Control: The Mother of All Addictions
APRIL 19, 2023
The addiction to control is the reason we lament so little and laugh even less.
Lament, if it gets out of control, will send us over the edge, and laughter, if that gets out of control, will make us look silly. The tragedy is that we never walk into the darkness where God meets us or into the light where God gives the joy. As someone has said, “We are too afraid to cry and too shy to dance.”
One of the reasons many of us don’t experience life—the abundant life Jesus promised—is that we run from both pain and laughter, neither of which can be controlled. The darkness of lament is facing what can’t be fixed and the fear of inappropriate laughter is facing what can’t be stopped. In both cases, our efforts at control are useless. That’s bad. No, that’s very good and a difficult road that leads to radical freedom.
But first we have to give up control.
Acceptance is another word for giving up control. It’s the recognition that some things, as horrible as they are, simply aren’t fixable. My late mentor Fred Smith often said that the essence of Christian maturity was knowing the difference between problems and facts. Problems are fixable, or at least made better with effort. We can only accept facts. In other words, if you can control it, it’s a problem; and if you can’t control it, it’s a fact.
People who “grow flowers in hell” have stopped trying to control everything. They know the difference between problems and facts. And they know God. Frankly, I have no idea how atheists deal with the dark. For them, growing flowers in hell would seem insane. Without God, all they have is control. That’s particularly sad because we control far less than we think we do.
Bad stuff happens—sometimes really bad stuff. Jesus said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust” (Mathew 5:45). In other words, life really is hard and nobody can live as an outsider of the human race. When Job’s life came apart, he told his wife who had told him to “curse God and die” (a woman, I might say, he should have divorced long before things turned bad), “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9–10). Later Job said that if God should kill him he would still trust God (Job 13:15). That, by the way, was the last positive spiritual thing Job says in the book. He was, after all, human and sinful, and just couldn’t sing that he had “joy down in his heart.”
Like you and me, Job questioned God, had doubts, and did his cussing and spitting. However, if you read Job chapters 38–41, you will see an amazing thing happen. Job decided to question God, and God says, “I don’t think so. I will question you, and you will answer me.” And God does that with a series of questions that are humbling for anybody, and for Job, really humbling. He starts with, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). After that there is one question after another and, with each question, I suspect Job was looking for a place to hide. That section of Scripture ends with Job saying. “Oops. Shut my mouth.” Well he didn’t exactly say that. Job said, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). At that point, Job gave up control. And, as an aside, it was after he gave up control that God poured out his favor on Job.
Darkness is real and universal. And our tears of lament (once we’ve looked those demons in the eye) are appropriate. We live in a fallen and bad world, and we’re a part of it. No Christian should be surprised that bad stuff happens, and it happens a lot. Jesus said, after telling his disciples about what would happen and it wasn’t good, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
If that was the whole story, the hopelessness would drive us insane or to the nearest bridge. But there is more. Not only does bad stuff happen, good stuff does too. It’s easy to be so beaten down by the bad that you miss the good, or to be so enamored by the good that you deny the bad.
And we try to control both.
The addiction to control isn’t just a wasted effort to fix what isn’t broken; but, also, an effort to fix what can’t be fixed. Dealing with the addiction is a Quid Inferorum attack of sanity. (That, by the way, is Latin for “What the hell?!” When you use it people will think you’re smart and won’t know that you’re really cussing. Don’t thank me, I was glad to help.) It’s the recognition that pain and joy, dark and light, and good and evil, are all a part of life. But more than that, it is a recognition that we can’t escape any of it. It is the “is” of “what it is.” But for the Christian it is far more than that: it is the revelation that lament and celebration have the same source—God.
So, if my efforts at control have inappropriately stifled my tears and my laughter and both are the “stuff” of the abundant life Jesus promised, how can I fix that without trying to fix what doesn’t need fixing or fixing something that can’t be fixed? The simple answer is that we can’t . . . and, not only that, our efforts to get rid of the addiction to control is a manifestation of the addiction itself. There is no system (even if it’s a biblical or theological system) that is the medicine that cures us.
If you’re a Christian, do what Paul says to do: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances . . .” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). And to make sure that we don’t cancel the radical power of that by pointing out that Paul said “in” and not “for,” Paul repeats the same admonition in an even stronger way to the Ephesians by saying that they should sing and make melody “to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19–20, italics added).
If you’re into control (and I am) the only way to deal with it is to recognize and intentionally affirm that everything (and that does mean everything) is a God thing.
Adapted from Steve’s new book, Laughter and Lament: The Radical Freedom of Joy and Sorrow.