his control, and bringing chaos into his life? Then we’ll see whether he’ll carry on worshipping you. Then we’ll see whether he worships you for your glory or for your blessings.”

And chillingly, the Lord allows him to do that – he loses control over his business (vv13-17), and his family (vv18-19) and cursed chaos reigns. And the rest of this long book is the story of how he responds. And the question is this: ‘Will he give glory to God, despite losing his control?’

And God sometimes allows that to happen to us. He is glorious regardless of the blessings he gives us, and he must demonstrate that to Satan. So sometimes the Lord throws a form of chaos into our lives to test whether we’ll still worship him, or whether we only do so when we’re still in control. Traffic so that we’re late for that meeting. Illness so that we miss that conference. Computer meltdown so that we lose that document. And the question is, ‘how will we respond?’ Give God the glory anyway, or lament our lack of control? Every moment of chaos is an opportunity to give up our idol – our candifloss of control. Let Jesus steal it from us. And I know it hurts – it’s hard to have him prise our fingers off it – but it’s for our good.

Handing over the helm

So what do we do? Well we need to hand over the helm to God again. Admit that it’s better when he’s in control and not us. At the most basic level what the cross of the Lord Jesus teaches us is that we are not capable of saving ourselves – if God thought we could control things well on our own he’d have left us to it. But we couldn’t and so he didn’t. He sent his Son not primarily as a teacher or an example, but as our Saviour to rescue control-freaks from their idol worship and sin. Stealing the candifloss from us and giving us the Bread of Life. And we just need to accept that daily.

It’s very interesting – at the end of Job (after he’s been railing at God for having his control taken away from him) he’s rebuked by God, and this is how Job finally responds: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted… Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” He hands the helm over to God again. When he tried to wrestle control from God, he was trying to do something which was intrinsically above his pay-grade – something which is “too wonderful” for him.

Interestingly King David comes to exactly the same conclusion in one of my favourite Psalms – 131. He writes as follows:

1 My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.

He repents of his prideful ‘control-freakery.’ He lowers his eyes and expectations – v1. He renounces the need to be in control. And isn’t the result in v2 just glorious? He’s no longer dependant on the control-freak milk he used to feed on. Free from the candifloss of control which never satisfied. And he’s now deeply at rest. Able to sleep easy. God is in control, and that’s ok. God may bring chaos into his life as he did with Job, and that’s ok. He doesn’t know what tomorrow holds, and that’s ok. And so his recommendation to us reading this blog? That we take the same medicine – “put your hope in the LORD, both now and forever more.”

John Ash

 

 

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