If I had to pick one word for what God has been teaching me lately, I think it would be “freedom.” It’s a little word, one I think we tend to think we understand. Yet as I’ve begun to grasp what living out the reality of freedom in Christ must really mean for a believer in Jesus, I’ve simultaneously seen, little by little, layer by layer, my default ways of thinking and living exposed for what they are—misguided pursuits of control. Invulnerability. Self-sufficiency. Accomplishment. My own aspirations, disguised as obedience to God, as a conscientious Christian lifestyle.
I can now see this for what it is because of how I’ve reacted to God’s invitation to a different way of life. As God has patiently, persistently, and gently invited me to let go of my need for control and accomplishment in exchange for the freedom of a life of surrender, trust, and rest, I’ve found everything in me balks in response. If I accept God’s invitation, if I surrender control, I think, I’ll be left defenseless.
It’s humbling, and disorienting, to realize how blinded I’ve been to my own resistance to God’s grace. How did I get it so wrong?
I think part of the answer is because much of Christian culture operates the same way. We talk about grace and salvation in glowing terms, but ironically, it sometimes feels as though we use those words as synonyms for “having it together.” We’re saved, meaning we’re on the right path, with the right people, and with grace in our back pocket ready to quickly cover any blemishes that reveal we’re as human, flawed, and vulnerable as anyone else. Frederich Buechner, in his memoir Telling Secrets, contrasts the kind of faith that’s about being certain, in control, and invulnerable, with Alcoholics Anonymous, which he suggests would be a better model for Christian community. If our desperate need for God’s grace was really at the heart of our theology, then like AA, we would gather as people who know we are incurably broken, cannot fix ourselves, and can only rely on God’s grace and the love of those around us to get through each day.
But human beings seem hard-wired to resist that kind of humility. Instead of accepting God’s invitation to surrender control in exchange for intimacy and trust, we tend to choose a lifestyle of pursuing good performance, as if high achievement is the same thing as obedience to God, and an impressive performance the same thing as salvation.
In recent years, American evangelical culture has had a painful reckoning with the way its focus on outward performance, that shiny mirage of self-mastery, of being “saved,” has functioned to bury deep corruption and shame. One charismatic leader after another within evangelical culture has been exposed for narcissistic, abusive, and destructive behavior, and often the faith communities of which they were a part have been implicated for covering up and enabling the harm done.
How does this happen in communities that claim to be about pursuing God’s ideals? The irony is that it may be our very focus on doing what’s right, on being right, that sets us up for denial and blindness to our own brokenness. Archbishop Rowan Williams describes this as the problem of the “good” community: there is no room in a community filled with “good people” for brokenness, for the cracks through which God’s love and grace enters. When “being good” is our goal, there is no room for the vulnerable realities of our lives; the shiny ideal we’re pursuing can blind us to our need to surrender control and certainty in exchange for dependency and trust in God’s grace.
There must be a better way to live than this. And of course, there is—that other way of living out faith that God has been persistently pulling me toward. According to Scripture, Jesus died to set us free (Galatians 5:1). But if freedom is at the heart of what Christ won for us, then there is also something within us that’s deeply and instinctively wired to choose the opposite—the “yoke of slavery” (5:1,4) to our own efforts.
It’s kind of strange how resistant we can be to surrendering the illusion of self-sufficiency. In my life at least, I have daily reminders of how obviously futile that goal is. I struggle on a daily basis with doubt—deep, nagging, sometimes crippling doubt about whether life is meaningful at all. And I live with mental illness with varying degrees of anxiety and depression, a disability that daily reminds me of my dependence on others—I cannot be well without the regular support of friends and family, as well as my psychiatrist and medication.
Given those obvious contradictions to the myth of self-reliance, wearing a mask of invulnerability is exhausting for me, which I imagine must be the case for all of us.
The ironic thing about how much Christian culture, at least in America, tends to prioritize achievement, control, and certainty, is how obviously it contradicts the heart of our faith. God has put faith—trust—amidst a world of doubt and chaos at the center of what it means to follow him, but somehow we manage to use “faith” as a way to eliminate or disguise doubt or despair (which kind of makes real faith unnecessary).
Recently a friend of mine, who has had the courage to walk away from an emotionally abusive marriage, recommended to me Patricia Evans’ groundbreaking book on verbal abuse. To help us understand how controlling and manipulative relationships function, Evans begins her work by setting up a framework for two different ways to use power, rooted in two different worldviews or beliefs about how reality should be. One form of power she calls “Power Over,” the other “Personal Power,” explaining “Power Over shows up as control and dominance. Personal power shows up as mutuality and co-creation.” A Power Over approach to life needs an “other” to dominate and be superior to, while Personal Power engages the world with empathy, receptivity, and creativity. It’s assumptions rooted in the Power Over worldview that drive the behavior of emotional abusers, while their victims try in vain to engage at the level of mutuality and equality. The Power Over model, Evan’s argues, is the one Western culture is built on, even as it has “taken us to the brink of global chaos.”
In some ways, Evans’ framework seems simple, easy to understand, even common sense. Yet as I read her words, I was stunned by how revealing it was about not only my own struggle to surrender control but the culture of which I’m a part. I realized my struggle wasn’t merely an individual one, but a struggle our entire culture is wrestling with. And I wondered for how many of us, our cultural norms of valuing power and dominance has even led us to worship God as if God is the ultimate “Power Over,” our way to achieve our own power.
I don’t want to be a part of a world driven by the need to control and dominate. I want to do nothing to enable a worldview that has enabled even Christian spouses to justify dehumanizing, controlling, and abusive behavior. So, albeit hesitantly, not quite knowing the path forward, I’m trying to follow that tug God has put on my heart towards learning a different way to life, the path of surrender and trust.
As we walk down the road of learning what it means to truly live by faith, I will always be grateful for the ways Scripture models for us a path not driven by the need for certainty and control, but one that prioritizes humility and vulnerability. To follow God is to pursue wisdom, which means to be rooted in a deep awe of divine realities beyond our grasp (Proverbs 9:10). And I will always be grateful that with books like Psalms and Ecclesiastes, God has revealed that our doubts and questions matter, and are worth being honest and curious about, even as we press on in trust.
The highest ideal we are pointed to as God-followers in Scripture is not being strong and invulnerable to life’s hardships, but the wisdom revealed in Christ—strength in vulnerability (2 Corinthians 12:9–11), and the courage to acknowledge and face our own despair while still clinging to the hope of resurrection (v. 9). To walk this path is to learn to walk the path of love (Ephesians 5:2), because as psychologist Eric Fromm once put it, “Love is the child of freedom, never that of domination.”
– Monica Brands