Saturday, September 07, 2013

To Pray Is to Let Go of Control (PrayerLife)

I paid $2 in Jerusalem for this cup of fresh-made Arabian espresso.

I’ve taught spiritual formation classes at a number of theological seminaries as well as weekend retreats for pastors and Christian leaders. I begin my classes by sending the students out to pray for one hour using Psalm 23 as their focus. When they return from praying I ask them the question “What did God say to you?” My experience is that one-third of them don’t get past verse 1, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” God asks them the question, “Am I really your shepherd?” Arguably, this is the basic question of one’s spiritual life. Henri Nouwen has said that the basic question is “Who do you belong to?”

Find out who or what you belong to, and place your trust there. To trust is, ipso facto, to let go of control. If you’re driving and I’m riding and you see my foot move towards the gas pedal while my hand appears on the steering wheel you’re going to ask the obvious – “Don’t you trust my driving?” In that case my answer would have to be “No.” To trust in God means he is the driver and I’m along for the ride.

One biblical example of this is John 21:13-18. Jesus asks Peter the question “Do you love me?” As Peter confesses his love for Jesus, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Verse 19 tells us that “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” Then he said to him, "Follow me!"

Henri Nouwen uses this passage to illustrate the control vs. trust situation. He writes that "maturation in a spiritual sense is a growing willingness to stretch out my arms, to have a belt put around me and to be led where I would rather not go (John 21:18)."[1] It’s either “dress yourself and go where you want to go” (control) or “be dressed by someone else and go where they want you to go” (trust). To follow Jesus is to go where he wants you to go. When someone becomes a real follower of Jesus they won’t be dressing themselves anymore.

Thomas Merton says that "maturity," for the Christian, is learning how to be a "sheep." "As long as we remain sheep we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves we are beaten: for then we lose the support from the Shepherd who feeds not wolves, but only sheep." If the Lord is my shepherd and his sheep hear his voice and follow, that’s the sign of a trusting heart. An essential part of praying is being-shepherded. Therefore, to pray is to trust, which means to pray is to let go of control.

A lot of the “control” thing is part of the kingdom of darkness. How so? For one thing, it’s mostly illusory. We may think we’re in control of a lot of things, and marketers may tell us if we buy their product it will give us greater control over something, but the truth is that we mostly control nothing. Things we have no control over include the weather, what other people think, time, the future, our past, and death. Things we have very little control over include sickness, the economy, our physical appearance, addiction, and our feelings. What, really, do we have control over? The TV controller? Maybe, but I doubt it.

I think the “I’m in control of things” attitude is an illusion. A feeling that “I’m in control” may make you feel that it is so, but the feeling is non-indicative of any reality that corresponds to it. The only option, then, is that we must trust. But in what or in whom? In money? Governments? The self? Gerald May writes: “In our culture, the three gods we do trust for security are possessions, power, and human relationships. To a greater or lesser extent, all of us worship this false trinity.” (May, Addiction and Grace, 32)

Some people are control addicts. This is why it is hard for some people to pray. My own belief is that the more controlling a person is the more fearful they are. The problem comes when we become addicted to control. Since, as we have already seen, most of life is out of our control, the control addict is fearful most of the time and tries to gain control over situations that are, fundamentally, out of their control. Like trying to control the hearts and minds of other people, which cannot be done. Yet the control addict tries, because they fear people who don’t act or think or feel or choose as they do. Such people are “out of their control,” and they don’t like it.

God is not in our control. Sure, some Christians seem to think they can control God, but the great truth is that God is “sovereign.” See, e.g., the parable of the workers in the vineyard where those who get hired last get paid the same as those who worked all day. The all-day workers cry out “Hey, that’s not fair?” To which the owner responds “It’s my money, right? And I can do what I want with it.” God’s in control, we’re not. And in some cases we’re out of control. So to have a heart that tries to gain control is counter to what’s really going on in this world. What can we do?

The answer is: God wants to and is able to transform (meta-morph) your controlling heart into a heart that trusts in him. Place yourself prayerfully in God’s presence and God will, usually over time, do this. As God does this your praying will be different. Prayer becomes more conversational as the praying person lets go of control.