Life in the technologically advanced and affluent West offers its inhabitants many promises, but perhaps the most attractive is “control”. Scores of self-help books offer to teach you how to “take control of your life” (I found at least six published in the past decade with that exact title). My bank’s slogan is “Take Control Of Your Money”. Apps now allow remote control of your home’s security system, climate, and even the temperature in your freezer! Truly, it seems, we have more varied and intricate control over our world than ever before.
Despite this, recent events have shown us how little control we actually possess. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the lack of control any of us have over our lives. The financial instability of the past fifteen years demonstrates that no matter how much financial “control” we exert, external factors will push much harder on the levers than we could ever hope to. Even the remote controls over our home’s security and appliances don’t prevent bad things from happening, they just inform us about them quickly.
Shannon Hodde Miller’s new book: The Cost of Control: Why We Crave It, The Anxiety It Gives Us, and The Real Power God Promises looks at the relationship between people and control from a social and theological perspective. Miller, who planted Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Ike, and holds a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, seeks to address four topics in her book: why we seek control, how we seek control, the cost of doing so, and the freedom that comes from embracing the boundaries of control that God has given us.
The Cost of Control
Sharon Hodde Miller
Miller does well in demonstrating that many of us have made control into an idol and worship at its altar. Rightly noting that Jesus is Lord of all and we are not, she offers a compelling perspective that our unhealthy striving against God is not compatible with human flourishing, and gives tangible examples of the harm that has resulted from it.
The first part of the book offers both a theological and social explanation of why we seek control. The theological thread (that is woven throughout the book) is essentially an exposition of Genesis 3, arguing that Satan’s lie to our first parents in the garden was that by tasting the fruit, they would gain control. This “deal with the devil” has, as a result, been with us throughout the generations. From a social perspective, she points to the technological revolution as the prime source of our desire to control. The instant gratification that technology provides enables us to believe that we have immediate control over our circumstances.
More fundamentally, though, technological advancements have provided us with vast amounts of information, which we then confuse with the ability to control the world around us. Miller’s point, which is valuable pastorally, is that this doesn’t accord with reality, and when we are confronted with our actual lack of control, we are predictably anxious about it.
The second part of the book explores the means by which we exert control. Her chapters on information, power, money, and autonomy offer a number of valuable insights, with each chapter offering something to prick the conscience of the reader. (An example from her chapter on autonomy: “Seeking wise counsel does not mean searching the internet for voices that agree with you. It does mean seeking counsel from multiple people in your life and in your church who are known to be wise and possess relevant knowledge and experience, because this is God’s design.” – how many of us are innocent of this charge?)
Her chapter on theology as a means of control focuses on prosperity theology and rightly dissects it as a means of seeking to control God by viewing our relationship with Him as primarily contractual. I found it somewhat surprising, then, that she concludes the chapter with a comment on pages 99-100 that “virtually any theology under the sun can be used to rule other people or give ourselves the false sense that we have a monopoly on God’s truth.” Given that this particular criticism did not form the basis of her objection to prosperity theology, this reads as a cryptic and ambiguous comment leaving the reader with the impression that she is holding back much more that she wishes to say on this topic, and it distracted from an otherwise solid chapter.
The third part of the book offers some case studies addressing the cost that seeking control wrecks on us. Particularly helpful is chapter 12, which diagnoses the root cause of anxiety arising from seeking to control our reputations as a fear of what others think of us. Miller illustrates this with a poignant story of her mother-in-law’s perseverance in character that allowed her to overcome a situation where her reputation had been unfairly tarnished. The insight here – that our desire for control is often fueled by fear of man – is worthwhile and timely.
Miller concludes the book with two chapters arguing that rather than viewing “control” as something to be grasped and wielded externally, we should look at the limits of the control that God has given us as being good. She introduces the term “agency” to mean “the power to influence ourselves and our circumstances” as a preferable framework to “control.” Though she admits that this use of “agency” is not found in the Bible, she offers 2 Timothy 1:7 as Scriptural justification for it, with the “spirit of power, love, and sound judgment” being markers of this agency. In her concluding chapter, she reminds us that the only form of control that we are truly given by God in the Scriptures is self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit. We should therefore cease looking outward for the things we can control, because those are outside our power and our attempts will only lead to frustration. She offers the story of Jesus refusing the “deal with the devil” in Luke 4 as the redemption of our disordered desires for control, presenting Him as the “perfect picture of self-control.”
While the final section might have been enhanced by offering some practical and concrete pastoral applications for those who have particularly struggled with issues of control, there is value in diagnosing our view of our interactions with the world using the language of control and reframing it in ways that are truer to our human finitude. The concept of agency is helpful in reorienting us towards our healthy and God-given limitations, although her definition could have been made more robust by incorporating the cooperation between man and God inherent to a passage such as Philippians 2:12-13.
The Cost of Control is a valuable resource for its ability to show how many things that we consider to be “just a part of everyday life” are actually means by which we seek to compete with God for control of the world around us. Miller does well in demonstrating that many of us have made control into an idol and worship at its altar. Rightly noting that Jesus is Lord of all and we are not, she offers a compelling perspective that our unhealthy striving against God is not compatible with human flourishing, and gives tangible examples of the harm that has resulted from it.
While I do think that The Cost of Control contains a number of valuable insights, I found myself disappointed that its analysis and application was largely limited to people living in affluent societies, and in particular the affluent within them. Miller admits, in her chapter about money as a means of control, that as she has matured, she has developed an increased awareness about her dependence on money for control of her circumstances. However, the applications of this book are more geared towards those with the resources to not only be tempted by such means of control, but to actually seize them. There is little to offer in this book for those who have been or feel disenfranchised. The heart conditions that Miller identifies are, I think, results of the fallen nature of man, even if she does not go far enough in arguing their universality.
Because of the lack of a clear statement of an intended audience, Miller’s otherwise solid theological work can get muddled. As an example, her chapter on the use of shame as a form of control is premised on the idea that shame is universally bad. However, there are multiple uses in the Scriptures of shame being used for good – exclusively against those in sin and rebellion against God. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a book marketed as “Christian” of assuming that its readership will be exclusively Christian, but when Miller says, at page 108, that “Jesus looked at our shame and our blame, and he nailed them to the cross”, she never explicitly limits this truth (here or anywhere else in the book) expressly to those who have confessed Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Whether this is an intentional case of studied ambiguity or merely an honest assumption, the theological strength and emotional impact of the book is weaker for it.
Still, the reader looking to make sense of the anxieties that arise from a world that promises control but rarely delivers will find a helpful lens through which to view them in The Cost of Control. Miller reminds us that though God gives us many wonderful promises in this world, control is not one of them.