When I was a senior in college, my professors went on strike less than a month before graduation. The campus shut down. Classes stopped. Even the theater’s spring production of “Guys and Dolls” ended after only one performance.
I have to admit I panicked a little … OK, maybe a lot.
My educational plans didn’t include a faculty strike. I was on track to start grad school in mere months, and I needed my transcript and my degree. There wasn’t time in my well-laid educational blueprint for this unexpected delay. Yet here I was, face to face with a strike. Suddenly, my carefully calculated endgame met a situation I couldn’t control. Would I graduate on time?
I honestly didn’t know.
The master of your fate
In our goal-oriented, success-driven culture, we may find ourselves obsessing over five-year plans and bucket lists. As a result it’s easy to believe that we are, as poet William Ernest Henley once penned, masters of our own fate. Yet there’s nothing quite like plans gone awry, dreams unrealized or even faculty on strike to remind us that we aren’t ultimately in control — and we never have been.
If each of our lives is a story with God as the author, then He’s in charge of the narrative. He carefully and lovingly crafts each of our individual stories with the very best in mind. So how can you and I learn to be OK with not being in control of our lives, not only day to day, but also when our five-year plans fail and our bucket lists go unchecked?
I believe it starts with our destination.
What’s your destination?
In her Forbes article “3 Mistakes You Make When Planning,” Ann Latham asserts that the first step is to choose a destination. You and I must determine what we want to accomplish and then “create a clear objective, destination, outcome — whatever you want to call it — before you try to pave the shortest path to that destination.”
As followers of Jesus, your destination and mine are the same when it comes to planning our lives. Our objective is to follow Jesus wherever He leads, through the adventures of this life and then onward and upward to the afterlife. The everyday details of our paths will look different from each other, but our ultimate destination is the same: to follow Him faithfully toward eternity.
The problem for all of us is that we sometimes make our own specific goals our primary destination instead. Our most important ambition becomes to achieve them, whether it’s a career or a relational aspiration. We invest all of our energy and focus into arriving at these objectives — as good as they may be — that sometimes we fail to consider if God’s plans and timing may look different from our own.
When His storyline seems to deviate from our ideal, it’s tempting to see God as a threat to what we want. This is when we tend to cling even more tightly to our desire to be in control.
Of course, we aren’t the first of Jesus’ followers to struggle with this. If we could chat with Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples and close friends, I think he’d relate.
How do you solve a problem like Peter would?
When Jesus called Peter to follow Him, Peter didn’t hesitate. At the same time though, Peter continually attempted to control situations and even corrected Jesus. Here are just a few things we read about Peter:
- Jesus told His followers He would be killed and raised again. Peter’s response? He “took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (Matthew 16:22).
- When Jesus attempts to wash Peter’s feet, Peter objects saying, “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8).
- As Jesus talks about each of the disciples falling away, Peter adamantly objects, saying, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33).
- During Jesus’ arrest, “Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear …So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’” (John 18:10).
In each instance Peter thought he understood God’s plan. The truth is he didn’t have the complete picture. Only Jesus did. As a result Peter was continually reminded that what he believed to be best often wasn’t.
Peter eventually learned to be OK with living an “out-of-control” life and yielding to God’s narrative. God wants us to learn to do the same.
Living out of control
So how can you learn to let go of control and instead trust your present and your future to God? Here are some healthy, practical ways to live an out-of-control life.
- Be flexible. An out-of-control life doesn’t require you to tear up your five-year plan or shred the bucket list. Living with intentionality and purpose is wise. At the same time, Scripture reminds us that we plan, but God establishes (Proverbs 16:9). So face each day with determination, but also approach your plans with flexibility.
I spent years studying for a career in television producing. Yet as my life took unexpected turns, I painfully and gradually learned to embrace flexibility. As I did, I watched Him take my skills and use them in a different field.
What does flexibility look like for you? Maybe it’s how you respond if you aren’t accepted to your dream college or graduate program. Or perhaps it’s how you proceed when your boss changes or reduces your hours at work. It may even be the decision to let go of how you think the dishwasher should be loaded or the towels folded.
When you are flexible, it’s easier to navigate the unexpected and, like the woman in Proverbs 31:25, laugh “without fear of the future.”
- Stop comparing. A healthy characteristic of an out-of-control life is celebrating, rather than envying, others’ victories and successes. Comparison fuels control. When we fixate on our desire to emulate or outdo someone else, it’s easy to lose our ability to be flexible. We instead hold tightly to how we believe our lives should look.
A friend’s engagement or coworker’s promotion might make you pause with sadness if you’re still waiting for these things. But try not to live in your pain. Instead, make regular, intentional efforts to praise and rejoice with the exact person whose life you are comparing yours to (Romans 12:15).
- Allow others freedom. Have you ever noticed that when we seek to be in control, this often extends beyond our own daily decisions and actions? We also want to command those around us — say, in how our roommate organizes the refrigerator or in what we allow our family members to know or say about us — because it gives us a sense of security and predictability.
If you’ve had someone else try to control you, you know how suffocating this can feel, right? When you live an out-of-control life, you allow others freedom to be themselves. You invite them into your life without expecting them to follow specific rules to stay in your good favor.
- Remember God is for you. It’s impossible to live an out-of-control life if you think God is against you. To trust Him you have to believe He is for you. But it’s hard when it feels like the story He’s writing for you isn’t a good one.
Nine years ago my family entered what I call our “weeping years,” a two-year period marked by job losses, panic attacks, antidepressants, cross-country moves and a miscarriage. What sustained me during this out-of-control season was remembering God was for me.
How? I took inspiration from Joshua 4:19-24 and constructed “memorials” or visual reminders of God’s past faithfulness to me. This included framing photos of significant moments in my life where God’s love was evident, as well as writing down specific stories of times God protected, guided or cared for me.
If you have a favorite song that reminds you of God’s unwavering faithfulness, play it on repeat. Or maybe you were wearing a piece of clothing or jewelry when God came through for you in a memorable way. Make those your go-to wardrobe pieces on days when you doubt God is for you.
- Dig for the good. It’s much easier to live an out-of-control life when God gives our heart’s desires. It’s much harder to trust Him when devastating loss hits or heartbreaking difficulty happens. But it’s in these situations and seasons that we can actively dig for the good.
I had to do that during our weeping years. Some moments I felt forgotten by God. Some days I wondered where the good was in the midst of all the bad. This is when I began to make a conscious effort to note every instance, no matter how small, where God’s love was evident. It didn’t take long for my list to grow:
- Friends who helped us pack for our move
- The pot roast someone surprised us with — and I’d actually been craving pot roast
- The song on the radio that encouraged me in my sadness
- The person in line in front of me who paid for my meal
As I dug for the good, my focus shifted. Instead of seeing what I couldn’t control, I recognized the loving ways God — who was still in control — cared for me.
So back to the story of the teacher strike at the very end of my senior year — How did things go? It turns out I did graduate on time. The strike ended after 13 days. Classes went back to normal, and we were no worse for the time lost.
It turns out there was nothing to worry about after all. Even though I’d lost control, God never had.
Copyright 2018 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.