I grew up with brothers—three of them. My childhood was consumed by fear. My survival depended upon learning how to manage it. At any given moment in the day or night, one little slip, the briefest momentary letting down of the guard, and I could find myself under attack. So I developed coping skills. I listened. Are there floorboards creaking? Is that the sound of clothing brushing against the wall? Might I hear, if I pause long enough, shallow breathing?
I observed. Is there evidence of someone being here before me? Is that a shadow I see moving beyond the hinges in the crack in the door? Is something out of place?
This was serious business. If I neglected any cues, if I didn’t use all of my senses, I could fall victim to one of my brothers’ latest scare pranks.
. . . leaping from upper levels in stairwells.
. . . placing a hand on my shoulder when I thought I was alone in a dark, winding hallway.
. . . coming upon a freaky-looking, otherworldly object resembling a bodyless head, lit up and sitting in the middle of an empty parking lot.
The pranks started early. I guess the variables made it inevitable. With two brothers 5 and 7 years older than I, and one 2 years younger, we were like two sets of siblings. They were wild and creative preteens; we were naive and imaginative children.
We lived in an old, pre-Civil War era farmhouse on the edge of a small town in northern Virginia (real northern Virginia, not the clogged, DC version). The legends and mysteries were plentiful. The headless Confederate wandering the meadows. The cannonball that ripped through what was now my brothers’ bedroom. The ghostly visions in the woods.
The creaking of the old structure certainly contributed to the sense that there was more to this house than met the eye, but especially at night, when the stories and scenarios our older brothers whispered to us seemed to take on inhuman shape and form. They didn’t leave their manipulation of our malleable little sensitivities to storytelling, though. It was especially at night that they launched their best pranks. I remember many times being led into hallways lit by single small lamps that suddenly went dark and then clambering for any foot- or handhold to propel me in the opposite direction. It didn’t take long for me to catch on that I couldn’t trust when either of them would say, “Here, Laura, come with me. I want to show you something.” They were always devising new traps, new pranks, so trying to beat them at their own game would be impossible. I really only had one choice if I wanted to stop being their victim—I mean, their means of entertainment. I couldn’t beat ’em, so I joined ’em. I allied myself with my older brothers against my younger brother.
It was pretty successful, at least for a time. Usually their pranks would take place while our parents were out. I’d receive my orders, and if I carried them out, I wouldn’t be as harassed as much as Ben was. They’d rig up a “ghost” with a sheet, a basketball and a rope. I’d guide him into the spacious entryway where a wide staircase curved up to the second floor, and they’d drop the contraption until it was eye level. Ben would scream, I’d laugh, and we’d all spend the rest of the evening calming him down before mom and dad came home. (Don’t worry. He didn’t suffer psychological or sociological damage. Today he’s a very successful businessman.)
In this way, early in life I began honing my skills as a control freak. The key, I found, was in not appearing to really care what was happening at all. By distancing myself from the emotions of fear and anxiety, I discovered I could avoid embarrassment, humiliation, and future attacks. That doesn’t mean all the pranks came to an end. Through high school we all became known for hiding out in dark hallways in anticipation of the others, and I continued to develop remarkable control over my reactions. I determined I would never be seen to flinch or blink. (The big lesson learned then was to make sure it was NOT the church secretary you leaped out at with a savage “Bwahahaha!”)
Today, I feel more fearful than I have ever felt in my life. I don’t know how I got to this place of anxiety. I just know that there are things that worry me now that never worried me before. Many of them have crept up and become sources of anxiety because of changes in the world theater: there are greater threats to life, freedoms, safety. Some are the result of having adult children living in this strange new world. I raised independent thinkers, and now I’m not sure I did them any favors. I thought it was a good thing to teach them to take control of their surroundings, of the opportunities before them, of the people they would become—not in destructive ways, but in ways I thought were responsible, e.g., “Don’t ask me how to solve that problem for you, look into it and we’ll talk about it.” But on its own, this is a mixed-up, upside-down, delusional view of the world because only God has any control. If I haven’t balanced that guidance with a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, then I have misguided them in false, blasphemous, idolatrous, rebellious thinking.
