Control. That’s a topic that’s been coming up a lot lately in therapy sessions with my clients…enough that it got me thinking I should write about it. While it’s impossible for me to cover all aspects and considerations connected to control within the confines of a blog post, I, at least in part, wanted to write some brief reflections on the subject. And so, this piece before you is my attempt at processing this weighty subject through the written word.
Let’s start with the actual word. For the purposes of this piece, I will define control in this way: “To determine the behavior or supervise the running of.” It’s what is meant by the governing of someone or something- be it others, ourselves, or any other material object or situation. However, before we get too far, I want to first make clear that control in and of itself- and properly exercised- is not only necessary, but good! We should have a degree of control over our homes and of our own selves.
At creation, God set forth the family order by instructing Adam and Eve to multiply. As Scripture continues, we see the generation of families (and subsequently nations) and the command to raise children in the way of the Lord, teaching and instructing the commandments of God. As children are under the authority of their parents, the fifth commandment states that children are to obey their parents in the Lord. And yet, we also see boundaries within parental authority as Scripture instructs fathers to not exasperate their children. Husbands and wives who strive to reflect the relationship between Christ and the Church in their marriage and who bring up their children according to God’s Word demonstrate God’s good design for the proper governing of the home.
Likewise, we are called to self-control- which also happens to be one of the nine fruits of the Spirit (1 Peter 5:8, Galatians 5:22-23). Rather than gratifying our every fleshly desire, in obedience to Christ, we are to die to ourselves and act instead in the way of righteousness. Scripture gives us a vivid description of the destruction that comes with a lack of self control: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). Clearly, that is not what we want for our own lives! We must instead pursue self-control through a life lived in the Spirit.
Now that we’ve seen a few examples of the righteous ways in which we are called to exercise control, we turn now to the problems that arise when control controls us. Because sin (and the consequences of sin) distorts and destroys that which God has created good, we must ask these questions regarding control: When and why does control become problematic? What are the effects of problematic control? And lastly, how do we redeem control?
First, the when. At the beginning of this piece I defined control as the governing of oneself, others, or even of objects and situations. I would argue then that problematic control can be defined as an obsession or compulsion to gain control (of another person, oneself, or a situation), through the use of unhealthy or unethical means. For example, this may look like trying to control one’s weight by severely restricting food intake or attempting to control others’ actions through the use of emotional manipulation. Other examples of problematic control may include compulsive cleaning and an obsession with orderliness, or, as discussed in a previous blog, using perfectionism to gain control of one’s life (https://wordpress.com/post/nicolebyrum.com/707).
There are many reasons we are drawn to problematic control, and it is helpful to uncover at least some of these reasons for ourselves. Alas, the why of it all. First, we must consider that we are fallen human beings with a sin nature. We like things the way we like them! And often, we strongly believe that our way of doing things or thinking of things is the best way! To be sure, the presence of pride is a factor we always want to examine in our daily lives. We can ask, “Is any part of my behavior driven by pride? By my belief that I know better than anyone else in this situation? By my desire to be better than others?”
Personality may also be a contributing factor to problematic control. Some people naturally enjoy being in charge while others do not! Likewise, some enjoy orderliness while others are less concerned with this and aren’t the least bit bothered with a messy space. Of course, there are many factors to consider when thinking about the development of personality- but in the interest of time this piece will not go into all of those! Suffice to say, there are strengths and weaknesses to every personality which require us to work towards a balance. For example, if you’re a take-charge person it’s likely you will have to work on listening to others, learning when to speak and when to be silent. Similarly, if you’re a very orderly person your challenge in life might be learning to become flexible.
The last piece I’ll include in this “why” section has to do with trauma. For many, traumatic experiences (especially those in childhood and adolescence) leave one with an extraordinarily strong desire for control. This control is a way to obtain peace, safety, security, or even a sense of power. Those who have experienced trauma know all too well the feeling of powerlessness. Consequently, “One of the most crucial effects of experiencing chronic powerlessness is an overwhelming urge to exert control at every turn,” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stress-fracture/202203/how-chronic-trauma-can-make-person-controlling).
Before we go on, I wanted to briefly touch on some personal effects of problematic control. Ironically, the more we exercise control the less in control we often feel. As I stated in my aforementioned post, Chasing Perfection, “Our ability to have control in life to the degree we desire is limited.” This means we inevitably chase something that we ultimately cannot attain. And not only that, but when we do achieve a degree of control, rarely is it “enough.” There is always a desire for more. The result? We feel empty and unsatisfied, and/or anxious and unable to relax. This may lend itself to panic attacks, poor sleep and a poor appetite.
Relational effects of problematic control may include conflict and feelings of anger, frustration, and resentment. As a general rule, where problematic control increases, freedom decreases. Consequently, relationships suffer- often resulting in further (failed) attempts of gaining control.
Additionally, any time we use unhealthy or sinful means to gain control, more problems will be created. A great biblical example of this is that of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Instead of waiting on God’s timing for the promised child, Abraham and Sarah took control by involving Hagar in the child producing process. This came with grave consequences in the lives of the women (namely, jealousy, hatred, and isolation), and resulted in the child, Ishmael, living apart from his father. This family tension would continue in history as Ishmael’s descendants became the Arab nations- nations which have had long standing conflict with the nation of Israel. A sober warning indeed for us to consider our ways.
If problematic control has been something you’ve been struggling with (or if you’re uncertain it’s problematic), take time to pray. First, ask God to show you if (and how) control has been controlling you. Then, pray about the why: ask God to help you see if your behaviors are a result of pride and/or where balance might be needed in your personality. Ask him to show you any lingering wounds from past traumatic experiences.
