The Want of Power and Control: Everyone’s Temptation


“The Christian must bear the burden of a brother. . . It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not an object to be manipulated.”  ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s statement poses a critical question for every Christian.  Are we here to love and to help our neighbors bear their burdens–or will our usual stance toward them be one of manipulation, power and control?

Just as Satan offered Jesus the whole world with all its power and glory (Luke 4, Matt. 4), so too are we all offered a similar bargain. In essence, it is whether we will serve the devil and all the malevolent forces of world and flesh — controlling others by our power, our status, our glory, our tricks, or whatever means we have–or whether will we allow other people the freedom to choose their own way in life.

The fact is that most of us to varying degrees choose to make captives of other people. Much of this is unconscious and easily forgivable –but some choices to manipulate and control  are deliberate and willful and desperately evil. Power, and its nefarious twin, the need to control, is the essential evil because it is the essential idol. It is the idol of playing god. It is the power that Satan sought when he rebelled against God the Father in deep antiquity.

The Truth and Freedom

Scripture tells us that shortly after the wilderness temptations Jesus announced in a synagogue (quoting from Isaiah) that he’d come to set people free (Luke 4:18). One wonders what that really means. It is doubtful that He was proclaiming freedom for the many slaves who populated the Roman Empire at the time. He was not advocating rebellion and this wasn’t some Lincolnesque Emancipation Proclamation.

Later, He told people that the truth would set us free. (John 8:32)  Most Christians know that verse. Some also know “that where the Spirit of the the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17)  But freedom from what one asks?

In Galatians 5:1, Paul says it is that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  Paul was proclaiming freedom from the law requiring male circumcision as a mark for believers. Also, in Ephesians 4:8 he tells us that Jesus, “led captivity captive. . .” More than just onerous legalism, I believe the captivity he is referring to is the prison of our own fallen natures. And very much of that fallen human nature is wanting to play a god in the lives of others — wanting to control others, wanting to have worldly power. It is desiring the power Satan offers — ultimately the power of no restraints or morality.

Healing the Blind

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)

Although Jesus and the apostles did physically heal the blind, I think the “sight” Jesus was offering was “insight” into His Father’s kingdom — a new vision–and a new intimacy with God the Father. And although we have had nearly two millennia of Christian doctrine and evangelism, most of humanity remains blind and oppressed. They remain prisoners obsessed with wanting control over others.

It is my belief that much of the oppression is the self-oppression of not trusting God. We do not trust God and we display that lack of trust in our rampant need to control every circumstance in our life, including other people. We obsess about things like the weather, earthquakes and crime so much because they are beyond our control. However, the behavior of others is usually the greatest unpredictable factor in our life, and that is something we unconsciously think we can control.  And so our unconscious fears demand that we control the “neighbors” that Jesus told us we are to love as much as one’s self. Instead of bearing their burdens, we feel we must neutralize them and control them for us to have safety and plenty. And we control them because we do not trust, and we do not trust because we really don’t accept the freedom that Jesus offers.

In The Beginning

 The need to control every facet of our life space is part of humanity’s relentless post-Eden search for safety in a chaotic, fallen creation. We know that we are not God but we try to play God. When the reality that we are imperfect and not godlike comes crashing down on us then we, like Adam, either blame God or seek a scapegoat (Eve). And when that doesn’t quell our existential angst us we try to control our environment and everyone in it. The upside is that our existential anxiety eventually leads to a quest to understand and control both the natural universe and our own conflicted psyches.

The quote from Bonhoeffer that prefaces this is the stance of far too many Christians when it comes to our fellows on our after-the-fall journey. It makes me think of the old Father Flanagan Boys Town meme: “He ain’t heavy father, He’s my brother.” Sadly, more often than not, we treat others not as our brothers, but as objects to be manipulated and controlled.

Ministry or Manipulation?

Young children need to be controlled for their own safety, and a parent that does not provide limits, boundaries and controls is derelict. However, in the case of other adults, we often think we are controlling them for their own good as well–but nevertheless, in spite of our good intentions, we are still manipulating them and making prisoners of them. The “for their own good” rationale is merely a self-justification for an all too human predilection. We are not allowing them either free will or the freedom that Jesus promised.

