Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Goal is Not Control, But Empowerment

"Has the community served to make individuals free, strong, and mature, or has it made them insecure and dependent? Has it taken them by the hand for a while so that they would learn again to walk by themselves, or has it made them anxious and unsure? This is one of the toughest and most serious questions that can be put to any form of everyday Christian life in community." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

I just read Bonhoeffer's book Life Together as a Church History assignment last week, and I love how this quote coincides with my own personal Scripture study. I'm working through Colossians right now, taking notes in my journal. This isn't a formal study of a passage, as I would do for my seminary classes. It's more of the Read + Reflect + Respond approach that I've used for about 40 years. I sometimes cover only a very short section each day. 

Today I pondered Colossians 2:2-3.

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

This is the apostle Paul describing his strenuous and sacrificial labors as a single man traveling in the ancient world, preaching the gospel, establishing churches, and writing letters of instruction and encouragement that we still read today. 

Here is what struck me as I sought to make application to my own life and ministry as a home school mom, grandma, seminary student, crisis hotline worker, friend, and social media user. What is the best way to help people grow in life? How will they be affected by my influence? How have I been affected by the influence of others on my spiritual life?

Many of the people in my own circle, both those I've met personally and my connections on social media, have experienced a significant amount of spiritual / emotional / physical abuse in the context of the church / family / organization. They are understandably wary of any kind of God-talk because religion has been used to control and coerce them. But that is not what God has in mind!

Read the verses again with me as I offer a little informal commentary along the way...

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart...

  • Goal: purpose, motivation, desired result
  • Encouraged: filled up, nourished, flourishing, refreshed, motivated, empowered, strengthened
  • Heart: inner being, spiritual center, core of who they are as an individual

Two questions: Is this your goal as you influence others? Is this the goal of those who are influencing you? An abuser or dysfunctional dominant leader may claim they want to lead others in the righteous ways of God, but what is the fruit? Are those in their "care" being filled up or drained out, nourished or famished, flourishing or withering, refreshed or parched, liberated or enslaved, healed or wounded, motivated or demoralized, empowered or hindered, strengthened or weakened?

...and united in love...

I see "united in love" as a healthy and healing bond. There is mutual strength, a synergy (working better together than apart) that enables greater fruitfulness. This is not a suffocating or constricting relationship. Some people think that an abusive relationship is disconnected, and in one sense it is because there is no sense of mutual partnership. However, there is a toxic bondage that throws others aside like trash but won't let them leave. Things may improve for a while, just enough to give hope that things will change. But then it escalates again, over and over. That's called the cycle of abuse, and it's why people stay instead of escaping! It's a "unity of control" but only unity in the sense that there is one person setting the agenda. That's not even true unity. It is just unilateral. 

But Colossians 2:2-3 offers a powerful contrast: wholesome bonding, being truly united in LOVE. Don't accept a counterfeit to that. that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden the treasures of wisdom and understanding.

So being encouraged in heart and united in love is a means to further goal, which is knowing and experiencing the abundance of a spiritual life in Jesus Christ. This is a growth and enlightenment process that starts in the heart, that core of who you are. It's walking with Jesus through grace and faith, leaning into who he is and what he wants. It's not a system of pointless rules, or of conforming to the selfish expectations of others. It's an authentic transformation. An abuser communicates, "All you need to know is what I tell you." Abusers want to control the narrative. If others are under their "leadership" they don't want them to explore the Bible for themselves, seek out more education that might contradict what they are being told, have their own opinions, know enough to contradict them or hold them accountable, or be emotionally strong enough to challenge or leave them. They paralyze others through confusion, deceit, accusations, threats, trauma bonding, and religious manipulation. They communicate either overtly (in direct words) or covertly (by implication): "You are being rebellious. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. I am your God-given leader. God wants you to obey me. You will never succeed unless you listen to me. God will punish you. I just want what's best for you. You are sowing discord. You are just bitter. You never want to be accountable to anyone. You are usurping my authority. You are out of line. Why don't you just let me lead? Look at me! I'm the important one here!" 

To a lesser extent, this dynamic of control can also occur inadvertently with leaders who aren't even trying to be selfish. They may think that  demanding compliance to their commands is what they are supposed to be doing as bold leaders, but this still leads to disillusioned, disempowered followers. I have often found myself slipping into this dynamic as a mother, usually as an overflow of the emotions of fear and shame. ("If I don't make them obey, I'll be a failure as a mother.")

I encourage you to evaluate your own family, friendships, churches, organizations and other your spiritually-based relationships, no matter which role you play. Does this relationship or community display the riches of God? Is this true wisdom that leads to abundant spiritual understanding? Are we growing together in our core relationships with Jesus and one another? Are we seeing Jesus as both the source and goal? Is this a treasure or a theft?

My goal is to be spiritually empowered so that I can empower others. I don't want to control or be controlled. I want to have a full life in Jesus Christ and inspire others to do the same. How about you?

Grace and peace,

P.S. Lots of links to extend these thoughts!