It’s a basic fact we all know isn’t it? I’m not in control of the weather; I’m not in control of the traffic; I’m not in control of politics. We know that and yet there are lots of things we like to think we are in control of. I’m in control of my money and how much I spend, save and give. I’m in control of my safety by investing in a car packed with safety features and driving carefully at all times. I’m in control of my time and what I do with my evenings and weekends. I’m in control of my health by getting enough exercise and eating a balanced diet. Until something happens that shakes that certainty.
Perhaps another car ploughs into yours even though you were driving carefully. Perhaps you suddenly lose your job and you no longer have certainty over where your money will come from. Then you realise you only have control up to a point, and there’s only so much influence you have in making the world go your way.
For me, I’ve been struggling a lot with accepting being more ill than I was. I’m ok with having a chronic illness. I’m ok with that limiting my life a bit. But only to a point. I’m not ok with God allowing the illness to get worse. I’m not ok with being so ill that I have to reduce my hours at work. I’m not ok with the impact that’ll have on the people I work with. I’m not ok with how much more time resting I need to have. I’m not ok with how pointless that time resting is.
God has given us control over certain aspects of this world. In Genesis 1 we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” And a bit later he gives the instruction, “fill the earth and subdue it.” God put human beings as rulers over the rest of the created world. So it’s not unexpected that we exert that rule over the world around us. However, the thing we get wrong is we forget we rule under God’s rule. We forget that we are not rulers of everything. We forget that the world does not revolve around me and my wants.
I really don’t like it at the moment, but I have to accept that I am not in control over my illness. I can’t just push through the exhaustion and pretend I’m fine – that works for a week or few, but it doesn’t work in the longterm. I can’t find the magic formula of sleep and rest that’ll allow me to continue working fulltime. I can’t work out the perfect combination of medications – they just aren’t working well anymore. I have come face to face with the reality that I am not in control. I can influence things but I can’t change the fact that I’m just not well enough to be working fulltime right now.
And that is a very glum conclusion if it were not for the comforting knowledge that I know the one who is in control. It is only by surrendering to God, acknowledging I’m not in charge, that I can be content despite my lack of control. It’s when I stop fighting to change an illness I have no control over*, and trust that somehow, for some reason God has allowed this to happen and he’s working it together for good, that my troubled heart is set free.
I continue to get great comfort from the story of Job in the Bible – a man who faced unbearable suffering but continued to trust God despite not understanding why all of it was happening to him. And we, the reader of the book of Job, are from the start let into a great secret not even Job himself knew: Job was unknowingly defeating Satan’s purposes in causing all that suffering on Job and proving him wrong by sticking with God.
I’m slowly working my way through the third section of Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. He quotes Francis Anderson:
” ‘It is one of the many excellences of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case…. The test would work only if Job did not know what it was for. God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith, to learn to love God for himself alone.’ ” (pg 283)
Keller follows that up with, “God allows evil just enough space so it will defeat itself. The story of Job is a smaller version of what God is doing in your life and in the history of the world. God has now mapped out a plan for history that includes evil as part of it. This confuses and angers us, but then a book like Job pulls back the veil for just an instant and shows us that God will allow evil only to the degree that it brings about the very opposite of what it intends.” (pg 284)
Part of contentment in the face of suffering is realising that I will never have all the answers to my questions and to my cries of frustration at the pointlessness of it. I don’t have the full picture and I can’t see what God’s purpose in it is. But I do know the character of the God who can not only see the full picture but is in control. How wonderful to be able to know someone well enough, and know his integrity and stability of character, to know that I can trust him without hesitation even when I don’t understand. I’m not in control but I know the One who is.
* I’m not talking here about not actively managing symptoms, listening to doctors’ advice, taking medications, waiting for surgery etc. – I’m talking about my heart attitude of wishing to be my own little lord such that doing those things changed circumstances according to my wishes.