Recently, a Christian friend said to me: “I used to try to change my wife. I could see where she was wrong, so I would criticize her decisions and tell her what to do. Then I realized I wasn’t being loving…and that the best thing was to truly love her and that my love would lead her to change.”
I said, “That’s not love, it’s manipulation.” He looked at me surprised, so I continued: “If you’re trying to change your wife with kindness, that’s not love, it just an indirect form of control. Love of a spouse doesn’t seek to change them, it seeks to accept them, in spite of their faults. If true love seeks to change anything, it seeks to change one’s self in order to love better.”
We debated a bit, but my friend ultimately disagreed because for him, the gospel is about God getting control of people in order to rescue them. I hear the gospel differently. I hear an invitation to learn to control myself so that I might be free. The difference is subtle, but significant. The former is about obtaining safety and security; the latter is about obtaining freedom. Some form of control is involved in getting both, but the goal and the sequence are critically important. Get this wrong, and you botch your friendships, your marriage, your parenting, and pretty much every relationship.
There’s a kind of ironic paradox involved because it turns out the ability to control oneself well depends upon first letting go of control – letting go of being our own master, yes – which is the part we spend a great deal of time emphasizing in certain churches – but also letting go of mastering our enemies, our spouses, our friends, and especially letting go of trying to master God.
Learning to be in control rightly begins with learning to surrender.
Radically, God was the first to surrender. The gospel proclaims the story of a God who let go of control in order to gain something better: God created man with the ability to reject God; God became an infant, a man, a Jew; God chose to be born in the ancient near-east; God suffered for the faults of those who despised and rejected him; God chose to teach, rather than dictate; God chose to invite, rather than demand. In a million different ways, God surrendered himself in order to better love us.
The sum of all this is that God does not demand that we change, nor does he indirectly coerce with kindness. God merely asks that we accept him for who he is, just as he has accepted us.
Of course, that kind of love will inevitably change us because surrender is how we enter it. My friend recognizes that, and he’s right that change is part of love. After all, “It’s his kindness that leads us to repentence.” But repentance is not the goal of love. Rather, “It is for freedom he set us free.”
So the object of change and control must always be ourselves, and never the other. Once we learn mastery of ourselves after releasing the insessant need to be in control we eventually become the conditions that shape our world for the better – and we do it by continualy surrendering in a love relationship with the world. In so doing, we are continually being changed, to become more like who we were meant to me. More our true selves and less a manifestation of our fear of insecurity.
When we say “God is in control”, we don’t mean that God takes control of us or that he is in control of others. (Unfortunately, some people do mean that – but they really are control freaks, and what they really mean is that we should do what they say God says.) Nor does it mean we have no self-control. In the very best sense of the phrase, to say God is in control means it is safe to surrender, because God’s own surrender, followed by ours, will one day remake the world according to this image of love.
That takes faith.