A decade ago a friend said something terribly profound which I’ve rolled around in my thoughts ever since. She said that for the Christian all relationships were either about “ministry or manipulation.” I do not know if that was an original insight with her but I’ve never encountered that paradigm anywhere else. However, the above quote from Bonhoeffer comes close.

As for me, the more I am aware that I have the choice of ministry or manipulation, that I have the choice of playing god or ministering, and the more I choose ministry, the better things work out. When in the love of Jesus we minister to another they maintain their freedom and their dignity–and so do we. Making a slave out of another via either power or manipulation ultimately never ends well.

Caesar v. Jesus

Caesar chose power and control, Jesus chose ministry. Jesus said to give to Caesar what was his. But Caesar is just an archetype for Stalin, Hitler, Mao and every other major or minor dictator and petty controller–and every selfish egoist boss/tyrant who’s ever lived. Those of us who’ve grown up in the USA or the UK have never lived under a dictatorship, but we’ve all felt the grasp of a petty dictator on the back of our neck at one time or another. Most likely it was a micro-managing boss, friend, parent or spouse. Unfortunately, their search for safety and predictability involved making another a serf.

An Idolatrous Freedom

Sadly, the freedom that many crave is not freedom in Christ but a freedom that is an idol. It is the “freedom” of bondage to ego, selfishness and sin: “Nobody has the right to tell me that I can’t smoke weed, drive like a maniac, beat my kids, own a machine gun, worship a demonic entity–or tell me I have to pay taxes.” Many who live in the USA, and especially those from the political right who yammer on and on about “freedom” are really just seeking permission to sin, and using the freedom promised in the Constitution as an rationalization.

Under Authority

Being “under authority” is an excuse for all sorts of egregious power and control justifications in Christianity. It is the ideological underpinning of cults and draconian denominational control. All cults, as well as many denominations, seek to dictate every aspect of their adherent’s lives — not just beliefs, but friendships, dress and diet as well.

“Whenever a Christian follows authority figures who don’t allow questions about themselves or their direction or teaching, get out and don’t look back. Whenever someone says he knows what’s best for your life, better than you do; whenever someone says that she speaks for God; whenever someone pretends to be other than a flawed human being who makes mistakes and sometimes gets it wrong — that person is sitting on a pedestal of his or her own making, and if you don’t destroy it, God will. So many freedom-destroying things we do are connected to an irresponsible decision to allow others to be to us what only God is supposed to be.”  ~ Rev. Steve Brown

The cult that I’m most familiar with, Bill Gothard’s IBLP, intruded into every aspect of his followers lives. He gave them advice on dress, diet, health and with whom they could associate . He spoke of an “umbrella of authority” and of course the umbrella was held in his hand. He tried to anchor his somewhat idiosyncratic teachings in biblical principles–and he maintained that his umbrella was there for protection of the vulnerable — mostly women and children –who clearly in his biblical view are not equal to men

However, Gothard was on the “pedestal” that Steve Brown warned of, and Gothard is currently being sued by young ladies formerly in his charge for unwanted advances. However, the IBLP is just one cult among thousands. The largest cults in this country are the Jehova’s Witnesses and the Mormons. What cults typically have in common is a charismatic leader or founder and top down control.

Oh, That’s God. . .

A story: A man dies and goes to heaven. He’s waiting in the antechamber along with many other souls for St Peter to come and check him in. Suddenly, a man bursts into the room wearing a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. He barks out orders and helper-angels frantically scurry around. He leaves and silence is restored. Twenty minutes later he charges in again and the same frantic activity ensues. Then, the scene is replayed a third time. Finally, the man apprehensively awaiting St. Peter asks the receptionist about the man giving orders.  She replies, “Oh, that’s God, He’s playing doctor.”

Well, that’s a crude illustration about the folks (physicians) who generally have the most power and prestige in our society. They have the power to write magic scripts for big mojo. They have the power of life and death. For some, they have supplanted God. We allow them control in our lives to an unnatural degree. We want to be safe and healthy and so we cede them the power. And sadly, I think many go into medicine not so much to be healers as they do to be controllers.

