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.

The Commodore Decker Conundrum


When I was the age my son is now, the original Star Trek was still on first-run TV. I actually remember my father watching the show. However, when I asked to join him, he told me that Star Trek was “too scary for seven-year-old boys.” That, of course, only pushed me more to want to watch it. In a way, that show became the ultimate forbidden fruit of my childhood.

Not only is Star Trek a scary show at times (a fact I learned in later years when it hit syndication), but it mirrors well the overall frightening aspects of day to day living on this simple planet. No episode of the classic series reflects this better than “The Doomsday Machine.”

Written by the well-known science fiction author Norman Spinrad, “The Doomsday Machine” pits the crew of Enterprise against a mindless device of staggering power, The picture of doing it right but getting it wrongan alien weapon hellbent on destroying everything it encounters as it drifts through space, even entire planets. (Star Trek apologists claim the invincible weapon was designed specifically to combat the Borg.)

Enterprise discovers its sister ship Constellation battered and adrift in space. The lone occupant of the crippled craft is Commodore Matt Decker  (played with scene-chewing, Shatner-like intensity by William Windom). When an away team beams aboard Constellation, Captain Kirk and Commodore Decker, whose sanity is fraying at the seams, carry on this exchange concerning Constellation‘s encounter with the space-borne WMD:

Decker: “We tried to contact Starfleet… no one heard—no one! W-we couldn’t run!”

Kirk: “Matt, what happened to your crew?”

“Oh, well, I had to beam them down. I mean, we were dead—no power, our phasers useless. I stayed behind. The Captain… last man aboard the ship; that’s what you’re supposed to do isn’t it? And then it hit again, and the transporter went out. They were down there; I’m up here…”

“What hit? What attacked you?”

“They say there’s no devil, Jim… but there is—right out of hell, I saw it!”

“Matt, where’s your crew?”

“On the third planet.”

“There is no third planet.”

Decker, now sobbing: “Don’t you think I know that? There was, but not anymore! They called me, they begged me for help—four hundred of them! I couldn’t… I-I couldn’t….”

When Decker mouths those final lines, I find them some of the most chilling in all of television.

Decker’s “Don’t you think I know that?” stands as the frantic wail of a man who did everything by the book, drew on every command principle he’d been taught, stuck to the rules passed down from leader to leader, and yet none of that wisdom was good enough in the end. Events conspired against him and wound up destroying his crew—and ultimately the Commodore himself.

One clear decision goes awry, morphing into a nightmare that can never be undone.

Recently, I read the bestsellers The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In them, Taleb forges a convincing argument that none of today’s leaders got to their positions of leadership through any other factor than chance. The difference between the corporate mailroom clerk and the CEO may have come down to nothing more than getting stuck in a traffic jam in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet the CEO goes on to write a bestselling book telling how his “wisdom” won him the corner office, while the mailroom clerk labors forgotten, his aspirations forever on hold.

I know too many mailroom clerks, though. Too many good people who fell prey to the Commodore Decker Conundrum. They did everything they were supposed to do, but it wasn’t good enough. They were undone by the greatest doomsday machine of all: rotten luck.

And that’s a troubling reality to me that I’ve never quite been able to reconcile either in my own life or in the lives of others. The Bible speaks to this conundrum in what I find to be one of the most inscrutable verses in the Bible:

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.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11

In other words, you may do it all right and  yet still fail for reasons outside of your control. Just like Commodore Decker. You may try to recover, but chance so dashed your jigsaw puzzle and trashed its pieces that the final image is irretrievably lost.

Chance is quite a difficult concept to grasp in the Kingdom of God. Some Christians would say that chance doesn’t exist as God is control of our every action. Others argue for chance’s reality; how else to explain why some godly endeavors fail?

A friend of mine once told the story of a teen who lived in his hometown who felt the call of God to work as a missionary in Africa. That young woman spent several summers raising money to preach the Gospel to lost Africans. Hers was a burning desire, and everyone who knew her understood her cause was smiled upon by the Lord. One day, she boarded that plane and found herself in Africa, the fulfillment of all that hard work and desire.

That young, bright star of a missionary died later that week from some virulent disease she picked up while traveling.

I’m not sure I understand what happened to that young woman. Was she a victim of chance? Did she simply sit next to the wrong fellow passenger, one who harbored the disease that would ultimately take her life before she had the opportunity to share Christ with even one African?

Certainly God knew that she would die, her mission unfulfilled. Still, the why of it haunts the survivors.

I don’t know the answer to the Commodore Decker Conundrum. I’m not sure I know what to say to those Christians who do it all right by the Book, but then everything seems to go wrong. While none of us can see what is happening behind the curtain, I know that I don’t like to think that chance enters into the equation at all. Yet Ecclesiastes 9:11 says otherwise.

I look around and I see too many Deckers out there, solid people who did all the right things and yet were crushed by happenstance. More than anything, I want to know what to say to them. I never find the right words, though. Romans 8:28 stands as the counter to Ecclesiastes 9:11, but smarter Christians must know how to reconcile the two. When I hear the stories of men and women who made decisions they still pay for every day of their lives, decisions that seemed in keeping with the prevailing Christian wisdom yet have put them in desperate positions, I’m at a total loss—as if staring into the unrelenting maw of a doomsday machine.