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Contemplating Control in Quarantine

“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

(James‬ 4:13-17‬)

About 30 years ago a box-office hit movie (‘Days of Thunder’) put forth a compelling tale capturing the fortuitous rise of a fictional race car driver (Cole Trickle) played by Tom Cruise. While the movie was not a significant cinematic achievement, there was one exchange between the main character and his on and off-screen love interest at the time (Nicole Kidman) that was memorable in its summation of life on and off the racecar track:

CLAIRE: “Tell me what you love so much about racing.”

COLE: “Speed. To be able to control it. To know that I can control something that's out of control.”

CLAIRE: “Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what's gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with 40 other infantile egomaniacs.”

Claire was both brutal and profound in her appraisal of Cole’s mindset towards that which he loved. This is because she not only exposed the illusory nature of Cole’s assumptions as a racecar driver, she also pointed out Cole’s chief character flaw … that he was an infantile egomaniac for daring to believe that he could control anything in the universe, much less a car traveling at 200 mph.

You and I are not dissimilar to Cole. Somewhere between nursing at our mother’s breasts and reaching early adulthood, you and I began to carefully cultivate a core self-deception deep within ourselves. This self-deception is that you and I are somehow ‘in control’ of our emotions, our relationships, our plans, or our lives. Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves to swallow this falsehood because we find facing the alternative too terrifying … That we are constantly vulnerable individuals in a world that is often dangerous and tragic.

Read the text above. James (like Claire) is brutally disabusing us of our illusion of control. He provides a window into our secretly controlling thought processes. We plan where we will be, how long we’ll be there, and how much money we’ll make while we’re there. We prognosticate our future with an air of pretentious certainty that is beyond the pale of reality. But James reminds us that we have no idea whether we will even be alive or not tomorrow to pursue our plans. James says that you and I are ‘featherweights’ in a universe full of heavy things and weighty realities. He likens us to the steam that comes from a whistling teapot. As soon as someone turns the heat down - the steam disappears. That’s you and me. We appear on earth for a little while and then we disappear – just like that.

So what’s the harm in our secret self-deception of ‘control’, you say?

  • The Illusion of Control inhibits our grasp of reality on its own terms.

  • The Illusion of Control distorts our estimation of ourselves, making us arrogant.

  • The Illusion of Control increases our stress when life gets beyond our ‘control’.

  • The Illusion of Control compromises our capacity to face crises when they arise.

  • The Illusion of Control is opposes our prayer life and our worship of an Infinite God.

  • The Illusion of Control blocks us from doing what God has really intended for us.

Note that James does not use euphemistic terms like ‘control freak’. No. James uses words like ‘arrogant’, ‘evil’, ‘schemes’, and ‘sin’ when he describes our control mechanisms. But most of all, James charges you and I with the crime of toying with our own destiny. He concludes that ‘prayerless planners’ and ‘cocky controllers’ may even know the good they should be doing but abandon it in favor of their own self-styled vision for their lives.

Here are some cosmic questions for you to ponder.

  • What does our collective vulnerability to an invisible virus teach us about the fragile nature of our existence here on earth?

  • What are the hidden blessings in your staying home?

  • Now that all of your plans have been ruined and your illusion of control has been exposed … What might be God’s REAL plan for your life?

Whatever your answers to these questions, don’t be like Cole … going fast in a circle in constant pursuit of control, only to, eventually, crash and burn.

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