Faith, the Opposite of Control


If you were to ask me what one lesson stands out in my life in this last decade, I would point to control.

Fact is, you and I don’t have any. Control is an illusion created by our culture. We in America idolize the self-made bootstrapper, yet if we can’t control whether or not we take our next breath, then ultimately, we are not in control of our lives.

Most people in America, most Christians even, have their minds fogged by the illusion of control. And the illusion is easy to believe because we surround ourselves with gadgets and services that perpetuate it. We read books, especially self-help tomes, that reinforce that we can be masters of our personal kingdoms. We are told that getting ahead is all about our own efforts. Our society holds out a roadmap that shows that if we just work hard enough, we can walk from the mall entrance to Neiman Marcus.

But if you’ve lived long enough, you begin to see what we have been fed about controlling our lives is a lie. Sometimes, no matter how hard we work toward a goal, it never arrives. Sickness intrudes. Randomness strikes. A butterfly in China flaps its wings and a tornado destroys a palatial estate accrued through decades of sweat. In the great mall of life, we end up in Spencer Gifts staring at black light posters instead of negotiating down the price of a Botero at Neiman.

The Great Recession, as this economic downturn has been called, is proving to be a factor in waking some Americans out of the control delusion. People who did everything right, who followed the mall map to a T, still saw their shopping trip of life go awry. Now they sit in the food court sucking down an Orange Julius and not the complimentary Roederer Cristal handed out by the luxury retailers.

I suspect that the next couple years will be an enormous wake-up call to Americans, for many will find themselves progressively sliding down the class ranks. And the resulting anguish will be like nothing our generation has ever seen.

But then, basing our lives on our own ability to control them can have no other outcomes except grief. The expectations run too high.

A few years ago, I read The Black Swan, a fascinating book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The author posits that too few people account for the unexpected and that most success is illusory, the product of chance happenings that are all that separate the board room from the mail room. Taleb states that those business celebrities who write books about how they achieved their success might as well have saved all their scribblings and just written, Hey, I got here by dumb luck. When even the secular crowd wakes up to the lack of control we have over our destinies, maybe hope for positive change within our country remains.

What the Bible says:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

I have known too many cases where hard work failed to win the day. I have known too many people who did everything right, but they still got steamrolled by events they could not foresee. I know people who made decisions praised as wise by the wisest of the wise, but who still saw that wise choice end in bitter fruit.

We are not in control of our lives. We deceive ourselves when we insist we are.

For the Christian, the answer to the delusion of control is here:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.
—1 Corinthians 6:19b-20a

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
—Colossians 3:2-3

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
—2 Corinthians 4:17-18

As I look at the American Church of 2010, I see people struggling to maintain control. We consider ourselves to be our own, masters of imagined destinies that line up more with the American Dream than with having a mind set on the eternal unseen. To such people, the following verse is the strangest in the Bible and is prayed with the least conviction:

Give us this day our daily bread….
—Matthew 6:11

When we have surrendered control of our lives entirely to Jesus, we can pray Matthew 6:11 with joy.

But for too many people, praying such a prayer becomes an issue of abandoning too much control. It asks too much. It asks us to rely on something foreign to us: faith.

You see, faith is the opposite of control. Faith says, “I do not know what tomorrow will hold. I cannot even control today. Instead, I will live by the Spirit. Jesus leadsI will live with the uncertainty of the world and instead exercise the muscle of faith that I have let atrophy for too long. Christ is in me; therefore, I have hope.”

The times we live in now will tax many people. All the old refuges will fail. The Church must revise the way it thinks about life, putting Christ first and its own finaglings last. We will have to experience what it means to depend on Jesus alone for physical healing because we can no longer control our health care because we can no longer afford doctors and hospitals. It will mean praying for food and expecting to receive it, even when the grocery store shelves are bare. It will mean learning to be thankful for even the smallest blessing we receive in faith from God. It will finally mean learning to move beyond just talking about faith and actually living it.

19 thoughts on “Faith, the Opposite of Control

  1. One night, I watched ultimate fighting, not something I normally watch. But I watched it long enough to witness the Ecclesiastes reference in two matches. In one of the fights, the clearly better fighter was handily beating his inferior opponent. Then the opponent began swinging wildly. The better fighter dodged and parried and blocked, but his guard went down at just the right moment to let the inferior fighter land a haymaker to the guy’s temple, knocking him out. In the other fight, the fighter who was winning stepped on his foot wrong, overextending a muscle. He fell, and the other fighter locked him up in a submission hold. Game over.

