I like to control my money. Well, what I mean is, I can be controlling with money. Hmm, I guess what I’m saying is when it comes to money, I have control issues – just ask my wife. I want to be present at every shopping trip and to oversee the selection of every item to ensure we purchase nothing that I deem superfluous or wasteful. I don’t believe in “treats.” I like the bare minimum, and I want her to like it, too. I generally don’t give in to these invasive inclinations, because I also want my wife to be happy – especially with me. But I do instigate conflicts over spending on small things that, to me, represent a bigger problem. Through all of it I drive my (very gracious) wife crazy, as I try not to suffocate her with my spending idiosyncrasies. I have a control problem. Why?
The desire for control is a tricky issue. In the first place, what is control? And then, why do we want it, why do some people (apparently) want it more than others, and when is it bad?
Let’s start with definitions. We can define control in two ways: as a position and as a behavior.
Position: “The authority and ability to exert your will on someone or something.”
Behavior: “The effectual exertion of your will on someone or something.”
There you have it: I can desire to be “in control” (position). And I can desire to exert control (behavior). Of course, it seems obvious the only reason a person wants to be in control is so he can exert that control (even if only so he knows he can exert it when he so desires). How, then, does a desire to have and exert control become a problem?
Probably the most common explanation I’ve heard is this: “Your problem is you want control. You need to give God control.” On this assessment, control is the terminus, the thing I want for its own sake. The implication is twofold: 1) There is no deeper motivation to have or exert control than the desire to do so. 2) It is wrong for me to want to control things at all. A close second takes the issue one step further: “You want control because you don’t trust God to be good or wise. You need to trust God.” In this case, the problem is with my view of God – I want a well-managed universe, and I don’t think God is either up to the challenge or fit to face it. There are other options out there, but they all seem to be variations on these themes.
I take issue with both analyses, but the second is easier to debunk. While it may be true that a person with “control issues” doesn’t trust God, this is too general to be helpful. Such a statement can be accurately made about any sinful behavior. Distrust, or unbelief, towards God is fundamental to all sin and doesn’t explain why this person is sinning with regard to control as opposed to any other behavior. Additionally, people with “control issues” usually want to control something specific – a spouse, social situations, a company, money, their future, etc. These imply a specific area of distrust and, as I’ll get to in a moment, a specific reason for asserting control.
What about wanting control for its own sake? Is this any closer to reality? Again, people tend to want control over specific areas of life, which implies an additional layer of motivation. In my opening example, we may well ask why I am controlling with money, but not with my wife’s choice of friends. There must be something about our use of money that engenders in me a desire for control – something that isn’t present in my wife’s social life. Additionally, it isn’t always wrong to want control; rather, it is often right to do so, but more on that later.
Here’s what this leads to: Control is a tool. It is something one uses to achieve a given end or goal. It is never an end in itself, which is to say that no one ever wants control simply to have control, for its own sake. We always want it for what we can do with it, to fulfill some other desire. As a hammer is to building a house, so control is to achieving our desired ends.
But we could object: What about wanting a “sense of control”? Don’t people want to have a sense of control for its own sake? Well, what exactly is a sense of control? A sense of control is the feeling you experience when you believe that you have the right and ability to exert your will on a given subject for a desired end. Thus, you only care about having a sense of control if you want to exert control, and you only want to exert control if you have ends or goals you wish to achieve. Control, as a feeling, position, or behavior, is always about accomplishing something beyond control itself.
What about the flip side, loss of control? Loss of control is an experience in which something outside your own volition prevents you from exerting the control you want to enforce – your ability to behave, to act as you would like is impaired, whether by circumstances, biological causes, or the activity of another person to restrain you. But this changes nothing: loss of control – and its significance – again has to do with whatever you want to accomplish with the control you’ve lost.
Thus, when you encounter someone who regularly exhibits controlling behavior, what you want to identify is not that she wants control, but why she wants it, and why she wants it so badly. Remember: Control is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
What do we make of these purposes people have for their controlling behavior? As with all desire, people’s motives go in one of two broad directions: either they are on offense or on defense (or some combination of the two). They are either acquiring or preventing, achieving or avoiding. So it is with control. People control for one of two reasons:
- To ensure a desired outcome
- To prevent an undesired outcome
The beauty of understanding controlling behavior through this paradigm of belief and desire is it makes it as flexible as the people you encounter are diverse.