Self-rule thinking is false because God alone determines, decrees and provides. Even in times when it appears I am making decisions or arranging circumstances for the sake of a certain outcome and everything happens according to plan—there has only ever been one plan: that of the most high God. It happened according to plan because it was His plan, not mine. If it had happened differently, that would have been according to His plan, regardless what mine was, because He is God. He is sovereign, and I am not.
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” (Proverbs 19:21)
“No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD.” (Proverbs 21:30)
“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (Lamentations 3:37)
(plus Hebrews 1:3; Matthew 10:29-31; James 4:13-15)
It is blasphemous because even though I know the truth, this thinking denies the nature and character of God. In His kindness and goodness, God is able, through the work of His Son, to rule justly and show mercy to condemned sinners like me. He is patient and longsuffering in dealing with my weaknesses and follies. He wisely and powerfully brings to completion all of His intentions in a way that is supremely good and eternally satisfactory. His holiness knows no depths, no boundaries. To attempt to bring my life under my control declares that this God is deficient, even false, and is not able to do what is best for me. It’s wicked enough for the non-believing world to justify that thinking. In a follower of Christ, it rejects Paul’s conviction in 2 Timothy 1:12: “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” This Savior rejoices in blessing me: “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” (Jeremiah 32:41)
It is idolatrous because, in this mindset, I have placed my trust in my ability to control myself and my circumstances, rather than trusting in God. What myopia! As if all that is happening in my life is what I am able to see through my puny human vision, my distorted mortal perspective. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
As if I can add one second to my life or one millimeter to my stature! Remember Nebuchadnezzar? He was the king of Babylon whose self-perception mirrors the presumption of Instagram and Facebook and social media today. If the technology had existed then, selfies of the king would have been the universal profile picture of every citizen in the kingdom. His mantra was “It’s all about me.” Very quickly he learned a different tune by means of a dream, interpreted here by Daniel (because, incidentally, none of the pagan interpreters could understand it):
“[T]his is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.” (verses 22, 24-27)
Look to the middle of that passage where Daniel identifies the purpose of the curse on Nebuchadnezzar: “till you know that the Most High rules.” Though not included in this excerpt, that language is found in verse 17, verse 25, verse 32, and in 5:21. Think maybe God wanted to hammer home his message to Nebuchadnezzar (and me, by extension)?
It is rebellious because it sets up a kingdom in my heart that effectually denounces the legitimacy of the eternal and unlimited Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is God’s will that He take precedence over our will, and even the Son articulated this regarding the will of the Father, “Not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) He who would set himself against God, and be struck down as Nebuchadnezzar, would conversely find all of this divine and supernatural power and attributes on his side if he willingly submits in faith and reverence to God’s throne. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:15-16)
This is an altogether different God than my soft, complacent brain contemplates when I’m trying to protect my heart kingdom. The bogeyman or my brothers or cancer or the terrorists or the economy or chaos are of no concern to this God. They are, in fact, completely under his sovereign control. HE is Whom I should fear.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
“For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” (Psalm 75:6-7)
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.'” (Revelation 3:7)
What a wonder it is that He who executes judgment and holds the key to eternity has taken on the task to reconcile man to himself by stooping to man’s level, taking on man’s weaknesses, and making himself subject to the law so that man would be made free from the penalty of the law. He is not obligated to save. He does not have to do this. He would lose no glory, no stature, no heavenly and eternal adoration. But He did. And if it were even possible for Him to be greater and more magnificent, that Sovereign God would do what He didn’t have to do for the sake of undeserving man—I being chief among them, Paul’s claim notwithstanding—makes Him greater and more magnificent.
So, as I contemplate this new year, I pray that, along with changing out batteries and light bulbs and stinky old dishrags, I’ll switch out my thinking and my habits. That I will no longer fear being out of control, but that I will bend the knee and rejoice because HE is in control. That I will meditate on the glorious bounty of God’s sovereignty and His goodness and His kindness, and put on faithfulness and trust and submission as the new creature in Christ that He has made me to be.