Control Freaks

Several months ago I had some terribly frustrating encounters with a control freak. And when I say “control freak” I’m not talking about someone who is merely outspoken or opinionated or strong willed. I’m talking about someone who wants to take control over the lives of other people — thinking for them, talking for them, and doing for them.

I did not want to respond to the person in a fleshly way. Instead I wanted to be able to bear with, accept, even love that person. I spent some time reflecting on the good qualities of the controller. I tried to understand life from the controller’s perspective. The experience led me to do quite a bit of reading about control freaks: what makes them tick and how to relate with them.

Most of the sources I read suggested fear is a major contributing factor to a person’s compulsion to control.

That was helpful in developing some patience for dealing with the control freak I was encountering. It wasn’t difficult to see a possible source from which this controller’s urges grew. When a controller is experiencing something that makes them fear losing control, it can trigger an outburst of controlling behavior. So, if a controller is losing control in one area of his or her life, they can be very determined to take control of something or someone to help them cope with the fear.

Somehow, forcefully controlling someone or something, even if that someone or something is not even related to the other area or person where they have lost control, seems to restore some sense of equilibrium in the controller’s life. So let’s say a controller is experiencing difficulties in some area of his or her life and is frustrated by his or her lack of ability to control the situation. Rather than accept the fact that some things are beyond his or her control, the person must find a way to feel better. So they seize control of something, or someone. Sometimes the person who is seized has no comprehension of the big picture of why they have been seized.

As a minister, I have often laid before God my motivations for interpersonal relationships. Specifically, how can I help a person grow in their relationship with God while at the same time respecting that person’s free will? How can I walk alongside someone as a mentor, counselor, teacher, or spiritual director without seizing control of that person? How do I encourage someone’s spiritual growth without trying to make all their decisions for them?

As a church leader I want to lead the flock by example and moral authority, not by “lording it over” them. I want to respect free will, even if that means a person chooses to walk away from me. I want to respect free will, even if that means allowing a person to walk away from God. Didn’t Jesus let people walk away, didn’t he reject trying to force people to be followers? I cannot force someone to have a relationship with God anymore than I can force them to have a relationship with me.

Paul seemingly wrestled with this same issue. I love the way Eugene Peterson’s translation allows these words to come alive.

2 Corinthians 1:24 (MSG)
“We’re not in charge of how you live out the faith, looking over your shoulders, suspiciously critical. We’re partners, working alongside you, joyfully expectant. I know that you stand by your own faith, not by ours.”

What a relief it is when I reach the self-awareness that I am not God and therefore, am not in control of the universe. It does me good to freely confess right along with John the Baptist, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20). I hope the aforementioned control freak comes to that realization. Maybe I need to formulate a strategy to make that freak give up control. . .or maybe not.

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