The controller

I think in part because I tend to be this way, I’ve become more and more sensitive to the problem of the controlling person. I’m amazed at the pervasiveness of the problem – at the sheer number of people who manifest controlling behavior (not that they actually manage to acquire control over others, mind you, but do they ever wish they could!) and at the variety of methods by which we sinners try to control each other.

There are extremely juvenile manifestations of the problem: the flailing, screaming toddler wants her parents to stop stalling and obey her, and she uses a tantrum to hurry them along. Adults are not, in my experience, above such tactics. But before we get to all the colorful ways the problem shows itself, let’s take a moment with the root system.

Those familiar with what the Bible says about idolatry won’t be surprised that we humans want to make not only God in our image but also other people (our spouses and kids, for example). We want other people to be projections of ourselves; we want to carve their otherness into a form that suits our wishes. That, in brief, is the root of controlling behavior: I want you to be what I want you to be. I want you in my image. Simple idolatry.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this sort of carving, you’ll know there’s a horrible dark side. You’ll be treated like the center of the universe until you do something that’s not what the carver has in mind, and then you’ll learn the hard way that you’re most certainly not the center of the universe – that place belongs to none other than the carver.

Which in itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that there’s something about messing with someone’s graven image that brings the wrath. The proverbial “doghouse” was invented by people whose idols got messed with. Some of you know what it’s like to spend a night, a week – shoot, maybe most of a marriage – out there.

Speaking of the doghouse reminds us that there are lots of non-aggressive or passive ways of trying to control people (silent treatment, cold shoulder, keeping score, etc.), but I’d like to identify one that may not be at all obvious. I’ll label the offender here Mr. Right (he’s got a twin sister, Mrs. Right, so you can insert “she” and “her” where applicable below).

Mr. Right has very strong opinions about the way things ought to be. He has strong views about the way people ought to be. His principles are not always religious, but in many cases you’ll see a well-used Bible under his arm. He knows which way is north, if you catch my meaning.

Very well. Let’s say you start up a relationship with Mr. Right. At first it feels just like any other “normal” relationship: you identify common interests, exchange ideas, do stuff together, engage each other in various ways. Maybe you even start dating and get married. Then, along the way, something happens. In some way you fail (usually without knowing it) to live up to Mr. Right’s expectations. You fall short of his standards. You don’t please him. Maybe you unwittingly step on some sore spot from his past; you touch some wound, whether real or perceived. You show yourself to be not quite what Mr. Right had in mind.

What happens next is important. It’s what distinguishes a relationship with Mr. Right from other, healthy relationships. Mr. Right doesn’t have much tolerance for relating that’s not on his terms. He doesn’t take at all kindly to being disappointed, hurt, or crossed. He doesn’t (you learn) have much interest in you, as the person you actually are – he’s interested in what he wants from you (or “needs” from you); he’s interested in what he envisioned when he started carving.

You, on the other hand, would really like a relationship with Mr. Right. You may even need the relationship (exponentially more so if you happen to be married to him). This, then, becomes the basis for a kind of emotional blackmail – Mr. Right starts to make it clear that if you don’t act as he wishes you to, he will mistreat you in a variety of ways (ranging from tantrums to a night or three in the doghouse).

Now let’s suppose you push back. You object to the mistreatment. This is where Mr. Right turns on the righteousness. He starts to point out all the ways you’ve failed him. If he’s religious, he opens up his Bible and starts showing how far you fall short of the glory of God. He may even play the victim card: he’s being so noble to suffer long with you, and now you’re wounding him even more. It’s all so hard and disappointing. You’re so selfish and unfair.

The tricky part is: he’s often right, or at least partially so. It’s rarely the case that what he wants from you is totally arbitrary, purely some whim of his own with no objective basis. True, you’ll sometimes hear something like: “Well, this is what says love to me, and you aren’t doing it, so that must mean you don’t love me.” Childish, but it does happen; to which the proper response is, “Just because you like being loved a certain way doesn’t mean I’m not loving you if I don’t love you just that way.” But more often, Mr. Right will strike an objective note; you’ll realize as he bears down on you that you truly could have loved him better. He makes some fair points.

Note carefully, however (this is crucial): Mr. Right has gone beyond pointing you toward a law of love to which you’re both accountable, respecting your reading of that law as well as his own, and offering to walk with you and serve you in every way as together you seek to live under that wholesome standard. Rather, he has set himself up as the interpreter and even the enforcer of the standard; he’s moved beyond brotherly appeal to a position of priesthood. And even if he’s right on the issues (has read the law correctly), this is the very definition of hubris, manipulation, and the controlling spirit. It is arguably setting oneself up as lord of another’s conscience. When you make your love for other people conditional on their being and doing as you demand, it makes no difference how right you are – you are manipulating them, you’re trying to control them, you are acting like a priest, you are seeking to carve them into your image. And they should run like hell.

There are plenty of would-be controllers who haven’t really managed to get control; people make notoriously uncooperative idols. Rather than repenting, though, the would-be controller simply becomes a frustrated would-be controller. The issue is never whether we’re actually in control; the issue is whether we want to be.

If we want to be, one thing is obvious: we really haven’t come to terms with the cross. God not only has the power to control His creation, He has the right to. He could bend us to His will, and we would have no right whatever to complain. How, then, do you explain the cross? How do you worship the Son of God hanging there and still cling to your ridiculous sovereignty complex?

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