The idea that man is fully in control of life is an illusion:
The real struggle throughout human history has to do with the question of who is in control – or better yet, who should be in control. Fallen autonomous men likes to think they are in control, and as such, they seek to take the place of God as the ultimate sovereign of the universe.
Sinful, rebellious humans think they are the centre of the universe and that they are in control. They certainly WANT to be in control. But the rightful ruler is not so easily deposed. It is God who is in control, and he is calling the shots. Sure, we are able to make morally significant choices, but at the end of the day it is the sovereignty of God that we all are under.
The fact that we keep forgetting – or refusing to acknowledge – that God is in control means that out of love for us he often seeks to get our attention by reminding us just how little control we have over most things. We plan a nice picnic in a park, and instead of the warm sunny day we had hoped for, a cold, miserable and rainy day happens instead.
Or the weather may be fine, but as we are about to drive to that park, we discover that we have misplaced the car keys, and they are nowhere to be found. Yes, human error has happened, but a God who is at work behind the scenes may be the ultimate cause of such things.
There is very little in life we have direct and total control over. Let’s say the weather is nice, the car keys are found, and the picnic with loved ones commences. We get stuck into a steak sandwich in a nice hard roll that we had prepared, only to find the first bite results in a very bad toothache – so much so that the picnic is cancelled and a quick trip to the dentist is undertaken.
God may well often allow such things for all sorts of reasons, but one such reason is to remind us that we are NOT in full control, and that there is a God in heaven who cares about us so much, that he is willing to rob us of temporary happiness in order to give us eternal holiness.
And often, difficult and trying times can be a major means of bringing this about. A time of war certainly brings us to an end of our sense of self-sovereignty and control. One minute you are planning picnics and sleeping in your own bed and having friends over and going to work, and the next minute you might be one of millions of refugees fleeing a war-torn country like Ukraine.
I just saw a quote on the social media by the famous US Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall which ties in here. I looked up the source of the quote and learned about this story. He was about to give a speech to the midshipmen at the U. S. Naval Academy, but changed his mind at the last moment, ignoring his notes and speaking off the cuff. An hour after his talk, it was learned that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.
In that prophetic speech he said this in part: “War forces us to examine the very foundations of life itself. . . . What man refuses to learn in times of peace, God teaches him in times of war. . . . God permits war in order that we might see what sin really is.” It also teaches us how little control we have over things.
Everything changes in such a situation, and we quickly realise that the control we thought we had over life was just a mirage. Of course other calamities and tragedies such as illness or the death of a loved one also will help remind us of these basic truths. A particular illness may leave you without control of your own bladder. And a death of a spouse may leave you reeling as your world caves in.
When these things happen, we can either become bitter or better. We either re-orientate ourselves back to God, or we become even more defiant, angry and rebellious. And it is not just non-Christians I am talking about here. Christians need to learn and relearn these lessons just as much as any pagan does.
Cancer and control
As mentioned, illness is one major area in which lessons about control arise. If you are like me, you really do not like it when you cannot be in control of things. You want to be able to make decisions, determine your future, be self-reliant, and be in charge of your life. But when something like cancer comes along, all that is thrown into the wind.
While I have a mild, non-aggressive (so far) form of prostate cancer, it is my wife of course who I am now fully concerned about. As some of you know, we just recently learned that she has a very aggressive and very harmful form of breast cancer – one of the worst there is, with not real terrific survival rates.
So that certainly turned our worlds upside down. Any illusions of being in control were shattered very quickly. Now we are entirely in the hands of doctors, nurses, hospitals, surgeons, medicines – and of course the grace of God. Action had to be taken immediately, so chemo was started, and surgery will soon take place.
And as anyone knows who has had cancer, or has a loved one who has had cancer, the cure can often be almost as bad as the disease. Chemo is of course a poison – its aim is to kill off the bad cancer cells while not killing off too many of the good healthy cells. The side effects of chemo can be quite severe.
Just after her first session with a particularly strong chemo (known as the “Red Devil”), I brought her home. She needed me to get her some medicines, and close by is a nice deli, so she suggested a few things. So I got those and a few other treats for her. She never did get to enjoy them.
She started going downhill real fast, and a few days later at 2:30 in the morning I had to rush her to a hospital emergency centre. She ended up staying there a few days until things stabilised. Since then she has been on less strong chemo, and she is doing a bit better, although plenty of unwelcome side effects continue to bubble along.
She is at hospital right now actually, getting her seventh weekly dose of chemo. While in between procedures, she managed to just email me saying this: “CT scan and ECG results were both normal, the breathlessness is likely from the paclitaxel (the weekly drug) so no serious issues there. From the CT scan the tumour has shrunk from 5cm to about 3.5cm which is nice to know. I’m a bit anaemic (89 if that means anything to you) so I’m getting a blood transfusion as well today after the paclitaxel.”
That is good news, but it is always one day at a time. Today things might be a bit better – tomorrow things may be a bit worse. As I say, control over our lives has in most ways been taken away from us. We are thankful for good doctors and medicines, but ultimately we turn to God in faith and trust, knowing, as Spurgeon once put it, that he is too loving to be unkind, and too wise to make a mistake.
I too have lost plenty of control. As soon as we first learned of her cancer, I cancelled all my speaking engagements. Various meetings and functions all had to be missed as well. Our routine was thrown up in the air, and our sense of control really took a hit – but that is a good thing.
We all need to learn these truths, and it is a pity that so often we have to wait till tragedy or hardship strikes before we really start learning these things. We simply are NOT in control. But the good news is, a loving and caring and all-wise God IS in control.
That means we can trust him, even in times of war. Even when a loved one passes away. Even when cancer strikes. The idea that illness and the like can be a wonderful teaching tool and a God-appointed means of bringing us closer to him while shattering all our false illusions is of course a truth that Scripture and the history of God’s people have long affirmed.
Just two passages from Psalm 119 can be mentioned here:
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” (Psalm 119:67)
“It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Psalm 119:71)
And just two general quotes from some great saints who have known all about suffering:
“There have been some hard things in my life, of course, as there have been in yours, and I cannot say to you, I know exactly what you’re going through. But I can say that I know the One who knows. And I’ve come to see that it’s through the deepest suffering that God has taught me the deepest lessons. And if we’ll trust Him for it, we can come through to the unshakable assurance that He’s in charge. He has a loving purpose. And He can transform something terrible into something wonderful. Suffering is never for nothing.” Elisabeth Elliot, Suffering is Never for Nothing
“Suffering is no failure of God’s plan. True, it is part of the curse, along with death, disease, and destruction. But before God comes back to close the curtain on suffering, it is meant to be redeemed. Our miracle-working God can reach down into what otherwise looks like awful evil—terrible evil—and He and He only can pull out of it positive good for us and glory for Himself. . . . Suffering makes us want to go to heaven. Broken homes and broken hearts crush our illusions that earth can keep its promises, that it can really satisfy. Only the hope of heaven can truly move our passions off this world – which God knows could never fulfill us anyway – and place them where they will find their glorious fulfillment.” Joni Eareckson Tada, Heaven
In sum, we like to think we are in control, but we are not. However, knowing that a wise, just, compassionate and loving God is in control makes all the difference in the world. As Jared Wilson put it in his 2011 book, Gospel Wakefulness:
“God is the lord over pain; the pain of life is subject to his power and prerogatives. Because of this—because our heavenly Father who is not just loving but love himself is in control over all that befalls us—we can be confident that our pain is being used for our good. We can be sure that no thorns will pierce our flesh except those that will do so for his glory.”