The Illusion of Control

| January 23, 2018

It’s not just that how you think affects what you do. What you do affects how you think.

This starts early. If you have a spelling test in 4th grade, you read and write the words over and over again. You spell them out loud. You practice the double “n” in mayonnaise a few extra times. If you study hard, you generally do fine.

Later in life, your calendar says you need to be at work at 8:00. You do the math. Since it will take you 15 minutes to get there and park, you plan to leave a little before 7:45. This isn’t rocket science. You’ve made 1000 appointments in the last two years, whether for class, work, a ballgame, or a lunch meeting. If you plan well, rarely do things completely fall apart.

When that rarity does unfortunately occur––a brief loss of control––wild swings of emotion follow. Though you left in time to make it to work, a broken down car in the median beckons your fellow drivers to slowly crane their necks. The reliable interstate looks like a December parking lot. People honk their horns; the Toyota Camry passes you on the shoulder. You foam at the mouth.

Here’s the point: you’ve aimed to do something and subsequently accomplished it enough times that any aberration from this routine drives you nuts. Somewhere in your core, because you’ve controlled things before, you implicitly assume you’re in charge.

What you do affects how you think.

But what if you’re not in the kind of control your day–to–day looks like? What if the autonomy you seemingly operate under really casts something of an illusion?

Psalm 127 says as much.

God builds through builders

The Psalmist begins, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (127:1a). This song wastes no time highlighting theological tension. Who, precisely, is the builder? Though the second clause answers, “those who build it,” the first clause qualifies, “not unless the Lord builds it.” The resolution: God builds through builders.

The next phrase makes the same point, “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (127:1b). In our random, often senselessly violent world, we know this to be true. We buy a house in the right neighborhood, keep the alarm on, and turn on the outside lights. We settle in a country where they tap phones, screen incomers, and spend billions of dollars on counterintelligence and the military. Yet our watchmen can’t keep us from all harm.

Knowing that ultimately the Lord builds the house and watches over the city actually leads to rest: “for he gives to his beloved sleep” (127:2b). If the Lord builds it, nothing can tear it down. If the Lord protects it, nothing may harm it. God doesn’t just build through builders; He builds for the builders’ good.

This doesn’t mean God doesn’t want us to accomplish good works, or protect, or provide. It does mean we don’t control as much as we think. If we’re not careful, we might believe the mortgage got paid because we worked hard, or that the promotion came because we put in more hours than so and so, or that our kids behaved because we’re pros. Psalm 127 reorients us. We work hard, knowing God works all things.

In discussing the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther wrote that we ask God to give us our daily bread. In mercy, God does so. But He does so by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, and the person who prepared our meal. Gene Veith updates Luther’s argument, “We might today add the truck drivers who hauled the produce, the factory workers in the food processing plant, the warehouse men, the wholesale distributors, the stock boys, the lady at the checkout counter. Also playing their part are the bankers, futures investors, advertisers, lawyers, agricultural scientists, mechanical engineers, and every other player in the nation’s economic system. All of these were instrumental in enabling you to eat your morning bagel” (Gene Veith, God at Work, 13).

God could have dropped bread like Manna in Deuteronomy 8, yet He chose to use men and women to accomplish His purposes.

Nonetheless, we still ask God for the bread. Ultimately, He provides. God builds through and for builders.

God parents through parents

The Psalmist continues, “Behold . . .” He implores us to look somewhere. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “If you’re unconvinced of your dependence upon the Lord, consider this next topic.” Psalm 127:3: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”

The two sections of this Psalm might appear to be disconnected; however, that’s a misunderstanding of the text. Few men or women stand in the delivery room, wait until the baby stops crying, wipe the gunk from his or her infant’s eyes, and then boast in what he or she made. They hold a gift. Children remind us of our dependence upon the Lord.

And this dependence upon Him won’t end at the hospital. Many accomplished men and woman have come face–to–face with their inability while attempting to raise children. Though they might be able to control countless dynamics at work, at the gym, in school, or elsewhere, a screaming newborn or an angsty teenager will not always submit to a father or mother’s pedigree. Children don’t generally care how much power you wield at the office, how many degrees you earned, or how much your friends respect you.

There is encouragement, however. Just as God heals through doctors and feeds through farmers, God parents through parents. Further, He does this infinitely more faithfully than we do. He can teach our kid about a perfect Father when we’ve done little but exasperate. God can nurture a teenager, even when we’ve blown it. Maybe your son or daughter hardly seems like an arrow in God’s purposes. And you blame yourself.

Let this text remind you: we’re not as in control as we think we are. Psalm 127:1’s “house” is not merely a brick and mortar shelter. Unless the Lord builds your house, those who build it labor in vain. We build, but we build in dependence upon the Lord. We labor, but not alone.

Conclusion

This Psalm reminds us that every good thing we enjoy comes to us through the provision of the Lord, rather than via our ingenuity or resources.

And it’s not inconsequential that Solomon wrote Psalm 127. He certainly knew building projects. However, we also know he failed miserably in leading his family. You might be uncomfortable getting parenting tips from this guy.

But the telling irony to his words is that his life ended up corroborating them. While the house Solomon built for the Lord didn’t last, the Lord built a house that would. Though Solomon’s kingdom divided, from his lineage the King came who rules over the household of God. By His mercy, He’s still building today.

And you didn’t plan any of that. You had nothing to do with it.

So, what if you’re not in control? What if, in the end, it doesn’t all depend upon you? Might that be the best news yet?