The horror of giving up control (or, how I learned the gift of surrender, part two)

My last post ended with this question: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control?

To answer that question, we first have to ask ourselves what it is we want to control. In general, my suspicion is that we want to control it all (or at least everything we can get away with). Our natural inclination (the state of human fallenness) is to “medicate” fear with control, so we exercise control:

  • with our children, our spouses, our employees, employers, the guy in the line in front of us at Kroger. We want to control people.
  • in our circumstances. We’re conditioned by our anxieties to want to be on top of everything. That way, bad stuff can’t sneak up on us.
  • with God. What we do with people and circumstances, we think we can do with God. We may not say it this way, but secretly we want to control God. That’s what bargaining is. “God, if you’ll pay this bill/ fix this relationship/ get me a better job … I’ll do better by you. I will never do this thing this way again.” That’s a control tactic.

Basically, we want to control everything, and we try with both our emotions and with our behavior. We’ve learned by conditioning how to let people know what we want with nonverbal cues — the silent treatment, lack of eye contact, the hug you lean away from. And sometimes we skip the emotional on-ramp and impose control with less passive and more aggressive in the mix. We yell. We praise. We reward and punish. We manipulate to control the ways others respond.

Unhealthy control is me trying to control your behavior. And just so we are clear, this is not our redeemed nature but our fallen nature at work. Why do we habitually act like this? I can think of a few reasons why we work so hard to take control of people, circumstances and the universe in general:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Things we are afraid of
  • Things that make us nervous
  • Worry
  • We believe lies the enemy tells us
  • And did I mention fear?

Did you catch a pattern there? I’ll give you a hint: fear. Fear is a devil that convinces us we can control stuff, when the reality is that we can control much less than we’d like to think. The spirit of fear opposes the things of God, because fear and anxiety are rooted in distrust and ultimately lead us to distrust God himself. The antidote to anxiety is surrender rooted in trust (and not just any trust, but trust in God). 

The basic lesson of recovery is that the only thing we actually can control is ourselves and interestingly, every biblical prescription for control is about self-control. In other words, the only things the Bible tells us we can control (and even should control) are focused on our own behavior. Things like:

  • Our thoughts. Paul teaches us to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), recognizing that it isn’t what goes into our minds that is the problem, but what we do with those thoughts once they get there.
  • Our bodies. Romans 12:1 tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. This means surrendering our bodies to the care and control of a holy God.
  • The pace of our decisions. Jesus teaches us to count the cost before we build the house (Luke 14:28). In other words, make fewer knee-jerk, fear-based decisions and more prayerful ones.
  • Our finances. Jesus tells us store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Mt. 6:20). In other words, spend with eternity in mind.
  • Our passions. James talks about the fights and battles within us that come from our unbridled passions (James 4:1).
  • Our emotions. Paul tells us to be angry but do not sin. (Ephesians 4;26).

While unhealthy control is manipulation of others, healthy control is about surrendering myself to the discipline of Christ. Healthy control is called self-discipline. It is about the self-limiting behaviors that send us toward our created design. Healthy control leads to freedom. When we choose surrender over control we discover what is most important. We will deal with our trust issues. We will be messier and be okay with it. We will experience spiritual freedom because real freedom is in surrender.

So let me ask again: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control? Pick something. One thing. You don’t have to pick everything you’re wound up about. Just pick something you’re trying too hard at and lay it out there for Jesus. Think of something that makes you anxious, something you’re living with right now that is a cause for anxiety. What thing has a “but first” in front it? I’ll do this thing for Jesus … but first … Pick that, and take it to God in prayer. Say to him, “All I can see right now is this anxious thing but what I want to see is your glory, Lord, so in this situation, please get me past my fear and expose your glory.”

There is such freedom in surrender to God’s more perfect will. Give yourself to it, and it will transform you.

Read More

Trust God (and other things I learned from a penny).

Maybe you have heard me tell the story of my pennies. About six years ago I started finding them everywhere. The first time it happened was just about the time we found out that the cost of our first warehouse renovation would be more than we could afford. One morning I was out walking and talking to God about the situation. I remember saying, “Lord, I don’t see how this is going to happen. I don’t see how we’ll ever get the funds together to get into this building.” And just as I said that, I looked down and saw a penny in the road.

Now, I’m never one to see coins on the ground. I’m a big picture person; I don’t see details. But there it was — a penny shining in the early-morning dark — so I picked it up and laughed to myself. “Okay, God, so is this your contribution to the project?” Then it hit me that maybe this was God’s way of reminding me that he will provide. Not in the ways I expect and not on my timeline, but he will provide.

Be skeptical if you must, but I decided to take that penny as that kind of message from God.

After that, I started seeing pennies everywhere. It got to be a joke almost, like someone was planting them in my path. And almost like the punchline, one day just I pulled into a parking place a woman on the sidewalk stepped toward my car and started picking up change by the driver’s-side door. She looked up at me and said, “Look at all these pennies!” I had to laugh! I let her pick them up but I was thinking, “Lady, those are my pennies.”

Years have passed since that moment, and the penny phenomenon waned … until recently. We’re in the middle of another building renovation and campaign and again I found myself wondering if God will provide. These seasons can be complicated — keeping all hearts and minds moving in the same direction, helping the late adopters get there. One day in my office, I heard myself whining about something building-related. The person I was unloading on had the wisdom to suggest we pray and when I bowed my head there it was.