The Law

The law, as in attorneys, are other major power people in our society. I recall reading once that per capita we have nine times as many attorneys as they do in Japan. I’m  certain that the USA leads the whole world in the sheer number of attorneys, and I’m also certain that says something not very complimentary about us. We contend. We do not decide things based on honor, tradition or consensus. We decide things based on power. Usually, we do not follow “the spirit of the law” but instead “the letter of the law.” To maintain control in a situation we seek a bigger and bad-er attorney than our opponent.

Question: What is 1500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? Answer: A good start! Pa-da bum!

That little joke illustrates our love/hate relationship with attorneys and the law. Love them or hate them — we need them, and for some things like contracts and torts they are essential. Like physicians, lawyers have their own idiosyncratic language that is more or less opaque to lay people. They like it that way. They keep it that way. It gives them power and control.

The New Power People

A century or more ago there were only three “professions” — lawyers, physicians and clergy. They were the power people. They had the power of life and death and the ear of the Almighty. Today, professionals are as likely to be an engineer, a tech guru or a government bureaucrat.

The newest gods of power and might are the techno-gods like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Ray Kurzweil. When our computer goes down we call the Geek Squad and they come out in their little yellow bug. They insert a disc, click some icons, say some mumbo jumbo and order is restored to the universe. Well, at least temporarily until the next tech crisis ensues.

Engineers and techies are the new power people, and like lawyers and physicians and government bureaucrats before them, they have their own indecipherable language. The manual that came with my new digital TV was completely opaque to reason. I read it and read it again. Presumably, these procedures were composed by a “technical writer”–but they were useless.  I sat cursing the snowy screen until a friend came over and unscrambled it. He was able to help me because some true techies, his son-in-law and brother-in-law, had showed him how to “program” his digital TV. And one wonders if the jargon of techies is deliberately opaque. It does make them necessary and lend them a certain power.

Power and Control

The compulsion to control others infects all of our human endeavors: religion, medicine, education, law and government, science and technology. It is the great corrupter of both systems and relationships. On a mega-scale it is what causes wars and in a micro-arena what is an oppressive boss or spouse except someone needing to exercise power and control over another. And murder is little more than the ultimate control of another. Far too much of human history is the story of Cain and Abel multiplied by billions.

Much of what has been written on the topic of power/control in the past couple decades has focused on dysfunctional relationships and child abuse. The men who relentlessly seek power over their partners and children are invariably insecure and fearful–but their insecurity and fear is often masked by narcissism and violence. In their world, they are the only people who matter. With the most extreme narcissists other people are only there to be controlled and used. But most users, manipulators and controllers are not extreme narcissists, they are just frightened folks who view the freedom of others as a threat to their security.

It is my contention that the desire to exercise control over others is so pervasive that it seems almost an integral part of the human condition, and it is obvious that narcissists and uber-egoists have this drive in spades. However, the most vulnerable to being extreme controllers are those with low ego strength or damaged self-worth. Folks who have been subjected to massive parental criticism, parental neglect or abuse, and those who have suffered deep betrayal are generally going to be more threatened by situations and relationships where they have tenuous control.

A couple I’ve worked with provide a good example. It is the second marriage for both and both suffered infidelity in their previous marriage. However, the husband has better than average ego-strength and he survived the infidelity fairly well. He realized that the cheating was not about him but about his ex’s issues. The new wife, on the other hand, came from a very large, unaffectionate family. She grew up feeling neglected and unloveable. Though, as a survivor she’s in some sense a strong woman, she grew up feeling very insecure, and the betrayal in her first marriage heightened that insecurity. Though a self professed seriously Christian woman, she resents her husband’s involvement in their church and his close relationship with its pastor.

Why?  Because his relationship with God, the church and the pastor are areas of his life beyond her sphere of influence and control. She can criticize the church and say she dislikes the pastor but it doesn’t change her husband’s mind one bit. His relationship with his pastor and his involvement with the church go back a decade, whereas his relationship with her is less than two years. When pressed about her criticisms she can offer no reasonable explanation because her dislike is all based on unconscious feelings.

