Grace and control. Two words that can’t coexist. Two words that reveal the priorities of our heart. Two words that we would do well to consider.
These two ideas bring conflict to my heart nearly every night as I put my son to bed. What is it with little kids (and maybe big ones too – I don’t know yet!) and bedtime?! Every need is magnified. Every minute is stretched out. What should be quick and straightforward becomes a twisted and convoluted path to that ever-elusive goal – sleep! My attempts to control the process, limit the extraneous and achieve the goal often induce angst for both of us.
Why? Because control is the antithesis of grace.
What is Control?
Control is the lie of the garden that Satan sold to Eve and is still a seed in our hearts to this day. We think we can orchestrate our lives and the details of it. We want to direct, shape, influence, or limit everything and everyone to bring about our desired outcomes.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time defining grace. You can read descriptions of grace in my other posts related to 1 Word for 1 Year. But let’s look at two definitions for control:
To hold in check; to prevent the flourishing of
I find these definitions to be challenging. It’s easy to think of control in terms of someone way out of balance in this area who is obviously controlling in severe and unhealthy ways. But there is a subtler aspect of control.
Control is anything I do that restricts another from thriving or living out the person God created them to be.
I can seek to control my kids by limiting their creativity in order to keep a well-ordered house. I can seek to control my spouse by demanding his time attention at the expense of his hobbies. I can seek to control my ministry by holding on to responsibilities that I should delegate. I can seek to control my relationships by limiting what I share and withholding my true self.
Control permeates every area of life if we let it. But there is an antidote to control, grace. Let’s contrast the priorities of each.
Control Prioritizes Behavior; Grace Prioritizes the Heart
Control fixes its eyes on the end goal and outlines what is required to get there. There is a tendency to focus completely on good and bad, right and wrong. Control’s ultimate desire is to appear right and good to others in every situation, to do what is required. One problem with this is that behavior then becomes divorced from the heart. Motivations and desires are not identified or trained. Outward obedience is the ultimate litmus test of a good life.
Grace, however, does the opposite. Instead of focusing outwardly, grace moves inwardly. Grace desires to identify the motivations and desires of the heart so that they can be shaped and changed by God. Grace still holds to truth (good and bad, right and wrong), but desires not just to appear truthful but to be truthful. The principle of Proverbs 4:23 is at the heart of grace,
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (NIV)
It will take a lifetime to allow God to shape our hearts, but as He does, our outward behavior will change too. And changes made this way are permanent and real because they are connected to who we are becoming.
Question to Ponder: Am I content with outward good behavior or do I look past it to the motivations of the heart?
Control Prioritizes Conformity; Grace Prioritizes Freedom
Because control is so focused on good and bad, right and wrong, there is the tendency to believe that there is one good and right way. The implication of this belief is that there are certain standards that must be upheld by anyone who follows God. It’s quite easy to fall into a legalistic pattern of living when pursuing conformity. Formulaic approaches to marriage, parenting, ministry or relationships are really at heart an attempt to control (not always to the extreme but in subtler, still serious ways) and bring about desired results.
Grace came to set us free from the law that led to conformity. Paul wrote all about this idea in Romans and Galatians. He introduces us to grace that leads to freedom. Unconformity that remains in line with biblical truth does not frighten God. Rather, He embraces it. It gives a wider picture of who He really is. (Want to read more on this idea? Check out January’s post Grace Gives Freedom to be Yourself.)
Question to Ponder: Do I try to get others to conform to my values and priorities or do I give them the freedom to be themselves?
Control Prioritizes Compliance; Grace Prioritizes Acceptance
One ultimate goal of control is to make life easier or better for yourself. That’s the attraction of compliance. “Just do what you’re supposed to do and we can move on.” The desire is that others would yield to standards and goals that we believe are right and good. Because of this, it’s easy for individuals with compliant personalities to be esteemed and those who are non-compliant to be outcast and looked down on.
Consider how differently Jesus looked at those people – the non-compliants, those who the religious leaders of the day cast out and looked down on. Jesus accepted them. He met them with grace and called them into truth. Jesus Himself didn’t comply with established religious ideals either. He healed on the Sabbath and allowed His disciples to pick food to eat. He had received the unconditional love of His Father and was passing it along to those around Him. His love wasn’t conditional based on someone’s compliance with a set of religious ideals.
Question to Ponder: Do I follow Jesus’ model of accepting people where they are or do I care more about their compliance to a given standard?
Control Prioritizes Rules; Grace Prioritizes Relationship
This last one really encapsulates the major distinction between control and grace. Control is all about the external, the outward, what is acceptable and what is not. Grace, instead, focuses on the internal aspects of the heart and the bonds being formed between one another. It’s true that rules and standards are needed, but the real question here is which one is the priority? When it comes down to it in real, practical life, which one wins?
When rules win out and you insist on good behavior, conformity, and compliance, then your tendency is towards control and orchestrating the lives of others to meet your goals and standards. When relationship wins out, you look past bad behavior to the heart of the person. You give them freedom to be themselves. You accept them for where they are. You pour out grace to them while speaking truth.
Question to Ponder: Which do I typically prioritize: rules or relationship?
Grace is the antidote. Both to controlling spirits and to hurting hearts. Grace nurtures and heals. Grace gives life.
There’s a lot at stake when choosing between control and grace. Most significantly, the very lives of those around us. Grace causes those in relationship with us to flourish and thrive. Control prevents it. Grace enables hearts to connect with God. Control prevents it.
Grace can be hard. It goes against our selfish nature. It can actually make life harder in the short-term because it thwarts our efforts at a life of ease.
Thinking back to our struggles at bedtime, I think this is the real issue. I am ready to be done by 8:00. I’m ready for a few minutes to myself before I move into working and writing for a couple of hours. The longer it takes to get there, the more frenetic my heart becomes. I want to control my time. I want my little guy to simply comply with the process. I prioritize his behavior over our relationship. I end up frustrated and he ends up hurt. We. need. grace.
What is the hope then? That even in the hardness, grace is worth the effort. The reality is that there is a long-term benefit to grace that can never be quantified. So, let’s fight for it. Let’s let God flood our hearts with grace so that we can be a river of grace to those around us.
Where are You?
Reflect on the above Questions to Ponder.
- Do you tend towards control or grace?
- What truths is God speaking to your heart?
In the Resource Library, you’ll find a one-page PDF file that will help you understand and think through the short-term and long-term consequences of control as well as the short-term and long-term consequences of grace. You might be surprised as you read them. (There can be positive short-term consequences to control, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth it long-term!)
Subscribers, go to the Resources Library now and enter the password to access this additional resource. You’ll find it in the “Grace” section.
Haven’t joined yet? The Resource Library is FREE and filled with lots of practical resources.
This post is the continuation of monthly musings on my 1 Word for 1 Year: grace. Read other posts on grace and 1 Word | 1 Year here.