It’s important to gain insight into the why of control and to recognize the signs that your control is “out of control.” In some cases, talking to someone about these issues may be helpful and a means of healing. Take time to prayerfully consider the possibility of seeking professional and Godly counsel. In the meantime, let’s now consider the role of surrender in restoring God-ordained control.
Surrender. This is the opposite of control as it means to cease resistance and submit to an authority. Not an easy task! At best, surrender is uncomfortable- at worst, it is fear producing. As any change (even good change) is difficult, it’s okay to acknowledge the discomfort and fear that comes with surrender! But we must be very clear about who we are surrendering our problematic control to– because this makes all the difference.
We are not surrendering control to an unpredictable, selfish, or sinful human being. On the contrary, we are surrendering our problematic control to the Most High God, the Creator of all things. He is the holy and righteous One, the One worthy of all praise, worship, and adoration. The one worthy of our trust and obedience. To that point, let’s briefly examine two attributes of God that help us in our surrendering of control to Him.
Goodness. We know that God can only act in accordance with His character. And Scripture tells us that God is good. This means there is no evil or malice in Him. None! As A.W. Pink stated, “All that emanates from God- His decrees, His creation, His laws, His providences- cannot be otherwise than good,” (The Attributes of God). Psalm 107:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” Similarly, Psalm 145:17 declares, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.”
Furthermore, He works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Meaning, He works in such a way that even suffering and sin are used to bring about His glory and our sanctification. Only God is capable of that kind of redemption! And still, as our Father, He desires to bless and reward His children. In his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer writes, “The goodness of God is that which disposes Him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will toward men…by His nature He is included to bestow blessedness and He takes holy pleasure in the happiness of His people.” Psalm 31:19a reminds us of this truth: “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you.”
Sovereignty. God is perfectly sovereign over all because He is the Creator of all. There is nothing that is outside of His scope of power and authority. As one of my favorite pastors and theologians so famously said, “There are no maverick molecules in the universe!” All is under the divine authority of the triune God. There is nothing that can thwart His plans. Pink described God’s sovereignty in this way: “Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things after the counsel of His own will,” (A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God). Tozer also pointed out that in order for God to be sovereign He must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free,” (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy). The prophet Jeremiah expressed this point when he wrote, “‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you,” (Jeremiah 32:17)
God’s goodness and sovereignty is a beautiful combination. His goodness ensures that His divine omnipotence and will is only capable of benevolent and righteous deeds. And His sovereignty ensures that the good He wills can, in fact, be carried out.
So what does this mean for our lives? How do we practically surrender to our good God? Here are some considerations:
- At the heart of surrender is the daily acknowledgement of our need for God. This calls for the dismantling of our pride and the laying down of our ways. Consider beginning each day with a prayer, perhaps something like this: Dear God, I acknowledge my complete and utter need for you. Rid me of my pride that I may seek your ways. Help me to remember that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are your ways than my ways, your thoughts than my thoughts.
- Surrender is also an admission of trust. When we meditate on the attributes of God we see that our God is worthy of our trust. And not only that, He knows all of our needs! As Jesus said in Matthew 6:8, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” The Apostle Paul also recorded this glorious promise: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” As part of the daily prayer above, add: I surrender this (person, situation, and/or myself) to you. Help me to trust you to provide all that I need.
- As we surrender our ways, the need for flexibility will increase. While order, structure, and routine are all good things, we must recognize the value of flexibility. Flexibility gives us breathing room to take care of ourselves and to prioritize connection with those in our homes. If we can’t get all the items on our checklist done in the timeframe in which we expected or hoped…it truly will be okay. Now, these undone tasks may leave you feeling annoyed or uncomfortable- but those feelings are survivable. As part of prayer, ask God to help you embrace the value of being flexible and to recognize opportunities to practice flexibility.
- Part of surrender also includes accepting influence from others and recognizing their strengths. It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that we always “know best.” While we certainly may have productive ways or ideas, it’s important to recognize that others (such as our spouse or co-workers) do too! In other words, surrender includes humility. As we stated above, acknowledging our need for God requires us to humble ourselves- but this also applies to other relationships as well. Ask yourself who’s influence you might need to work on accepting- then pray for a humble spirit that you might carry this out.
- Practice stillness. Often those who struggle with control have difficulty being still. Chaos and busyness, though exhausting, can feel comforting- especially to those who have experienced trauma. Surrender requires letting go of the chaos and learning to be content in the peace. This is difficult, but practice is the key.
Commit to learning to be still. For 5 minutes a day get alone with no noise and no distraction. Simply sit in silence. Breathe slowly and deeply and sit alone with your thoughts. As this becomes easier, extend the time. Once this becomes more comfortable, consider picking 1-2 Bible verses to meditate on during your time of stillness. (For more on this topic, check out my blog post, “Breathe, Stretch…Meditate?” here: https://nicolebyrum.com/2022/10/11/breathe-stretch-meditate/)
- Pray for wisdom to discern between righteous control and problematic control. Remember, we want to lean into the righteous ways God has commanded us to exercise control! Through prayer and time in the Word, ask God to show you how to lead your family and how to train your children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). Pray for the Spirit to produce in you the fruit of self-control that you might live a life pleasing to your heavenly Father.
As we seek to live a surrendered life, problematic control- and all of its consequences- will decrease. In its place will be freedom that is only possible through a life continuously yielded to the sovereignty and goodness of God. Freedom that results in restored relationships and a sound mind.