    “The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but safety is of the LORD” (Proverbs 21:31).

    • Pedro

      Very true! Psalm 127:1 “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

      It’s a great lesson to learn. God has always been in control of all things, still is and will forever be. The Christian walk is a hard journey without dependency on God. Blessed is the man that finds grace to increasingly depend on him.

  2. Our family has learned to walk by faith over the last few years. We’ve learned to have faith for healing, for daily bread. I’ve just posted on my Bible blog the beginnings of some observations from the Bible about God meeting the needs of His children. I’ll probably be adding to it in the weeks to come. I hope the Lord will use our experiences, trials and tests to encourage others that God does provide for all of our needs.


  3. ccinnova

    Now they sit in the food court sucking down an Orange Julius…

    Not at the mall closest to my house. The Orange Julius has closed down, along with more than half the stores in the mall. The majority of the mall’s square footage is occupied only because the three anchor stores are still in business. Ironically, two of the three cater not to the affluent but to bargain hunters.

    I live in the suburbs of Washington, DC, which has long been considered the most powerful city in the world. I’m not sure that’s the case any longer, and in the end that may be a good thing.

      • Mike Jacobs

        Yes, (and while this may start another thread), the amount of retail space that is availbale is staggering. And yet retailers hop to the next hot location to open more stores. Sprawl is chewing up our farmland almost faster than we can calculate. In 50 years the next reclaimation movement will be to bulldoze abondoned retail sites to turn them back to farms.

  4. Chris

    Hey Dan, just wanted to thank you for this. God’s been teaching me this lesson in some very hard ways the last week or so, and your post was greatly encouraging.

  5. “…the following verse is the strangest in the Bible and is prayed with the least conviction: ‘Give us this day our daily bread…'”

    True that.

    I’m just beginning to see what that means. What if really praying that meant my leaving a job that God didn’t want me at and suffering lack as a result? What if poverty, the ultimate evil to many, was God’s will for some?

    What if my daily bread was considered wholly from God, and not the result of God + my effort, or God’s blessing for my good behavior. There is no reason I have daily bread, just as there’s no reason I was ransomed from the jaws of hell…except of course his mercy. Any other view is bound to produce entitlement and arrogance or depression/anxiety, depending on which end of the economic spectrum you land on.


    • Nate,

      The tendency to jump from one pole to the other is one of the troubles that keeps afflicting the Church. It is all too easy for the upper middle-class person to suddenly have a revelation of Jesus and go the Saint Francis route. I’m not sure that’s wise.

      Here’s a prayer that I think makes far more sense:

      Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.
      —Proverbs 30:7-9

      That seems to be more in line with “Give us this day our daily bread….”

      My opinion may not be popular in some sectors of Christianity, but God makes a way and we have to walk it. If we don’t walk it, we won’t reap the blessings of that journey. We can’t be passive participants in this whole thing. We can talk about grace, sovereignty, and all sorts of other things, but at some point, we have to get off the couch and work.

      I think it is a delight to God that He provides us His riches and then watches what we do with them. It’s been that way since the Garden. God gave us dominion, but He didn’t make the fruits of that dominion happen for us automatically. He expected something of us.

      Consider the parable of the talents. Jesus noted the praise the faithful stewards received because they used their wits and took action with what was given them. The worthless servant was the one who received yet did nothing with what was received.

      Also consider how many times the Lord uses the illustration of the untended vineyard as a watchword against not working. There’s some sweat equity in this thing called faith. We can’t save ourselves. But once we are saved, there’s a synergy in this discipleship thing. Sitting on one’s laurels does not apply.

      • You’re absolutely correct, and I wasn’t trying to imply a “hands off and let God do everything” sort of approach…only that, rather than consider the bread that I have the product of my work(which, for one type of consideration, it is), I would like to consider both the bread AND the work that produces it a gift from God that is wholly dependent on his mercy towards me. And the faculties and skills that enable me to do the work, etc.


  6. Another verse to throw into your quiver for this subject, Jeremiah 10:, um, now I forgot, Jeremiah 10:something

    “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.”

  7. Mercyme

    Brilliantly said.
    God wants us to be totally dependent on him. That includes obeying him daily and taking action as he leads us. I believe he supplies all the resources and foots the bill for His will. All we need to do is desire more and more of Jesus, walk closer with him daily, till we are completely yielded to His will. Then, control will not be an issue because he is in control and his will becomes ours and our will becomes His. Everything moving in tandem with his plan and purpose.

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