Right there on the floor staring back up at me was a penny.

I don’t believe God is walking before me tossing pennies in my path like some kind of cosmic flower girl. Not at all. But I do have to wonder if he uses the occasion of a penny on the ground to remind me not that He will provide all the funds we need but that He can be trusted.  After all, God wants us to trust him and every single penny carries that message: “In God we trust.”

Whether with pennies or unsure moments or invitations to jump, what if God is constantly trying to start a conversation with us about trust? Maybe pennies or critical moments or small decisions we make every day are a way Jesus is training us to trust him in the small things so we can trust him with more. Maybe this is why the “micro” matters. If we’re going to accomplish the macro, we have to be able to see where he is working right now … to accept the gift being held before us now.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. In this word, Jesus is hoping to convince us to lean on God for our needs because Jesus gets it that we don’t lean on God for our needs. When we choose anxiety and whining over trust, we expose our deepest fear — that God is not a giver, that God will not provide, that God can not be trusted. We won’t ever say this out loud but in the ways we over-protect, over-plan, over-defend, in the ways we guard our hearts and control our circumstances, we expose what we really believe.

Our actions betray us. They expose to the world our deep fear that God will take us only so far, that God can be trusted but not completely. That if we want something, we’d better go get it ourselves.

So what is that thing you don’t want to trust God for? Maybe you will trust him for a lot of things, but not for that thing. What is that thing? And how will you practice trusting him today in the small things, so you can build up strength to trust him for that thing?

Listen: God is the ultimate Giver and self-giving is at his very heart. Trust him … and then live for him.

Read More

The Danger of Distraction

In my Monday post, I talked about the distractions that seem to be keeping the United Methodist Church from fulfilling its mission. I want to talk more about distractions and their effect on souls and systems.

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought … yes! That’s it! By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits (like spiritual disciplines), by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that spiritual disciplines are for people who have too much time on their hands. Disciplines are not just for people who have all the time in the world to sip another cup of coffee while doing an entire Beth Moore study in one sitting. Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits (Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, community life) that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy yes to things that feed into our formation.

God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son and there are some ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love, and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it. We know it is happening when we have some ability to say no to some things so we can say a holy yes to things that will take us someplace spiritually.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. And that’s where the real spiritual work is done. It is done in the secret place, when deep calls to deep. It isn’t easy. But the joy at the other end of it is a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

Read More

Pray To Be Dangerous.

Most of us have a desire to make a difference.

George Barna, a Christian sociologist, conducted a study asking folks about their commitment to making a difference in the world. He found two interesting strands in the data he collected. First, the older a person is, the more likely they are to want their life to matter (two out of three people over sixty). Second, the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to want their lives to matter. Two out of three evangelical Christians say they want to make a difference in the world, while less than one in four atheists have an interest in improving the world.

Our hearts seem to be in the right place. We want our lives to matter. But how does that desire stack up against our prayers?

Erwin McManus has a great story in his book, Seizing Your Divine Moment, about sending his son Aaron off to summer camp. He says,

“Aaron was just a little guy, and I was kind of glad because it was a church camp. I figured he wasn’t going to hear all those ghost stories, because ghost stories can really cause a kid to have nightmares. But unfortunately, since it was a Christian camp and they didn’t tell ghost stories because we don’t believe in ghosts, they told demon and Satan stories instead. And so when Aaron got home, he was terrified.” That first night home, Aaron asked his dad to stay in the room with him. “Daddy, I’m afraid,” Aaron said. “They told all these stories about demons.” And McManus said he wanted to tell his son, “They’re not real,” but he couldn’t say that. Aaron pleaded, “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray for me that I would be safe?” In that plea, McManus said, he heard a desire for that kind of warm-blanket Christianity that too many people assume is all there is to it. So he said to his son, “Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room.” And Aaron said, “Alright. But pray I would be really, really dangerous, Daddy.”

At the end of that story, McManus asks, “Have you come to that place in your own life where you stop asking God to give you a safe existence and start asking him to make you a dangerous follower of Jesus Christ?”

Not a bad place to start for those of us planning to jumpstart a prayer life at the beginning of a new year. Because my suspicion is that many of us treat God as if he were some kind of cosmic drive-thru employee. We yell out what we want and God fills the order and asks if we’d like fries with that.

Wouldn’t it be great if it were that … easy?

The problem is, that’s simply not reality. More, it isn’t the nature of the Creator of our Universe. His desire is not to fill your wants; his desire is to make you holy. He aims to shape you into the person you were created to be.

What kind of prayer is God more likely to answer? I believe he is more likely to answer the prayers we pray for courage as we walk into danger than the prayers we pray as we’re running to escape it. I’m not talking about foolish danger but the kind of holy boldness that is not afraid of taking hold of everything God has for us.

Are you praying for God to keep you safe, or are you praying for God to make you dangerous?

Here’s a tip from a boy who learned it from a faithful father: Don’t pray for safety. That’s not a prayer God is likely to answer. Pray instead to be more dangerous than your enemy. In the answer to that prayer you will find the answer to your great longing for a life that matters.

Read More