Control: The Greatest Temptation of Satan

One of my favorite songs by the dark industrial synthpop band VNV Nation is “Control” from the album Automatic. When I got to see them live in New Orleans this fall, I screamed out several dozen times with everyone else in the room “I WANT CONTROL!” It was cathartic because the most infuriating thing about my job as a campus minister is that I can’t control the outcomes.

I can do my very best and follow all the best practices whether we’re talking marketing, prayer, discipleship, fasting and begging God, etc, and it’s still possible that nobody will show up. The same thing is true about my secondary gig as a blogger and writer. It doesn’t matter how perfectly I prostitute myself to the universe and how brilliantly I weave together a shareable hot-take and a sleazily click-baity title on a super-trendy issue. The Internet has said “MEH…” to me 95% of the time. With Facebook’s new algorithm, it’s almost impossible to get more than a handful of social media shares.

If I had not been through two years of 12 step recovery, the continuous ego pummeling I’ve received over the past four years might have destroyed my marriage and put me on the brink of suicide. For the past two years, I’ve been to dozens of recovery meetings where the topic was letting go of control. And somehow, by the grace of God, one of the greatest miracles I’ve experienced is the partial serenity of not being utterly, constantly terrorized and enraged by my lack of control.

When Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew 4, he says as his third and greatest temptation, “I will give you control over the whole world and all of its kingdoms if you bow down and worship me.” I’ve read several good accounts of this temptation: one in Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World and another from Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. I think the best interpretation I can come up with is that the pursuit of control is the worship of Satan. When people seek to control others and control their universe, they become agents of Satan. This is of course the same basic thing Satan convinced Adam and Eve to pursue instead of trusting God to be in control.

Now let me make an important distinction. You’ll notice that I said control rather than power. Being in control signifies that I have all the power, while being empowered can mean that I share power with others and that I use the power I have to give power to others. So when a group of factory workers form a labor union in order to have more power to negotiate with their bosses, they are not seeking control but empowerment. But when a boss sabotages every effort to hold him accountable and make him share power, he is seeking control.

Right now, we are witnessing the scandalous, apocalyptic exposure of the idolatry of control in American Christianity. I don’t think God could have picked a better wrecking ball for this idol than Donald Trump. The reason Donald Trump is president is because his persistently faithful and loyal white evangelical voting bloc wanted control badly enough that they were willing to sacrifice almost all of their values to get it.

Meanwhile, in our United Methodist drama which I wrote about yesterday, we likewise have a toxic, discipleship-eviscerating quagmire that results from the idolatry of control. I’m on one side of that drama, so I’m definitely biased, but I don’t see two sides who are fighting for control so much as one side that wants to control what every other United Methodist congregation does to the four corners of the Earth and another side that just wants for LGBTQ people to be treated as normal human beings who can get married and pursue a call to ministry.

Now here’s what’s tricky. How do we defend what is right without being in control? It’s not invalid to want to defend unborn babies from abortion or to want to defend Christian tradition from being corrupted by the infiltration of secular values, even though I have a different understanding of how to accomplish both of these tasks than most white evangelical Christians do. How do we distinguish between the legitimate political tactics of those who fight for truth and justice and the specious pursuit of diabolical control?

When I look at the model of Jesus, I see two very distinct behaviors. On the one hand, he renounced control absolutely on the cross. On the other hand, he used his power to intervene in solidarity with people who needed to be healed and who needed to be defended. Of course, it’s also important to notice how Jesus intervened. When the Pharisees wanted to stone an adulterous woman in John 8, he started writing on the ground. When he spoke the truth to them, they were completely unraveled by it. The same thing is true about Jesus’ defense of the sinful woman in Luke 7. He publicly humiliated Simon the Pharisee and publicly exalted the woman by speaking the truth. So Jesus used the power of both physical miracles and truth in his ministry, but he never tried to control anybody.

What would it look like if the people with power in the institutional church actually emulated Jesus’ approach of speaking the truth as best they understand it without trying to control other people? Again, I honestly don’t think the two sides in the United Methodist debate are actually pursuing the same thing though you can accuse me of bias if you want. I just don’t see it as being the same kind of thing to want to protect a transgender kid from being driven to suicide by a youth pastor who tells them they’re an abomination and to want to make sure that a queer pastor across the country gets fired for being openly queer and partnered with another queer person. The first seems more like what Jesus is doing when he protects vulnerable people who are under attack. The latter seems more like the idolatry of control.

Having said this, I can respect that there are many United Methodists who feel like it would be an insurmountable stumbling block for their discipleship to belong to a global church which includes an out, partnered lesbian bishop. I can respect that there are United Methodist pastors who would feel like they were betraying God if they were forced to marry a queer couple or if they were on a Board of Ordained Ministry and they were disallowed from disqualifying ordination candidates for behaving in an openly sinful way that would undermine the pursuit of holiness in any congregation where they served. I also respect that there are many queer United Methodists who might feel betrayed that I could even write the last two sentences.

To me, the best possible posture to take in our impossible denominational quagmire is for everyone to pursue an outcome that results in making room for the most possible people. I don’t think it’s selling out to want to create a church structure that allows pastors and laity with traditional gender views not to be forced to violate their conscience. The apostle Paul did tell the Corinthians not to eat sacrificial meat around those for whom it would create a scandal.

At the same time, Jesus consistently prioritized the needs of marginalized people whose needs had always been brushed aside by the religious authorities’ needs to feel good about their conscience. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, he scandalized many of his fellow Jews who simply wanted to keep the focus of that day on God’s glory. He violated their conscience. It wasn’t unreasonable for the synagogue ruler to say in Luke 13:14, “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed!” Why couldn’t Jesus have stuck to those six days for healing? He never heals somebody on the Sabbath who had an urgent, life-threatening condition that had to be resolved immediately.

Jesus isn’t charitable and bridge-building in his response to the synagogue leader. He says: “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16). In other words, the woman’s personal, physical needs trumped the needs of conscience for the religious authorities.

So whatever practical details need to look like for a way forward out of our denominational quagmire, my prayer and hope is that every delegate to our 2019 General Conference would recognize that control is the way of Satan while telling the truth and empowering the marginalized is the way of Jesus. Instead of seeking to punish and crush the people who disagree with us, if we’re Christian, we should be thinking about the best possible way for us to be faithful to what God has revealed to us and for those who disagree with us to do the same.

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