My heels backed up to the edge of a twenty-five feet high wooden platform just large enough to accommodate two people. My shirt was drenched with sweat. My muscles shook from adrenaline and fatigue, the effects of several ropes-course obstacles. We were attached to a tall, pencil-like tree swaying in the breeze. Jeff, the course facilitator, tethered me into the final element of the course—the zip line. He challenged me to not simply ride the zip line to safety, but to face my fear of losing control by crossing my arms over my chest and falling backward. The tether would catch me and the zip line would take care of the rest. This “trust fall” would only work if I resisted the instinct to grab the tether.
I wasn’t interested in Jeff’s challenge.
Without hesitation, I looked Jeff in the eyes, said, “No thanks,” grabbed the tether, and eased my weight onto the zip line for a controlled ride to the ground.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you trust God?”
Jeff’s question came as a shock—a blatant undressing of my vulnerability and weakness. My fear of heights was obvious, laying bare my desire for control. I had a choice: to close my fist and grab the tether, or open my hand and trust.
My preference for control won, and I zipped away, grasping the tether—and my sense of control.
TWO WILLS DIVERGED IN A GARDEN
Humanity’s first battle for control took place in a garden, provoked by the ancient serpent’s deceitful words: “God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).
Until this point in time, human will had been aligned to the divine will in a relationship of trust and obedience. Now Eve stood on the precipice of a new possibility—an alternative path where she was in control. Would she choose trust or control, an open hand or a closed fist?
Eve saw the fruit of the forbidden tree as desirable “to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6), and she took some of its fruit and ate, sharing it with Adam, her husband. Eve and Adam chose the closed fist of control.
This act of disobedience resulted in the divergence of human and divine wills, changing the course of history. Our battle for control had begun.
THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL
The “opening of their eyes” to a world of wisdom awakened Adam and Eve to their nakedness and vulnerability. They quickly fashioned coverings for themselves. A relationship with God, once marked by trust and obedience, was instantly undermined. All for the sake of control.
Like our first parents, we are experts at constructing coverings to hide our vulnerability. Setting out to deceive others, we unintentionally deceive ourselves with our homemade fig leaves. We take comfort in this deception since it helps us feel in control, but in the end, it’s only an illusion.
As descendants of the Fall, we fabricate worlds of control, attempting to keep life’s struggles—suffering, sickness, loss, tragedy, grief—at arm's length. But sickness and death don’t make appointments. Loss and tragedy don’t submit to our parameters. Whenever the unexpected comes crashing into our lives, we can hardly handle it. We become confused and shell-shocked, angry and bitter like our lives are out of control.
NOT WHAT I WILL, BUT WHAT YOU WILL
This great battle of control we find ourselves in came to a head in another garden:
“And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray,’ And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.’ And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” – Mark 14:32-36
Jesus, like Eve, had a choice before him. Not a fruit, but a cup—the cup of God’s wrath. Before Jesus drank from it, he held it in his hands, considering an alternative path. He wrestled with his Father, struggling to the point of blood and tears (see Luke 22:44), saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).
Human and divine wills tragically diverged in the first garden. But the result would not be the same here. The open-handed will of the Son—not grasping for control (Phil. 2:6), ever obedient to his Father (John 5:19)—changed the course of history when he said, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Jesus’ words of submission are not a request, but a statement of fact. They are the clear-eyed recognition of the indomitable supremacy of the Father’s will over man-made illusions. Jesus considered every alternate reality and possible future in which human wills could supersede the divine will—and rejected them outright, even though it meant drinking the cup of wrath.
LOSING CONTROL IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GROW
Our lives of comfort and safety are nothing but smoke and mirrors. We are actually closest to reality when we lose control. Losing control removes the veil from our eyes, clearing the illusion so we see our situation for what it is.
On that high ropes course, I took comfort in every bit of control I could find. The experience helped me recognize my unrelenting desire for control, my delusion that I could be like God. But there is only one God, and he is in control. And my will can only be aligned with his when I trust him.
Our greatest opportunities for growth come in the most difficult circumstances. By removing our sense of control—even if just for a moment—God grants us a chance to recognize our illusions of control. These moments are opportunities to open our clenched fists in trust and submission.
When we lay down control, we let go of something that never belonged to us anyway.
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 20 years, and they have five amazing kids.