Control is an Illusion

Control is an Illusion March 3, 2011

I enjoy hearing about why people believe what they believe. That’s a question many people can’t answer, because they’ve never seriously questioned what they’ve always been taught.

While browsing the Patheos website, I came across this essay titled “Control is an Illusion – Why I’m a Calvinist.” It’s by David French, whose bio says “is a lawyer, writer, soldier, and veteran of the Iraq war.” As a war veteran, French has experienced things most of us – thankfully – never will. Those experiences have affected him greatly.

Here’s the gist of his argument:

I used to think I had some control over life … that my virtuous inputs would lead to better outcomes. But that belief literally blew up—not once, not twice, but again and again and again. Men more courageous than I am, more virtuous than I am, who loved their Lord with all their hearts . . . all gone in a series of flashes and shock waves.

But then I would ride on those same roads, past the craters that marked their deaths as surely as the crosses on the side of an interstate, and nothing would happen. I came home . . . yet I owed my return not to my own decisions or my own excellence as a warrior but to God’s choice alone.

That conclusion is understandable, but it is far from inevitable. I’ve seen other people have the same experiences and declare themselves atheists – no God or god could be that callous, therefore there is no God.

I’m more than a bit of a control freak. I like to know where I’m going, how I’m going to get there, how long it will take, what things will be like when I get there and how much the whole thing is going to cost. I want to know all the risks so I can make contingency plans. I like sitting in the exit rows on airplanes, not because I need the extra legroom (I’m 5-9… in shoes… with thick soles…) but because if someone is going to have to open that door in an emergency I’d rather it be me than somebody I’ve never seen before.

But over the years I’ve learned that half of David French’s title is correct – control is an illusion.

Isaac Bonewits identified 26 Laws of Magic. He summarized the Law of Cause and Effect by saying “Control every variable and you control every change — lotsa luck!” In the laboratory scientists struggle to control one or two variables in sterile experiments. In the real world there are more variables than we can count. We can’t possibly control enough variables to guarantee the results we want.

But that doesn’t mean we are powerless.

We can’t control anything, but we can influence everything. Eating healthy, exercising and not smoking doesn’t guarantee you’ll live to be 100, but it certainly improves your odds. Driving cautiously doesn’t mean some drunk fool won’t plow into you, but it does mean you’re less likely to be in an accident.

The weaker the connections, the less our influence. I have a lot of influence over me. I have some influence in my church, where I serve on the Board of Trustees and the Worship Committee. I have a little influence at work, where I’ve been for almost ten years. I have a very small influence in US politics, where I vote and blog. I have almost no influence in politics in other countries – but through my writing and my voting in US elections, I have some. And so on.

David French says “I used to think … that my virtuous inputs would lead to better outcomes.” No. Your virtuous inputs – spiritual practice, ethical living, social action – are inputs into YOU. They make you stronger, more grounded and more focused for when you decide to exercise your influence through mundane actions or through prayer and magical workings.

We have brain, and a heart, and a Will. We need to use them all. We control nothing, but we influence everything.

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