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Article No. 26

Being in control

As I was reading the new Henri Nouwen book ‘Finding my way home’ (a collection of short essays published previously) I was struck by the phrase ‘… and I will grab it quickly (a stick of some sort) when I need to remain in control’

As I reflected upon the first few pages of this book – which, I already thoroughly recommend, I felt the force of the comment that often we use whatever we can, whatever we need to use, in order to remain in control. We might use a cutting word, or a curt phrase, or flounce out of the room. Or we may change the subject or fly into a rage – whatever we need to do to guard against that feeling of powerlessness that comes when we feel that someone else is gaining the ascendancy over us.

Being in control is so much a part of the very fabric of our being. It starts when we are very young! We are taught from our early days that we must be in charge - in charge of our bodily functions, for example, and so we have our potty training. That is just the start of the civilizing process of making us learn, understand and conform to the rules of the society in which we live and in which we are growing up to be a fully fledged member.

We learn, for example, that we have to be ‘on time’ at school. We learn that our homework has to be submitted on time. We learn that meals are at a certain time and that when we say we will meet someone at a certain place and time we had better be there and on time or else. Our lives become regulated, ordered and disciplined.

Don’t misunderstand me – I fully accept that this has to be. How otherwise can six billion people live on this planet in at least some semblance of harmony? We have to learn to be responsible members of society – to take our place in the scheme of things, which could not function if everyone went their own way. And in order to conform we have to be in control of ourselves. Well – most of the time, at least!

As we grow, the rules that we learn – often painfully – become internalized. We accept them into ourselves as valid and operative. In the ordinary course of things we no longer question them. So we apologize if we are late – we sense inside ourselves that we have to some small degree erred. When we do something by which our lack of self-control is evident to others, we may feel somewhat ashamed. This is the glue which holds society together. If we were all rebels all the time, life together would become impossible. No one would know any more what to expect from other people. It would be a state of anarchy.

It is the breakdown of this acceptance of general rules in Britain, (this ‘internalization’ of rules within our minds and lives) that has led to the feeling in some quarters that present day society is on the skids. Some feel that society is going to the dogs. It is often the elderly who feel this most keenly and are most vocal about it. The person who signs himself in the newspapers as ‘Digusted of Tunbridge Wells’. Perhaps that is because in the elderly the ‘rules’ of society have been operative for such a long time that they do not even see them as options any more. To them the rules are not just important, but vital – indeed they seem to the elderly to be the very fabric of society itself. Of course, you do not have to be old to be ‘elderly’ in outlook.

Being in control and the internalization of rules is most apparent of course in religion. It is here that we absorb internal rules about how we should live and how we should act. And the particular church community in which we live helps us live out the rules they hold important, and will support us when we fail – as fail we must, being human.

Religion is built up by a code of how we should live. It is fuelled by an experience in the heart, and a belief in the mind, but it becomes apparent in our lives by how we actually live – by the rules of life that we follow, or try to follow. As Christians we accept that we should not take three wives, nor hit people when we are angry, nor run around with our neighbour’s wife. There are all sorts of rules and churches differ in the importance they allocate to them. I understand that at one time British Methodists were expected to avoid alcohol, but were allowed to smoke. At the same time American Methodists were not supposed to smoke, but were allowed to drink alcohol.

Such discrepancies should not surprise us – they are merely a manifestation of the incredible diversity that pertains throughout human society. A wide divergence is to be seen – and welcomed. It goes without saying that there are some basic rules that seem to be applicable to everyone – but there is disagreement sometimes about exactly what these are. A classic and current example would be the debate in Christendom about homosexuality. Some churches are dead against, some are totally accepting, and many in between. And there is a difference of opinion about the importance of the subject. Opinions are changing.

So we accept that there are rules for society, and we accept that there are also rules for Christians. And being in control of oneself means that one tries to follow these rules. In the case of the Christian, it is the rule of the Holy Spirit in his life that he looks for. He calls on the Holy Spirit to help him – to empower him to live a life modeled on Christ. We cannot do it ourselves, and we need God’s help. His indwelling power. That power is available to us if we will call on it. And we know that God forgives us when we fail and want to start again.

