By Stacey Monaco, Crosswalk.com
On a small notepad in the upper corner of my desk, you will find these words written in my script, "Moving away from fear, self-sabotage and dissipation, and toward acting on the Word of God in faith."
I wrote these words early this year. It was directly following a conference designed to equip and encourage the attendees to follow hard after God. I had finished out the previous year with great hope for this new one. I had no idea what the coming days would truly usher into my life; what came was a few difficult circumstances that left me grasping for control and lifting an offering of hard questions to God in place of praise.
The current state of the world is rife with the unforeseeable. History educates those who seek to understand that uncertainty in life has always been a salient truth. Scripture affirms this same sentiment: Life is predictably unpredictable. This existential constant presents humanity with precariousness; even the strongest souls can go down the pathway to fear and disquiet. It is no wonder that the Bible proclaims the words "fear not" 365 times: once for every day of the year.
Life can often seem in the balance. The daily pressures of life and the great tragedies in the world around us can lead even those deeply grounded in Christ with a sense of fear, substituting control and controlling behaviors for actively relying on God.
Jesus speaks plainly to his disciples about the contrast of a self-saving life versus a life surrendered fully to the will and ways of God.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." Matthew 16:24-25
Matthew 16 reveals that though we may long for spiritual intimacy, the tight-fisted grip of control that clutches to save our own life renders us unable to step fully into relationship with Jesus.
Acting on God's Word in faith requires a softening of grip. The releasing and opening of our hands one finger at a time, until all that we cling to slips to the foot of the cross, and the soft vulnerable of our palms rest open before the only One who is worthy to order our days.
Here are four ways that you might find control has slipped in to ruin your intimacy with Jesus and a few words to encourage you as you release your grip.
1. The Self-Made Life
"There is a fine line between a self-made life and an abundant life." Emily Lex
In Matthew, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about lost lives that are found in him. In doing so, he addresses the problematic issue of the self-made life and urges a life fully surrendered to his plan. Personal and purposeful, Jesus has an abundant life designed for his disciples. This life was for those who walked along the road with him and for every Christian who would follow in their footsteps. Acquainted with grief and trials, Jesus intimately understands the troubles his disciples will face as they seek to follow his plan. Difficulties that might lead to controlling behaviors holding an offer of the safe and comfortable self-made life and abandoning a life surrendered to Christ.
Jesus has carefully chosen the timing of his message, not placing his words upon untested hearts but rather on those who had followed his ministry with diligence. They are the faithful who have watched demons made to flee and baskets multiplied so that bellies could be filled from a few fish and loaves. They have stood in witness when the frailties of human flesh were made whole, and lives were healed.
In their presence, Jesus asks the defining question, "Who do you say I am?" The profound response, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Matthew 16:16
Control offers the façade of ease through choosing the self-made life and dissipates the personal and purposeful life God has designed for the Christ-follower. Jesus asks the same question today, "Who do you say I am?" Our answer will either strengthen us to lay down what isn't ours to hold or leave us clutching in uncertainty in an attempt to save our own life.
2. The Fear Factor
"Fear is a self-imposed prison that will keep you from becoming what God intends for you to be." Rick Warren
Clutching for control is a natural and human response to confusion, hurt, and fear. The more quickly the merry-go-round spins, the more apt we are to take life into our own hands and literally hold on for dear life.
Loss of any kind, a loved one, a job, a relationship, or a home, can shake the foundations of our faith and, if we are honest, leave us questioning God. It can cloud our confidence in God's personal and purposeful plan for each of us and mire us in a fog of fear. In the wake of a stark loss in my own life, I told those who dared ask how I was doing that I was holding on to God with one hand and shaking my fist at him with the other. Eventually, my grip slipped. Trying to control the situations and circumstances of my life, such that those I loved wouldn't endure pain and I wouldn't endure loss, overrode my intimacy with God. Fear of loss and pain grew more significant than my faith, and I unwittingly clutched at controlling my own life. The more my knuckles whitened, the less I trusted in the love of a good and gracious God.
Jesus, knowing the needs both current and future of his followers, carefully ensured that they understood that he was the Son of God prior to asking them to trust him with the fullness of their lives. Jesus plainly addresses the issue of fear and the controlling behaviors accompanying fear with an invitation to return to intimacy.
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven." Matthew 11:29-32
3. Controlling the Image of God
"I want God, not my idea of God." C.S. Lewis
Making God in our own image may seem to be a construct of cult leaders and their proselytes, but in truth, we all have the capacity to create a God who looks more like us than we look like him.
Controlling the image of God acts as a form of self-sabotage, as a follower of Christ departs from the orthodoxy of seeking to understand the God of the Bible accurately and substitutes concepts of God that fit more comfortably into their culture, family dynamic, or political philosophy. This form of control can even be found within the constructs and dynamics of a seemingly faithful church.
Jesus welcomed the broken, the unseemly, lowly women, people from all walks of life, the religious, and the tax collector. Still, he gave them no quarter to remain as they came, nor a foundation in which to apply their false images of God. He called them away from the burden of these failed images and into transformative intimacy.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30
4. Working for God's Love
"We can be so consumed with the work for God that we cease to work from God." Curtis Zackery
Control can be sneaky, and it is most certainly insidious when it takes a believing heart and oppresses it with the very gospel that God intended to bring freedom. Pastors, volunteers, and everyday Christians just desiring to honor God can find themselves in a pattern of burnout that disregards the rest and intimacy that is intended for the life of a believer.
Jesus reminded his followers that only that which was done by his strength and the power of the Holy Spirit would have any lasting value.
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."
Our human bent toward striving may bristle at these words. Yet, Jesus is reminding his followers yet again that his yoke is light, his plans are good, and his purpose for our life will be found in laying our lives into his hands, where our strength is exchanged for the full power of the Holy Spirit.
It can be extremely difficult to trust that God is in control when the world around us is out of control and so much seems to need to be addressed. After the days of tragedy that I experienced, I wrestled with what might happen to other people I loved and to the things in my life that made me feel safe and comfortable. Seeking to trust in God again required that I settle that I could not breathe in and out for the people I love, nor could I control world events, let alone those in my own life. Acting on the Word of God in faith is a free fall. Falling away from the fear, self-sabotage, and dissipation that can lead us clutching wildly for control requires a soft place to fall.
Author Emily Lex writes, "The more I become like Jesus the less I am like I was, and the freer I become from the things that once controlled me."
As Jesus prepared to leave his disciples, he readied their hearts for the free-fall.
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubles and do not be afraid." John 14:27
"…I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28:20
Control grasps and clutches, sabotaging and dissipating God's personal and purposeful plan for our lives. Intimacy exhales, laying the whole of our life down, exchanging what we cannot truly hold onto for a life transformed more and more into the image of Christ. His arms are soft. His yoke is easy and light.
Stacey Monaco has been speaking and writing since her first unpublished children’s book in the fifth grade. Her journey as a writer has taken her from the depths of blue water exploration, to the simplicity of crafting words to encourage and educate in the areas of loss, legacy, leadership, and living life passionately with purpose. Stacey received her Masters Degree in Christian Ministry and Leadership from Talbot School of Theology, and has worked in many roles from slinging coffee to pastoring women. To find more on living the Christian life with intention, head over to her website at StaceyMonaco.com.