The restless pursuit of control

I asked the small group leaders in my church: ‘What are the most common pastoral issues people in your group struggle with?’  A frequently mentioned issue was the desire for control.

This surprised me at first, but as I reflected on it, I saw a strong desire for control in my own heart. It’s a common struggle. No surprise, then, that Scripture has much to say.

Good control
We often think control is a negative thing. But it can be good. It’s essential for the people working in air traffic control! Indeed, Scripture commends being in control.

In Genesis 1:24, God tells Adam to ‘Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’. If people are to rule over other living creatures, they must exercise control in some way. If God commands this, it can’t be bad.

Proverbs 31 describes ‘a wife of noble character’. This wise woman decides how she spends her time. She gets up whilst it is still dark because she has work to do (v15). This implies that before going to bed she thought ahead to the tasks of the next day, calculated how long they would take, and made sure she was awake in time. Similarly, she’s in control of her household (v27). She also keeps charge of her business dealings, making sure that her trading is profitable (v18), so she controls her prices, stock and cashflow.

Bad control
Although control can used wisely, Genesis 3 hints at a darker side. After the fall, God says to Eve: ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’. From then on there has been a power struggle. In fact, there are now thousands of ways we end up controlling others, some overt (dictatorial governments, abusive spouses), many subtle. Here are a few common ones:

  • Being volatile or unpredictable. If you’re unpredictable then everyone else has got to tread carefully around you, putting you in a position of power.
  • Making people feel grateful to you. ‘I’ve worked so hard for you’; ‘You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me’; ‘I hope you liked what I did for you’. In other words: ‘you owe me one and should do as I say’.
  • Flattery. Tell people they’re amazing and they’ll probably say you’re amazing. Sometimes the nicest-seeming people are the most controlling.
  • Refusing to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable with people means you can’t dictate what they think of you. Refusing to be vulnerable can often be a play for control.

Of course, a desire for control isn’t always the motivation behind these actions. The purposes of the heart are deep waters. But the lust for control can be a driving factor in all of the above and more.

A restless heart
The truth is we’re not really in control. We’re reminded of that when we get sick, someone dies, we don’t get the job, our children are going off the rails, we can’t have children, our spouse struggles with their mental health, we can’t get married, or our marriage isn’t what we’d hoped it would be. When things go wrong, it can feel horrible and frightening and our heart can feel restless and full of stress. But we also realise that it was foolish and arrogant to think that we could ever control these things. We cannot because we are not God.

Intriguingly, the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31 does not seem to struggle with this. In fact, she laughs at the days to come (v25)! How can she? Why isn’t she trying to grasp that bad sense of control like so many of the rest of us? The Bible has an answer. But it’s different from the answer we normally hear.

The normal answer is that confidence and peace come with control. More control = more confidence. Therefore: work harder, get more money, make new year’s resolutions, make more rules, read up on the risks, get a better routine, tidy your house, be more careful about your health or retreat into your house/phone/books/comfort zone, shrink your world to a more manageable size. But, of course, it doesn’t work – the desire for control breeds restlessness and an increased desire for more control. Most of these things are not bad things to do, but they’re poor tonic for a restless heart.

A weaned heart
Psalm 131 provides a different answer.

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.
2But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
3Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Instead of grasping control, David has a weaned heart. He has weaned himself off the restless desire for control, and has learnt to eat solid food instead, and he wants us to do the same: ‘Israel, put your hope in the Lord’. Hoping in the Lord is the better, solid food. Hoping in the Lord – the One who really is in control – is better than trying to control things ourselves.

What does this mean in practice? Here are two suggestions.

1. Pray differently.
What area of your life feels out of control today? How are you praying about that thing? The temptation is often to pray for the outcome you want. That’s not a bad prayer. But might it be that the Lord is at work teaching you that it’s better to hope in Him than to grasp for control? If so, maybe a good prayer is: “Lord, help me put my hope in you. Please wean me off my desire for control.”

2. Make use of going to sleep.
I sometimes say Psalm 4:8 to myself when I’m struggling to get to sleep. It says, ‘I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety’. It’s a reminder that we cannot make ourselves dwell in safety. In the daytime I might convince myself that I have some degree of control, but when I’m asleep I clearly am not in control. Going to sleep is our God-given daily rhythm to learn to say to our Father: ‘I put my hope in you. You are in control’. You have this opportunity tonight, so don’t waste it.

Putting our hope in the Lord is no guarantee that life will be comfortable and easy from now on. But trying to control everything doesn’t make life comfortable and easy either – in fact it makes us restless. Nonetheless, hoping in the Lord is what wisdom does when faced with our lack of control, and is the only way to a calm and quiet heart.