But throughout our daily attempts to follow Christ – to be Christlike in our lives – there is this parallel desire to be in control. This ‘being in control’ we learned as children is the pathway to acceptance in society. When we do not do the things that we really think are Christlike then we feel out of control and we feel ashamed – inside ourselves and also in front of other people. We have failed to live up to our standards.

Hence it is that guilt and shame sometimes grip us. This may be a conviction from God but sometimes it is an outcome of our own failure to come up to our expectations. When we fail – as we often do - we feel that we have let the side down. We feel we have let ourselves down. We should not have gone out last night and done what we did. We should not be lazy and skip our quiet times so often that we no longer have any desire to spend time with the Lord.

So how should we deal with all of this? How should we treat our inner demand to be in control? Is it always good to be in control? Or is it sometimes better to allow ourselves some space to ‘be ourselves’ and ‘let it all hang out’? Must we always have our nature under control? Held strictly in check? Can we unlearn what was inculcated when we were young children?

When our actions are too rigidly controlled, our thoughts sometimes range over other possibilities. We start to fantasize and to think what we would really like to do. And we may feel the excitement of breaking through old boundaries of right and wrong. We may feel the attraction of doing what some other Christians would consider wrong. This is the attraction of sin – the desire to kick over the traces and to let go – the way we are built means that sometimes sin looks attractive and seems utterly desirable. It is called temptation.

When we start to daydream and fantasize we are on a slippery slope! We may tell ourselves that it is only in the mind and we have not ‘done’ anything yet. But the fact is that as a man thinks so he becomes. As our mind continues to travel down the forbidden roads, the forbidden ways become less heinous and more attractive to us. Although we have not yet lost control of our actions, we have let go of our imagining. And our imagining will very probably turn into actions sooner or later.

So what part does ‘being in control’ play for the Christian? How far is it necessary and desirable?

The fact is that we have no choice in the matter. That is how we are built. Society functions (insofar as it remains a cohesive society) by the common acceptance of rules of behaviour. Unless we all drive on the left of the road, life with the car would be impossible. We have to be in control – both as citizens and as Christians. But we can put some valuable checks in place – especially as regards our religious rules.

Firstly, we can always and everywhere recognize that there is immense diversity in the world, in Christianity, in morality and, therefore, in what we consider is ‘right’. When we start to lay down the law on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable we should be very careful. The basic Christian rules are beyond dispute:

love is essential and key to every other rule of behaviour;

self-sacrifice is essential to a life moulded on Christ;

being part of a Christian community is a basic need and joy for us all.

These are some of the basics. But when it comes to length of hair (1 Corinthians 11.14) or the place of women in church (1 Timothy 2.12) or slavery (Ephesians 6.5) or sexuality (?) we need to stand back and begin by saying ‘It seems to me…’

The suggestion that, because a Church – any Church - has rules and prohibitions, based on their interpretation of the bible, we ought all to obey them strikes me as ludicrous. Just look at how wrong the churches have been in the past! On almost every advance in human understanding the Churches have been slow (sometimes by several centuries) to adjust their position and get up to date. By all means listen to what the churches are saying – but eventually trust the bible and your own sense of what the Holy Spirit is saying more highly.

Quite apart from being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the rules laid down by a church – any church - are also liable to go out of date. What was right and good and true a thousand years ago may now, in the light of the enormously different understanding of the human being and society, be totally inappropriate. We have to learn to distinguish – and thank God that in this task the Holy Spirit is always with us guiding, leading, revealing.

So go forward in the way ahead of you – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who will uphold all that is good and wholesome in your thinking and help you in your self-control, and who will gently warn you when you go too far in applying rules (of whatever sort) for others. Above all He will fill you with love if you ask Him. That is the best rule of all – the rule of love.

Tony Cross

18th October 2002

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