The Illusion of Control

There’s been nothing like this.

Such a strange time we live in.

What’s next?

Will we ever be the same after this?

Have you recently spoken these words with friends or family as you connect in some of the only ways we are able–online, on the phone, or from six feet away? But it’s true: we haven’t lived through anything like this.

Our expectations for 2020 have been blown up as COVID-19 makes its way around the world. Graduations, weddings, sports events, even funerals have been canceled or postponed. Millions out of work, the economy limping along.

“It stinks,” said a high school senior, wearing a face mask, leaning out the window of a coffee drive-up window. “I’m finishing my senior year online. I don’t get to graduate with my friends. But,” he continued, “at least I have a job!” With a big thumbs-up he handed me my coffee and wished me a good day.

“Well put!” I responded. “Gotta see the positive side!”

We miss our friends and coworkers. Some of us hadn’t realized just how much we need face-to-face contact with others! This isn’t solitary confinement, but our circle of contacts has been made so small.

We each have stories to tell, I’m sure, that we will recount to our children and grandchildren. “Gramma, what was it like during the Big Shutdown of 2020?” “Did you really hide hundreds of toilet paper rolls in the attic?”

Don’t tell anyone, but a friend heard our local garden center was open in late April. (I may or may not be that friend.) It is big, open-air; what could go wrong? This friend wondered if it would be called cheating if she “happened” to meet another friend at the garden center and stroll around together–but 6 feet apart, of course. Lo and behold, at an appointed–“coincidental”–time, the two friends met and wandered around. What a joy to talk face-to-mask, as it were, after a long separation! That is, ahem, if I was indeed that friend.

And, funny thing, a hundred or more people, the largest crowd I’ve seen at that garden center, seemed to be thinking the same.

At times, though, it is difficult not to be depressed about our imposed quarantine. Events around the world and in our own communities seem so out of control. Rulers give us seemingly conflicting stories and projections. Angry mobs protesting, officials threatening with jail anyone who reopens their business before the appointed time. Who can we believe, actually? Whose numbers are right? We won’t know until this is way past us. But right now? Right now, we’ve lost whatever control we thought we had over our own lives.

Sometimes don’t you wonder if God is trying to get your attention? What else could go wrong, you ask. Is this one of God’s messages–to pay attention, get your life straightened out?

We think we are in control; we hate to give up control to someone else.

When disease, disaster, or other problems big or small strike, we face three options with three very different results:

1. Take control myself: failure rushes in.

Out of desperation or the need to keep everything under my control, I will circle my wagons, panic-buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer, meat, or canned goods. I’ll empty my savings accounts and buy gold and stuff it in my mattress. I’ll turn in those neighbors who are having a small party against the lockdown orders, or whose business is staying open in defiance of the rules. No kidding: some cities have snitch-line websites where you can turn in the names of rule-breakers. Ever heard of McCarthy, or the Salem witch trials?

Trying hard to keep control while all the world seems out of control is the epitome of desperation. We grasp even tighter. We fight even harder. We don’t really know that we have already lost all semblance of (or never really had) authority over our own lives. What follows is increasing anger and impatience, lashing out at others, alienating the few people we have in our small circles of contact.

Then emptiness, frustration, and desperation overwhelm you. You give up.

2. Give control to government: tyranny walks in.

This is a familiar pattern throughout history. When chaos walks in, and we can’t control it or cure it, or run away from it, we beg the government to “just do something about it!”

Governments love to rescue people out of their emergencies…as long as they have unlimited funds. No unlimited funds? That’s okay! We can borrow or tax or both! The more, the better! And of course, the government says, we need to pay ourselves to administer the funds! No one will notice the millions we have skimmed off the top!

The more power the government gets, the more it grows, and the more areas of life they can oversee. The more willingly we give them authority to take power, the more powerfully they will rule. Note, just in relatively recent history, how chaos in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Germany in the First World War led to the tyrannic rule of Napoleon and Hitler, respectively. Once tyrants rule, it will take another war (or more) to restore more peaceful rule.

3. Give control to God: peace walks in.

We probably should go this route initially, but I seldom do the right thing first. I thought I could take care of things on my own. I lose sleep, become anxious, my auto-immune conditions hit me badly, blood pressure rises… It’s pretty ridiculous. Then I remember what I should have done first.

Jesus’ disciple Peter watched him walking on the water during a storm. Peter impetuously jumped out of his boat to walk on water too, and he actually took a few steps when the storm and the waves and wind alarmed him. He took his eyes off of Jesus and immediately sank into the storm-tossed sea. He had forgotten that Christ was his safe harbor.

It’s important to note that as Christ walked in that stormy sea, He didn’t at first calm the waves. He told Peter to walk to Him in the middle of the rough waters. Why is that important?

Sometimes we can call to God and He will calm the waters:

And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:24-26).

Other times we call out and He chooses to let us go through the storm:

And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt 14:23-33)

It seems a cliche, but it is true: We must go through the storm, BUT–and this is vital–He will accompany us on that rough journey. He will not abandon us, He promises to those who have put their trust in Him. That is the source of our peace.



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