Hypnodynamic Control

“Hypnodynamic” is what I term the paradigm for acquiring control of others. It is a three step process: (1) Create anxiety, cognitive dissonance or heightened anticipation. (2) Suggest a resolution that relaxes the victim, (3) Attention, trust and control is gained.

I call it hypnodynamic because it is how a skilled hypnotist, or manipulator, gains the attention and control of an unsuspecting and often unwilling person (or public). On a mass scale its what politicians from Hitler on down to the present have employed. Create anxiety by creating a monstrous threat — Communism, Capitalist Bankers, The Elders of Zion (Jews), famine, overpopulation or climate change (global warming), etc.  But the master hypnotist, the master manipulator/controller, will suggest a solution that will put the individual or the masses at ease–and thus fear and dissonance abates and harmony is restored.

On a smaller scale, say a cult, the leader spells out a threat like the the outside world or unbelievers. The solution that leads to harmony is for one to cede control to the cult.  Similarly, in many relationships the dynamic is the fear of abandonment. The controlling partner strikes an unconscious deal with the dependent partner. The deal is: “I will never abandon you but you must cede total control to me.”  When that’s broken you sometimes hear about it in the headlines the next day. It’s usually about a man offing his wife–and sometimes his kids and himself.

Docs, Health and Big Pharma

Physicians and Big Pharma scare the bjeebers out of us with a focus on disease (not health) and of course they have the solutions, they have the power. They have practically invented obscure diseases and then bombarded us with advertisements for the pills to “cure” the maladies. They have an impressive array of technology and tests that a few years ago were only imagined in science fiction.

We confess our transgressions to the nurse and then the doctor. Sometimes they counsel us on nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, but more often than not they write magic words on paper which we take to the pharmacy. We gobble down the pills like a sacrament. We may briefly repent by a change in lifestyle but the statistics on self-generated diseases due to obesity, stress and addictions are such that its obvious that any repentance in our contemporary First World society is quite transitory. And in their heart of hearts I think many physicians like it that way. It keeps them needed–and it gives them the power.

The Great Physician

Jesus has been referred to as the Great Physician. So how did he treat His patients? We know of His many miraculous healings — the Gospels are chock full–but beyond the many anonymous He ministers to He provides us with a powerful and lasting example.

    “Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love.” ~ John 13:1

At the Last Supper, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of how we should minister to our brothers and sisters. It is an act of humility. He becomes a humble servant. He washes his disciples feet and tells them to do likewise, and he says that they will be “blessed” if they follow his example and serve others.

Also, in Matthew 20 the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her sons could be seated at his right and left in His kingdom. Jesus replies, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Chapters 13 thru 17 of the Gospel of John is referred to as the “final discourse.”  In these chapters Jesus gives the disciples and us a glimpse into His Father’s kingdom and He also gives us our marching orders. It’s a life of serving our neighbors, and in a sense, a life of healing others.

And does how we are to live our lives relate back to the “freedom” that Jesus declares at the beginning of His story?  Are we indeed made free by a life of ministry and servanthood?  I know that as for myself when I choose ministry instead of manipulation and control things always seem to work out better. I know that I’m happier when I try to follow the example Jesus provides.

In the Garden of Trees

In the beginning there are two trees in Eden that loom over man and creation. There is the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge is the forbidden knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:15-17). We all know the tale of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace by tasting its proscribed fruit. My contention is that via tasting the fruit of “knowledge” they sought the same route to a “power” that strictly belongs to their Creator. Seeking power, and the power found in knowledge, doomed mankind to millennia of restless seeking and misery. That pretty much encompasses the history of civilization– one tyrant or nation seeking control over another.

At the end of the story in Revelation 22:2 there is the Tree of Life. And between the two trees that frame Scripture there is another –the tree that is lifted up — the tree of our Savior’s crucifixion. The love of knowledge and power is transformed by the Love that begets love.


About diospsytrek

I am a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. I am also the author of four books. The books have to do with coping with depression and other mood disorders, and the nexus of psychological problems and spiritual warfare.
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