Sunday 14 December 2008

The culture of control

“The yearning for control has become a kind of modern madness. Stressed and destabilised by the rate of change, we have been looking in the wrong place for a solution to our anxieties and insecurities.”

These are the words of Hugh Mackay from an edited version of a speech he gave recently as the Annual Oration to the Australian Psychological Society of which he is a fellow.

He suggests that the global financial crisis has once again reminded us that most things are out of our control, including “the greed of others; the slackening demand for our resources; the fragility of under-regulated capitalism”.

He suggests that the human tendency at such times is to “crave…stability and predictability…ritual and repetition”, and that as a result, many have tried to take ‘control’ of their personal lives and the world itself in varied ways:

  • Reinventing the institution of marriage.
  • Transforming the nature of family life (e.g. 25%of Australian families are now single-parent families).
  • Having less babies, hence sending the birthrate tumbling to an all time low;
  • changing the way we work (e.g. increased female participation; increased part-time work etc).
  • Adopting what he calls “positive action” – if we can't solve global environmental problems then “let's clean up the bush, paint the school, join a choir, buy a hybrid car”.
  • Retreating into their shells and disengaging – turning attention to the self, including an obsession with the body, home renovations, putting our children in the best schools to "control” them.
  • Supporting greater controls for government, the courts and law enforcement.
  • Embracing dogmatic and hard-line fundamentalism in many forms – “…religion, economics, environmentalism or medicine and psychology”.
  • Excellence or perfectionism – seeking the perfect marriage, the perfect wife, the perfect school for our children etc.
  • Happiness – some have put their focus on seeking the secret to happiness.
He suggests that “….we shouldn't be surprised that so many people feel as if they're trapped on a runaway train, or that our consumption of antidepressants has tripled in the past decade, or that about 25 per cent of young Australians are suffering serious psychological distress, or that the incidence of binge drinking and serious assault has increased markedly over this period.”


While Hugh Mackay seems to have put his finger on lots of things that ring true for most of us, his suggestions as to how we might respond to this failure to control our world, fall well short of what is needed. Even in his suggested solution, he has demonstrated simply another hopeless attempt to control the world and our future. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun? (Ecc 1:2-3).

We toil generation after generation and yet all of life still seems meaningless and futile. As the Preacher writes later, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Ecclesiastes stresses again and again that we have little control over our future. There is little that is ours to command. As Derek Kidner points out in his commentary on Ecclesiastes:

….we cannot extrapolate from the present. Whether things are going well or ill, we have to take them as they come, knowing that the whole picture will change and go on changing. ‘God has made the one as well as the other’ – good times and bad – ‘so that man may not find out anything that will be after him’ (Ecc 7:14)

God is in control

Hugh Mackay, might have put his finger on the ongoing malady of humanity vainly attempting to control its world, but he fails to point to a meaningful solution. He would have done better to have looked for an answer in the biblical words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:11-14):

“11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.”

There are at least three things worth mentioning from this passage. First, that God's desire for us is that we might be secure in his love and power. While Hugh Mackay rightly points out that we are unable to control our world - health, careers, aging, the economy, your family, education, the ills of our world, global terrorism, global warming etc – he misses the point that we can be secure in the knowledge that God IS in control of his world. God has a plan for each of our lives; one that he has planned in advance. Paul of course knew what it was like to feel as if life was out of control. In Romans (8:35-36) he talks about the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the threat of the sword. And yet, he knew that ultimately God was in control.

Second, note that God's ultimate purpose in sealing us with his Holy Spirit (v 13) and guaranteeing us an eternal inheritance is for “the praise of his glory and grace”. Our real purpose is not to serve our own good, to gain personal happiness and fulfilment, to change the world for good and so on; no, it is to bring glory to God.

Third, note that the people for whom God gives a guarantee are those who believe in his Son:

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit

In spite of the uncertainties of this world and our inability to control it, God is in control, and he wants us to feel secure in his love and power.

There is another biblical truth to keep in mind (and in balance) with the words of Paul to the Ephesians. It is that, as good as this life can be at times, even when it isn’t ours to control, living this life isn’t the purpose for which God made us. In the Apostle Peter’s first letter he calls on the people of God to live their lives on earth as if they “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), people who while living on earth for a time and bound for a heavenly eternity.

Hugh Mackay’s response to our inability to control our world falls well short of the biblical explanation of God’s purposes for us. Mackay’s solutions are still grounded in the futility of ‘chasing the wind’. His writes:

“The current obsession with control looks to me like a symptom of a deep unease in our society. The yearning for control is a cry for help. The most useful response to that cry is not to say, "Here's how to get your life under control" but to explain that the deepest sense of wellbeing springs not from mastery of our circumstances - let alone mastery of others - but from mastery of ourselves.”

This is an attempt to control one’s world in yet another form! Mackay, suggests that while we can’t control the world, we can gain new purpose by controlling ourselves! His solution is as follows:

“We need to shift our focus from control to participation and engagement; from resistance to adaptation; from an unhealthy utopianism to a more realistic acceptance of life's disorderliness, its irrationalities, its unpredictability, its disenchantments, as well as its joys, its gratifications and even its occasional small triumphs.”

This different form of human control won't work either. Self control won’t take the emptiness away from human hearts, or the fears and the uncertainties; only throwing yourself at the mercy of the God of the universe and accepting the free gift of grace and forgiveness that he offers in Jesus will do that. We were designed and made by God for a higher purpose than simply to live for a short time on this earth. Simply taking the good with the bad, as Mackay suggests, won't work either, we will still be chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes again helps us, as it teaches that God places some sense of eternity in our hearts:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

There is no need to see God’s unfolding plans for his creation as scary, frustrating or unsettling (while we might experience these emotions at times), there is purpose and pattern in what God is ordaining. It is God given and it is for his praise and glory. For us the challenge is not that life is constantly out of control, but that we can only ever grasp part of the unfolding plans of God. Instead of chaos there is actually a divine purpose. In this life there will be joy and sorrow, fear and confidence, love and isolation, evil and good, a time to live and a time to die. The answer to coping with a world that seems out of control is to understand that it is actually in the control of God, and that he has an eternal a plan for those who trust in Christ. Paul similarly (in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10) tells us that in this life we will "groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling" (v2). We struggle as wait to leave our 'earthly home' for our true destination, an eternal home. It takes the Preacher in Ecclesiastes twelve chapters until he too reveals the answer to the futility of chasing the wind and of humanity's struggles to control the world:

“13The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc 12:13-14)

One day there will be death and judgement so drop our pretence of self-sufficiency and commit our lives to the creator and God of the universe.

You can read the Sydney Morning Herald edited version of Mackay's oration here

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