Giving Up The Quest For Control

In a previous post, I wrote about the evangelical quest for control and how that shapes both evangelicalism as a culture and evangelicals as individuals.

What might it look like to give up control? How does Scripture indicate the kinds of lives we should lead as individuals and as corporate cultures—as churches?

One place to begin is the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus calls disciples to take up their crosses and to follow him (8:34). Disciples’ lives are cross-shaped—cruciform—and this entails giving up control. Disciples do not determine their own lives and they do not control others. They do not look for guaranteed outcomes.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, cross-shaped living involves two practices: service to the needy and hospitality to the marginalized.

Jesus points to this in Mark 9:35-37:

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Children in the ancient world were people that didn’t matter. They had no legal standing and low social status. They represent society’s marginalized. Jesus says that when disciples serve such people, welcome them as dignitaries, set them at the center of their communities, and commit to knowing them and being known by them in relationships of mutuality, they are actually welcoming the presence of Jesus and of God.

That points us away from behavioral patterns and relational dynamics of control. And it orients us toward others in postures of welcome—of rich hospitality. We can let this activate our imaginations when we think of our relationships, both individually and corporately.

Rather than being controlling parents, determining how our children will turn out, disciples clear space to free our children to become the people they will be. We receive them as the gifts that they are to us. We enjoy the surprising ways they develop and celebrate how they fill our lives with goodness. And we allow ourselves to be shaped by them as they bring God’s presence into our lives.

Rather than being controlling spouses, we receive our partners as the gifts that they are to us. We do not think first of our needs and desires, nor do we determine how this will look. We open ourselves up to being known as we share our experiences and responses to life, and we offer ourselves as partners who inhabit the liberating space of the kingdom of God throughout life’s varying seasons.

Rather than being neighbors that manipulate conversations to somehow make them “evangelistic opportunities,” we embody the gospel that makes us renewed humans by opening ourselves up to our neighbors, welcoming them by enjoying repeated encounters and allowing conversations to take whatever course they may.

We clear space for them to unfold the accounts of their lives, should they choose to do so. We celebrate their triumphs and grieve over their sorrow. When we do this, we enjoy together with them all the wonders of being humans made new.

And as churches, rather than seeking political power and influence, or to somehow control the course of our culture, we can behave corporately as Jesus did in Mark’s Gospel. He served the needy, brought healing to the sick, and welcomed sinners and outcasts. And, rather than seeking political power, he spoke the truth about God’s judgment on political and religious leaders who fostered systems of oppression and exploitation. And he became a victim of political power by being crucified on a cross.

In the same way, churches serve the needy, bring healing where there is suffering, and welcome the marginalized as dignitaries, including them in our communities. We do all of this with the confidence that when we do so we are welcoming the presence of Jesus and of God.

And churches do not seek political power and influence, but we discern how we can advocate for those who are exploited and marginalized, and we speak the truth about God’s judgment on political and religious leaders who mistreat the vulnerable.

None of these behaviors involve control or determining outcomes. Postures of control stem from selfish grasping, quests for prestige and social honor, and the desire to avoid pain and suffering. But according to Mark’s Gospel, people who live a cross-shaped life do not seek prestige or social honor (9:33-35; 10:42-45), and they just might find themselves the victims of others’ quests for control.

Mark uses the Greek verb paradidōmi (lit., “handed over”) to speak about the experiences that disciples should expect if they live in the shape of the cross.

John the Baptist was “handed over” (1:14) and then beheaded because he spoke the truth to a powerful leader (6:14-29). The same happened to Jesus (9:31), and Jesus said this would happen to disciples (13:9).

But Jesus says that those who take up their crosses and lose their lives in this age by offering themselves to the marginalized in service and hospitality will gain them in the life to come (8:34-38).

We are not guaranteed safety and security in this life. But we are assured that when we go the way of the cross and give up control, we enjoy the life-giving presence of Jesus and of God, and we will enter the kingdom of God when the Son of Man returns to make all things new.

2 thoughts on “Giving Up The Quest For Control

  1. Rick McGarry

    “churches do not seek political power and influence, but we discern how we can advocate for those who are exploited and marginalized”

    This is the part that seems contradictory. We advocate for them, but we don’t seek influence or power.

    1. timgombis

      Advocacy for the vulnerable and prophetic rebuke of the powerful puts our lives at stake in different ways and to varying degrees. It is a way of having solidarity with those who have no voice. That is different from grasping for political power and the privileges that go with it. John and Jesus rebuked those with coercive political power and paid for it with their lives. That is indeed a kind of power, but only because it is the power wielded by those with nothing to lose. Those who hold positions of coercive political power must control others, exploit and oppress because they will always feel that they have something to lose.

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