For example: “I feel vulnerable, and no one will protect me,” becomes, “I will protect myself by exerting control over this situation.” Belief (I’m vulnerable and there are threats) and desire (I want protection from perceived threats) produce behavior (in this case, controlling a situation in a way that protects the person in question).
This is not to say that you can know ahead of time what someone’s root desire will be in any given scenario. But it is to say you can know what it won’t be. It won’t be a desire for control for its own sake.
The Goodness of Control
Because of the ambiguity of trying to address so called “control issues” by limiting our perspective to behavior, distrusting God, and control for its own sake, control itself has become a dirty word for many of us. But it’s important to note that control is not always a bad thing. Quite to the contrary, all of us exert varying degrees of control over every area of our lives at all times, and most of it is good. In fact, sometimes our problem is not too much control, but too little. How many of us have gotten ourselves into trouble as a result of “out-of-control” spending? What about when someone loses control of a vehicle and causes an accident? Self-control, and control of motor vehicles are hugely important (in fact, Scripture commands us to control ourselves [Gal 5:22-23] and our property [Ex 21:28-32]), but so also is the appropriate control of others. CEOs must exert control over their organizations and, by implication, their employees, in order to ensure the success of their companies. Parents must exhibit varying degrees of control over their children, especially at young ages when children cannot be trusted to self-manage (1 Tim 3:4-5). I must control my two dogs, which seem to have no end of fun barking at the old lady in the pink bathrobe across the street. If I abdicate my responsibility to control my dogs, because it is inconvenient to get off the couch, I sin.
We must also remember that sovereignty is one of God’s attributes, and sovereignty includes not only God’s right and ability to exercise control over all things, but his practice of doing so. Sovereignty is essential to providence and redemption. Without sovereignty, God could neither provide nor redeem. God must have both the right and the power to control all things in order to coordinate them to his ends (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 8:28, and Psa. 115:3). Thus, to exercise control is to imitate God. At least, in essence. The problem, as we experience it, is that we exercise control in ungodly ways and for ungodly ends. As a result, control ceases to be a display of the glory of our God whose control is controlled by his love, and it becomes the exhausting efforts of a tired person who is trying to exert godlike control rather than trying to exert control in a godly manner. Our job is imitation, not impersonation.
As you can see, this levels the playing field. All of us control, and, at times, all of us abuse and misuse our control. This isn’t an issue that’s restricted to the especially insecure, ambitious, or corrupt. At the same time, it shows us that the line between godly and ungodly control isn’t always easy to define. But the line is there, and it is found largely in our beliefs and desires.
The Heart of Sinful Control
Here’s how to see the line: you know control has gone wrong when God’s agenda no longer sets the parameters for the exercise of your control, and someone else’s agenda does instead. To put it another way, your control has become sinful when your desire to achieve or prevent a given outcome becomes inordinate, when it replaces God’s desires for your life as supreme. This renegade rulership of our hearts reveals itself in all manner of bad fruit: our efforts to control become harsh, manipulative, dishonest, unkind. Love of God and people no longer rules our behavior. Instead, a desire to achieve other aims does.
With all this in mind, let’s consider my opening illustration through this paradigm. In my effort to control my money, I behave in ways that are unkind towards my wife. I am condescending, suspicious, even insulting. I start unnecessary conflicts. I find it difficult to trust her with money when she has done nothing to lose my trust. I consider the money mine and not ours. My exercise of control has gone bad, which means that whatever is motivating that behavior has also gone bad. Now, I know I don’t want to control my money for the sake of controlling my money. I must want to ensure or prevent some potential outcomes. What could those outcomes be?
Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this (though clearly not enough to fully resolve it). Here’s what I recently wrote to a friend in an email:
…in my neurosis, I do not trust my wife (who actually is responsible with money) to manage our funds the way I want them managed. I fear that if they are not managed according to my preferences, we will spend too much of our money on nonessentials and be unable to pay our bills. This would be incredibly shameful to me, especially when I think about my parents knowing about this. If I had to ask for help and answer for our irresponsible spending, I would be deeply ashamed. It would be all my fault for not being more responsible (yes, Ariel would be implicated). As you can see, I don’t care about controlling money for its own sake. I want to avoid an experience of shame.
This is quite telling. Not to get too down deep into it, but I clearly associate responsibility with honor and shame, and I do this especially with regard to how I believe my parents perceive me. Additionally, I see the responsibility as resting more on my shoulders than Ariel’s. There’s certainly more to explore here, but this one thing should be clear: I only want to micromanage our funds because I want to prevent an undesirable outcome. What are you desperate to control? And what’s your reason?