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.
That service is not only a kind of freedom, freedom from sin, it is also the freedom of the Spirit, which allows us to be a person who, like the wind, "bloweth where it listeth" (Jn. 3:8). As Augustine says, those with the Spirit can love and do what they will because their love will have been purified:
Love and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good. (Homily on the First Epistle of John)
In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) Hegel argues that giving up the desire for mastery makes the freedom of true human consciousness possible. Hegel's insight is a profound one. It has influenced generations of thinkers and activists after him. And it is borrowed from the New Testament.
However, Paul's teaching about giving up mastery goes further than Hegel's. For Paul teaches that, in a seeming paradox, giving up the desire for mastery will first make us slaves (as we give up our own wills) and then make us members of the family of God (as we acquire his will). Those who give up mastery will receive the same inheritance that Christ the Master receives. We will become the children of God (Rom. 8:16-17).
Our lives will be fuller, happier, and of greater worth if we give up the goals of mastery. If we are servants, we will worry less about what we can control and more about what our service means to our Master. If we are servants, we will be less concerned that this or that work will fail and more concerned that we do what is needed. If we are servants, we will be more interested in the Lord's will and desires than in our own, more interested in the needs and desires of those we encounter than our own. And being servants as he was, we will become the children of God, as he was.