Mastery and Letting Go
How often do we hear that we should "be the captains of our fate" or that we should learn to master our lives? "Take charge," people tell us. Those messages are meant to help us. They are often responses to real problems in people's lives. But if we aren't careful, they run counter to the gospel.
The Apostle Paul began his life as a "take charge" person: he not only wreaked havoc in the church (Acts 8:3), he went out of his way to persecute the church, requesting permission of the authorities to go to Damascus and persecute the Christians (Acts 9:2). But on the way to Damascus, Paul learned that someone else is in charge (Acts 9:3-6).
Instead of being the master of his fate, Paul became the servant of the Lord. In Romans 1:1, he calls himself a servant, literally translated, a slave. Paul was a citizen of Rome, the very opposite of a slave. But on the road to Damascus, Paul discovered that service—slavery—to the Lord was more important, more valuable, and more real, than mastery. He found that he had to give up his will and his plans in favor of the will and plans of the Lord.
Part of Paul's message in the book of Romans seems to be that we really cannot master our own lives. We serve someone in any case. The only question is whom we serve (compare 2 Ne 2:27). We can serve Christ or, if we choose not to do so, believing that we are in charge of our own lives, we will serve Satan, whether or not we think we do. In either case, however, we are servants.
A servant is not one who does nothing. In fact, a servant works, and a good servant takes initiative, doing much without being commanded. But rather than working for his or her own benefit, a servant works for the benefit of the master.
As long as we try to be the master of our own lives, we will fail to be servants of the Lord. In other words, if we try to master our own lives, we will serve Satan, in spite of ourselves.
The King James translation of Romans 7 describes the despair of such a person: "That which I do, I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I"-- in more contemporary language, "I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate" (Rom. 7:15; my translation).
Who hasn't had that experience? When we try to master our lives, we discover that we cannot do it. If we rely only on ourselves, all our good intentions eventually fail. But Romans 8 offers the solution (especially verses 2 and 9): rather than being the master of our lives, if we accept the Spirit offered to those who are baptized and take the name of Christ on themselves, then we are freed from our slavery to Satan, freed to serve the Lord.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.