in which I mistake control for love

Not long ago, I did an inventory. The results were depressing.  

One friend's life had blown up with a litany of destructive behaviors that seemed to come out of nowhere. He told me about it at my house late one night. Hushed voice. Ashamed. And his faith was being deconstructed as he came to terms with an abusive upbringing in which the whole God/Jesus/Bible package was invoked to further the abuse. 

Another friend had put everything on the line for a calling to serve others, and that vision was being threatened by other people's unfaithfulness. 

Another shared that he was just not that interested in a relationship with God anymore. 

Another friend had told his parents he was gay, and they hadn't spoken to him in the months since.

And another had opened up about a daily struggle with pornography, alcohol and weed. 

And another. And another...

It felt like everyone I loved was struggling. 

And I was struggling with that. 

I was angry and frustrated. I don't like seeing the people I love ashamed. I don't like seeing them defeated. I don't like seeing them beat up by their weaknesses or other people's weaknesses or anything else. I don't like these stories. And it wasn't just because I love my friends and don't like seeing them down. It was also because these friends are all people who are supposedly doing it right. And I'm supposedly doing it right. We read our Bibles and say our prayers and show up for church. I wanted to ask God, "Hey! You!! Does this thing even work?!" If a pastor and his friends can't nail this thing, then maybe it's broken. 

The logic in my head went something like this: we're accepted by God regardless of our crap. Brought into union with God through Christ. We call that grace. But grace isn't just supposed to accept us; it's supposed to transform us. And I have a lot invested in this system of transformation. I've given my work to it. I've given my identity to it. I've given my life to it. And I want it to work. 

(Some of that is right and good, and some it's pretty messed up. More on the latter now.)

The more I paid attention to my feelings about all of this, the less I liked what I saw. I've lived long enough to know what it looks like when something ugly is going on inside me, and this was ugly. I realized all of this wasn't threatening my view of God's sovereignty. It was threatening my view of my sovereignty. I felt powerless. And I didn't like that.

I've been thinking a lot about the questions we bring to God. We're driven by questions -- they're a form of existential need -- and they're most dangerous when we don't even realize what they are. And you can be driven mad when your questions aren't getting answered. I was coming to God with a bad question: how do I change someone? And He was waiting for me to ask a better question: how do I love someone?

Love is patient; I was on a schedule. Love is kind; I was more concerned with being effective. Love isn't envious of some sterilized myth of a perfect Christian life; I was wishing for perfection. Love isn't boastful or proud; I wanted to build a resume out of my friends' spiritual success. Love hangs out with faith and hope, and I was aiming for a scenario that required neither. (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.)

I believe we're wired for love. I don't think we often choose against it in a knowing, active kind of way. I think what happens is we choose something else that we don't realize will be in conflict with love. We choose our idols and assume we can remain human; we forget that we'll soon resemble them. And we choose our idols because we think they'll rescue us from something unbearable. I was choosing control, and one of the things that drives us toward control is a fear of our crap. Somewhere early on the dark path to a controlling personality, we discover that other people's weaknesses remind us of our own, and we look for a god who will deliver us from that.

Sure, some part of this crisis was driven by a real, pure love for my friends. Love does protect, after all. (ibid.) But the thing about being human is your angels and demons hang out in the same space. Netting out the difference between them is the work we have to do. And, honestly, I'm finding over and over again that the best way to do that is to learn from Jesus.

Jesus seems more interested in loving people than controlling them. He could have arrived on Earth with a billion angels and some earthquakes and lightning, but instead He came as an infant. He could have demanded the royal treatment He deserved, but instead He served. He could have used His authority to condemn us, but instead He surrendered Himself to death to rescue us. And in my better moments, I want to be like that.

The thing about resurrection is that it promises new life, but you have to die first. All the way, too, because there's no such thing as being a little bit dead. And I'm beginning to see that the thing about the Gospel is it promises to change the world, but you have to give up on making that happen, first, because part of dying is relinquishing control. 

So I'm slowly learning to be with my friends in their struggles, and to share with them mine. When they open up about their weaknesses, I'm trying to serve them rather than fix them. As I do that, something in my heart is warmer and softer than before, when it felt a little bit cold. And I'm feeling closer to Christ as I do that. 

It may be that the bad things happening in friends' lives — struggles with sin and betrayals from others — really are places that are still hurting for the transformative touch of grace. But those moments when my friends chose to not hide but come forward, to look me in the eye and tell those stories — those are profoundly graced moments. In a world of glamour shot selfies, perfect white teeth, and personal branding on every Facebook page and pastor's blog, the courage to present oneself real and vulnerable is uncommon. Noteworthy. A sure sign that something redemptive and powerful is at work. Maybe God is right on schedule, living up perfectly to His promise to renew all things, and part of that renewal happens when we become honest and brave.  When a friend shares their struggles with me, I find myself fiercely wanting a better story for them. But maybe that sharing is precisely how those better stories begin.