As infants, we slowly get control of our bodies, learning how to crawl, walk, and then run. As toddlers, we learn to control our emotions and our behavior—all that socializing our moms and dads instill in us.
As teens, we try to control our desire to run toward the forbidden (which we just discovered is out there for the taking) and our desire to run away from authority. As college students, we often succeed in the latter, and so succumb to the temptations we experienced as teens, with less than satisfactory results. Enough said.
In our twenties and thirties, we sober up, and now we try to control our future, marrying the right person, starting a promising career, planning when exactly children come. And then we try to control our children so they’ll be obedient, respectful, and good people—people in control of their lives.
In our forties and fifties, we try to control our despair, as we see that many if not most of the things we were so desperate to control fell apart or never panned out.
In our sixties and seventies, we try to control how we die, when dying with dignity often becomes a chief objective.
All along, at every stage, we try to control the moral shape of our lives, to prove to ourselves and others that we have our act together, that we matter, that our lives are justified. We try to live as if the ultimate reality of the universe is law.
Somewhere in this long narrative we hear a strange word, a word that is just the opposite of control. For that reason, it’s a scary word. But it’s also a liberating word.
The word is grace.
To know and bask in God’s grace is to relinquish our desire for control. And here’s the catch: There is one and only one condition of grace: you have to relinquish control. What does that look like? It looks like a drunk who’s finally let go of the bottle he’s been desperately clutching. It looks like a husband who, in the middle of an argument, decides he doesn’t have to have his way. It looks like a careerist accepting in humility the failure to get a promotion. It mostly looks like a traveling Jewish teacher dies willingly “as a ransom,” and then forgives those who nailed him to the cross.
Here’s the other catch: No matter how steeped we are in grace, we are desperate still to clutch that bottle, to get our way, to stay in control! It’s the tragedy of the human condition: to know I can fully experience grace only by relinquishing control, while knowing I am addicted to control! Who will deliver us from this body of death?
Well, Jesus Christ for one. He bound himself with death that we might be unbound from our desperate yearning for control. And that we might be forgiven for those stretches where we act like everything depends on our getting control.
Yes, to be a responsible human being in our society, one has to have a certain level of control of one’s life. Christians are not anti-social maniacs. They are just people who have put control in its place, because they’ve discovered that the basic “law” of the universe is grace.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today, and author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit.