Control Freak

A graphic showing an umbrella trying to protect the whole earthChances are you know someone who is a control freak—a person determined to micromanage every detail of life at home, at work, and at church. Though mothers aren’t the only ones who can fall into the control trap, I think we are more prone to it because of the degree of control we need to exercise when our children are young. Some of us get stuck there, treating grown children as though they are two-year-olds who need to be protected, lest they dart into the path of an oncoming car. Little coincidence, perhaps, that “mother” can be transformed into quite another word simply by adding an s at the beginning.

Of course, some amount of control is necessary to every life. But outsize attempts at control are pathological, rooted more in anxiety than in any kind of lust for power. Being a control freak leads only to frustration and difficulty, because even when our attempts at control are successful, we have probably alienated someone in the process. What’s more, if we have a controlling style of relating to life, we may reach a point of no return, where the habit gets calcified and is nearly impossible to break.

One of my close friends has a mother who typifies this pattern. Suffering from dementia, she is still trying to control everything, though now she does it through a fog of confusion, without the ability to make sound decisions. This makes the family’s efforts to care for her much more difficult.

How do you know if you’re the controlling type? Just watch the way people respond to you, particularly members of your close family. They’ll let you know. If you find that the label control freak does apply, don’t brush it off as though it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. Think, instead, of what you might be missing because your style of responding to life makes it hard for God to care for you. Ask him for the grace to recognize when you are trying to exercise more control than you should. Stop now, before it is too late. More

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A hand with another hand at the end of each fingerWhen my children were young, I rarely had a moment’s peace. I adopted both of my girls when they were babies, and though I loved being their mother, I soon found that being single with children was a recipe for crazy making. Even something simple like mowing the lawn had to be carefully planned to coincide with nap time.

I remember one disastrous morning. I had forgotten to roll the trash can out to the end of the driveway so the garbage truck could empty it. Hurrying outside, I assured my five- and three-year-old children that I would be back in a moment. And I was. But in the space of that moment, a mini-calamity ensued. My youngest (a future basketball player) had a bad habit of throwing her dolly in the air and then catching it. While I was dragging the can to the curb, she threw the cloth doll up in the air, landing it in a pan of hot water simmering on the stove. Attempting to rescue the doll, her older sister, Katie, flipped it neatly out of the pan. As it sailed to freedom, my younger daughter caught it with ease. Only this time, that dolly was hot! Luci was howling with pain as I walked in the door.

Okay, I should not have left a pan of water simmering on the stove, even if it was on a back burner. But, really, who would have guessed that danger lurks everywhere, even in a cuddly, pink doll? If you have children, you have your own stories to tell. Like me, you have probably wondered if you will ever find a moment’s peace.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life unfolds as seasons. The season you are in now will eventually pass, and another will take its place. In the midst of life’s challenges, try to find a few moments to turn your heart to God in prayer. You might listen to an audio recording of Scripture while you’re driving, memorize a Bible verse while cooking, or read a psalm before bed. The God of peace will be there to help you, no matter how busy you are. More

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Deflating Your Fears

A hand gently holding a small snakeIf you’ve ever read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you will be familiar with the fantasy creature called a “boggart.” The problem with boggarts is that they have the ability to turn into a person’s worst fears. So for Ron Weasley, it’s spiders, while for Harry Potter, it’s the notoriously creepy dementors. In more than one movie, we see Ron and Harry practicing their self-defense skills against boggarts, so if and when their worst fears do materialize, they are able to survive.

What boggarts are you facing? I used to be squeamish about snakes, but I can honestly say I’ve overcome the feeling. How? Simply by facing it. The fancy term for this technique is “conditioning.” The idea is to subject yourself to small doses of what you fear until you can gradually tolerate larger doses. Eventually, the fear will be reduced or eliminated.

I dealt with my dislike of snakes by giving in to my daughter’s entreaty for a pet snake. After a year of having Rico in our home, I attended a reptile expo at the urging of my daughter. This time, the repulsion I had previously felt was gone, despite the fact that there were more than fifty snakes in the room. I even found myself admiring the beautiful patterns on some of them. Believe me, I am still not a snake lover, but at least I am no longer creeped out by simply seeing one.

Maybe it’s time to ratchet up your confidence by overcoming a specific fear in your life. Ask God to help you face it rather than run from it. Doing so will weaken it and empower you. More

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Taming the Jungle

Ripe tomato on a tomato plantLast year I planted a tiny garden in my postage-stamp-sized backyard—cramming in peppers, carrots, red radishes, white radishes, lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes—lots and lots of tomatoes. So many tomatoes, in fact, that in just a few weeks, my raised garden bed looked like a giant tomato jungle. The plants were so thick that many of the other vegetables failed to thrive, unable to compete for the nutrition and sunshine they needed. Though I had plenty of tomatoes, I mourned the loss of the other plants and decided that I would do better next year, curbing my appetite for tomatoes so our family could enjoy a mix of vegetables.

Just like plants in a garden, there are things in our lives that will only grow if they are given the necessary space and nourishment—things like prayer, faith, rest, spiritual gifts, wisdom, serenity, and joy. Finding balance in life is rarely easy, in part because life is seasonal, always changing. There are times when work or family life makes unavoidable claims on our time and energy. We know that. But we also add things to our lives—even many good things—without giving the matter much thought. As always, having too many good things is not a good thing after all, because a harried schedule can choke out the life of God within us, preventing us from bearing the fruit God desires.

Take some time today to imagine your life as a garden. What does it look like? What plants does it contain? Have you kept up with the weeding? What needs thinning, pruning, or plucking out? Assuming you can do the necessary work to trim whatever needs trimming, is there anything new you would like to plant in your garden? Ask God’s Spirit to direct your thoughts, showing you the kind of garden God envisions for your life. Then ask for help to plan and plot the garden according to God’s direction. Watch and see what happens as you make the necessary changes in your life.   More

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Braided Jewish Sabbath breadSusannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, says that Friday evening was always the best night of the week in their home. “My mother and I kindled the lights for the Sabbath,” she explains, “and all of a sudden I felt transformed, emotionally and even physically.”1 To her, Sabbath was an atmosphere she entered into every week. It was a foretaste of paradise. “The Sabbath,” her father said, “comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow and somber memories.”2

Wouldn’t it be great to have one day a week that created this kind of atmosphere in your own home? In addition to special prayers and a wonderful meal, Sabbath in the Jewish tradition is also a time for refraining from work, a time in which a person can simply relish being in the presence of God along with friends and family.

When Susannah was growing up, her father pointed out that just as it was forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath (because it’s considered a form of work), it was also forbidden to kindle the fires of righteous indignation. “In our home,” she says, “certain topics were avoided on the Sabbath—politics, the Holocaust, the war in Vietnam—while others were emphasized.”3 Sabbath was not a time for dwelling on all that was wrong in the world but for creating a sense of celebration and restfulness, a taste of the life to come.

Why not consider having your own Sabbath celebration? You can put together a short liturgy of prayer by selecting readings from the Old and New Testaments that speak of God’s work of deliverance. Enjoy a festive meal with family or friends. Celebrate God’s goodness by remembering what he has already done and what he has promised to do. On this one special day, remember to avoid talking about topics that will kindle a fire of righteous indignation in your heart.4   More

1.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), vii.

2.  Ibid., viii.

3.  Ibid., xiv.

4.  For more information on the Sabbath and ideas for celebrating it, read chapter 7 of my book The Peace God Promises (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).

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Alone With Ourselves?

A statue of a young girl prayingWhy is it so hard for many of us to carve out a regular time for prayer? I suspect it has something to do with our drive to accomplish things combined with our fear of loneliness. Most of us find it far easier to rush around “getting things done” than to sit still even for a few moments with no other goal in mind than opening our hearts to God. When we do manage to pray, fears we have kept at bay by our constant activity may rush in. A thousand distracting thoughts may take hold. We can feel empty and alone, wondering why God seems elusive. We fill up the silence with constant petitions or chattering thoughts or nonstop spiritual reading, thinking we are the ones who have to control and direct the time.

Prayer, of course, is not meant to be a task we check off our lists but a time for being with the God we love. But what if we are afraid he won’t show up, validating our fears that we are unloved, unworthy, and unlistened to? Perhaps the first thing to do is to simply surrender that fear to God, imagining ourselves in his presence. Instead of lingering on our negative feelings or on the distractions that try to take hold, we simply let go of them, gently lifting our hearts to God. It may be helpful to pray through a brief Scripture passage, lingering on God’s Word as we pray it back to him.

Spending a few minutes this way each day will increase our appetites for prayer because we will find God is faithful and leads us in surprising ways. As we spend time in his presence, God may give us the courage to face ourselves truthfully, without harshness or condemnation. He may open our minds to his thoughts. He may give us his heart for others. Whatever God does within us and through us will be good, because it will be accomplished in love and for love.

The more we pray in this way, the more surprised we will be to look back on our formerly prayerless lives and discover that it was we, and not God, who had sometimes failed to show up.   More

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Push, Push, Push!

A climber on a steep cliffI don’t understand the popularity of extreme sports. You will never see me schlepping a pack up K2 or scrambling up Mt. Everest’s icy peaks. Nor will you find me bouncing up and down at the end of a bungee cord or climbing into an Indy race car. The most dangerous sport you’ll catch me at will probably be Mario Kart. To my way of thinking, life is challenging enough without taking on an activity that could, with one miscalculation, end in death or maiming.

Why do some people find such joy in pushing the limits? Is it the rush they get from flirting with danger? Is it the feeling that they are somehow bigger than life or the belief that ordinary rules don’t apply to them?

Though most of us don’t engage in extreme sports, many of us have made pushing the limits a habit. We sleep less so we can do more. Push, push, push has become an American mantra. Unfortunately, it has also added tremendous stress to our lives.

Wayne Muller points out that “we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms that govern how life grows . . . seasons and sunsets and great movements of seas and stars. . . . We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms. . . .

“To surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies is to savor the secret of life itself.”1

If you are living a rush, rush life, ask yourself why. Are you willing to pay the cost of regularly ignoring the God-given rhythms by which creation operates? Find a way to slow down and “surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies” so that as one of God’s creatures you can savor the secret of life.   More

1. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 69.

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Doubt Your Doubts

A dark tunnel with a light entrance at the endTimothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, advises Christians that “faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” He says, “People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. . . . It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them.”1

By saying this, I don’t think Keller is saying we should doubt God’s faithfulness whenever we encounter difficulty. This brand of doubting makes us weak, leading, as it does, to unbelief. Instead, Keller is arguing for a kind of intellectual honesty that requires us to grapple with hard questions in a way that will make our faith stronger, not weaker.

Keller has also famously advised skeptics to doubt their doubts about Christianity. Perhaps it would also be wise to advise the weakest among us to begin to doubt our doubts about God’s character. God says he is a loving Father, and we act as though we are orphans. God reveals himself as all-powerful, but we don’t think he can help us. God tells us he forgives, and we cling to our guilt.

The reason for our doubts? Sister Wendy Beckett archly observes that many who call themselves Christians may well have embraced a false god. “Sometimes I blush for those who think themselves Christian,” she says, “and yet the God they worship is cruel, suspicious, punitive and watchful. Who could love such a God?”

She goes on to say, “I have the greatest admiration for atheists, because by definition they have rejected a false ‘God.’2 Her point, of course, is not that atheists are right in rejecting God, but that they are at least right in rejecting a caricature of God that contains more shadows than light. Though the God we love will always be mysterious, we can be sure of one thing—in him there is no darkness at all.   More

1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), xvi.

2. Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy on Prayer (New York: Harmony Books, 2006), 83.

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Half of a walnut shellPerhaps you’ve heard of Bethany Hamilton, the thirteen-year-old surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack in Hawaii. Her story is told in the movie Soul Surfer. Early on, we see Bethany attending a youth night at her church. Youth leader Sarah Hill, played by Carrie Underwood, is showing the group a series of zoomed-in photos, challenging them to guess what they’re looking at. When the second photo pops up on the screen, one of the boys guesses it’s a “dead, rotting brain.” While the teens are busy voicing their revulsion, Sarah zooms out, revealing the truth. They hadn’t been viewing anything half as gross as a rotting brain. It was merely an ordinary walnut. Sarah’s point was that when you’re too close to what’s happening, it can be tough to have perspective.

Remember the old saying “Time heals”? Time has the power to put distance between us and the circumstances that caused our suffering. Though distance can’t erase our suffering, it can help us stand back a bit, enabling us to see a bigger picture. Often the only way to get to that bigger picture is by clinging to God, refusing to believe he has abandoned us. We also get there by listening for his voice, by reading his Word and praying, and by staying in touch with other believers who can support us through it.

When interviewed about the movie, Carrie Underwood later commented on how impressed she was when she met the real Bethany. “She didn’t ask, ‘Why me?’” Carrie noted, “but ‘What for?’”

Anyone who has suffered some kind of tragedy knows that “Why me?” questions aren’t off the table. God allows them. But often he doesn’t answer them. If you want an answer, the more productive question to ask is “What for?”

Bethany’s answer to her own “What for?” question about the shark attack was shaped by the intense media response to her story. To reporters who asked how she could respond so positively to what had happened, she simply replied, “I could never have embraced this many people with two arms.”   More

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Gutsy Guilt

I yelled at my daughter the other day. Truth be told, it wasn’t the first time. Though I want to become a more peaceful mom, I often find my own sin getting in the way. Like me, you may have sinful habits and patterns that get in the way of enjoying the peace God promises. Some of these may plunge you into prolonged periods of guilt. How can you remain confident of God’s fatherly love, despite your own frequent failings? John Piper has an interesting take on this problem.

To the fallen saint who knows the darkness is self-inflicted and feels the futility of looking for hope from a frowning judge, the Bible gives a shocking example of gutsy guilt. It pictures God’s failed prophet beneath a righteous frown, bearing his chastisement with brokenhearted boldness:A sad girl looking up

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light.  Micah 7:8-9, ESV

This is courageous contrition. Gutsy guilt. The saint has fallen. The darkness of God’s indignation is on him. He does not blow it off, but waits. And he throws in the face of his accuser the confidence that his indignant judge will plead his cause and execute justice for (not against) him. This is the application of justification to the fallen saint. Brokenhearted, gutsy guilt.1

Join me in admitting that you’re not a perfect person—that you have sins and failings too. As you do that, make a promise to yourself and to God that the next time you stumble, you will not wallow in guilt. Let’s accept God’s discipline, realizing that he is acting as a good father should. Instead of giving in to the enemy’s lies, let’s throw them back in his face, trusting in God’s unfailing love.   More

(1)  John Piper, quoted in Josh Etter, “Learn the Secret of Gutsy Guilt,” Desiring God (blog), accessed May 13, 2011,

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