“Because the ultimate expression of power is control.”
I was only half-listening to the TV that I intended to play in the background of our apartment. I’m a Millennial so, of course, I sat on my couch on my phone with the TV playing in the background. Nothing coming through the speakers had piqued my interest in the last twenty minutes. But then, through the white noise of commercials and Big Bang Theory re-runs, these words came baring into my conscience: “Because the ultimate expression of power is control.”
The words came on the tail end of a car commercial. The commercial was for a car I do not recognize nor remember. It was gray (sometimes I wish I knew more about cars so as not to be a female stereotype, but in this circumstance I’m gladly ignorant), it looked fast, and the advertisement was clearly targeting male viewers, boasting that you could race your rival and with the steering precision of rails (insert Pretty Woman quote, “this baby corners like it’s on rails” here. See the stereotype?). And it ended with the staggering statement, “because the ultimate expression of power is control.”
The words woke me from my half-watching state. In a moment I was fully alert, scrambling for a mental category for that statement. The more I turned it over, the more it concerned me. The more I thought on the brazenness of that sentence, the more I was aware of how wrong this concept of power was and, at the same time, how pervasive it is in our culture.
The notion that to have power – or to be in a position of power – is to be a person of control made me shutter. It called to mind all the twisted ways that power has been expressed in control, stealing image bearers of their dignity and self-worth. My mind was swarmed with images of children working in factories around the world, adults who are still learning to navigate the long-lasting ramifications of childhood abuse, and college women having conversations with their friends trying to decipher if they were date-raped or just raped-raped the night before. Power expressed as control results in horrific tragedies, abuse of power, and victims. It is utterly unbiblical, unholy, and unlike our God.
But this notion isn’t only found is obvious forms like this. This concepts that power is ultimately expressed in control comes in more subtle forms. Like poison packed into a little, easy-to-swallow pill, this thinking can (and has) seeped into our subconscious. Though I would like to point the finger to broader culture – to looming narratives that feel so big they cannot be cured or changed – I find the lingering effects of this thinking even in my own life, and even in the church.
Here are three ways I have believed that the ultimate expression of power is control:
My very favorite thing about marriage is that I get to live everyday in the same space with Austin. He’s my very favorite person to be around and when we got married I was thrilled that I got to be around him so much more. The downside of this is that you notice pretty quickly several ways – big or small – the ways the two of you naturally operate differently. From small things like which direction the toilet paper should be put on the toilet paper holder to larger ways of how you manage finances, marriage is fertile ground for conflicting natural tendencies.
The temptation in these situation is to try to change your husband. It starts subtly for many of us wives: little reminders or contrived situations in which your husband is reminded that you way is really the best way. But though it starts seemingly innocently, manipulation always grows. It is tragically common to hear Christian wives talk about the ways that they insist that their husbands do something a specific way. Though we laugh it off as if they are silly stories, the reality is that we are grasping for control. We are using our position of power in our marriage – whether it is proximity to the finances, family relationships, or our own children – to control. We want things done the way we see best, the way that we see fit, and we unknowingly believe that the best way to wield our feminine power in the relationship is to control. In doing so, we forget that we are a part of a team, that we are married to our friend, that we want to go through life with the freedom and joy of a partnership rather than an exhausting attempt to control.
2) The Church
I love the Church. People who spend more than an hour a week with me generally end up hearing about my love for the Church because it just seems to come out in everyday conversations. I have recently been privileged to coordinate a local women’s ministry. Though I have done this in the past at other churches, this opportunity has been unique. I’ve been given a lot of freedom to chase ideas that I have in the middle of the night, to plan events that I dream up, and to assemble ministry teams as women exhibit particular areas of strength. It really is the first time I have gotten to start some aspects of this women’s ministry from scratch. And here is the danger I have found in this: when you start something that you love, it is easy to want to control it. Because I dreamed up an event that we’re working to put on it comes very naturally to me to want to control even the smallest aspects of it’s execution.
I imagine this is a small taste of what church planters can experience. When you start something that you love it is easy to want to use your power to control it. This can be subtle – a manipulating comment, a dismissive attitude, a strategically-placed joke – but the desire for control is there nonetheless. This is why we see leaders on a large scale fall so frequently: it is often because they continued to try to control something that was not only not theirs to control, but that grew out of their abilities to control. You might see it in your need to remind those around you that you hold the power in the ministry, the insatiable desire to remind people that this was your idea, and the impetus to reach out and pull plans back into your realm of influence when they grow, by the Spirit, out of it. This is to the tragic neglect that Christ establishes and maintains His church. It dismisses the reality that it is Christ’s church, not our establishment. When we set to work on something that is ministry related, we need to self-edit, to reorient ourselves to the power of God and the stewardship that He requires of us when we seek to love His Church and to serve Her well.
3) Our bodies
The great theologian Amy Pohler (in case you’re reading for entertainment, that’s a joke. I just want to make sure you get your money’s worth.) described the self-deprecating voice in the back of women’s minds as a demon. And she’s right, probably more right than she knows.
As women, our perceived battle with our bodies starts very young. For me, it started at the age of nine. There was a day that I first noticed that my legs were not long and lean like Barbie’s (I describe that day here). I noticed that my stomach was round and that my hips didn’t sharply jut out the way that her’s did. Though my body was largely unnoticed by my young self before that – other than that I was pretty proud that it could climb the apple tree in the back yard and, for the time, could run faster than my little brother – I started noticing the way that my body was unwieldy. It did not always grow the way I wanted it to, and it didn’t look the way I internally insisted it should. And so began my desire to control my body.
I remember entering college and having a trainer tell me that it was all about “mind over matter”. What he meant was this: use the power your mind to control your body. The outworking of this philosophy in my life was running and obsessive number of miles each day, lifting longer than my muscles wanted to, and eating less than my body craved. The trainer’s words were a call to exercise power over my body by controlling it.
I wish I could say that those days are long behind me, but the demon has followed me into adulthood. I have mostly mastered telling it to sit down and be quiet, but it still follows me to the bathroom, to the restaurant, and to the clothing store. The desire to control my body is still with me, evidenced in the fact that when I’m anxious about a coming event I think first about losing weight for the event. In so many daily ways I have to fight my desire to express my personal power in controlling my body.
So what’s the cure? How do we, as the people of God, combat this tendency to want to express power in control? While there are many things that could be said here, I believe a first step in this direction is to look to our God. Though He sits on a throne of power, though His words potently created everything in our world (including ourselves), and though He holds all things in His holy power, He has given us freedom in our humanity. Though He could have used His power to control, He did not desire to have a world full of drones, but a people to call His own. With our eyes on this God may we seek to be people who take a sober look at the power in our lives and resist the impetus to control as an expression of that power. By His grace may we, even in this way, grow in His likeness.