The cost of controlling our relationships

Published on September 16, 2022

My middle son, Coen, is constantly breaking his toys. Not on purpose, but by forcing them to bend in directions they were not designed to bend. He has mangled Transformers legs, Avengers figures, and spaceship switches, and he has even cracked LEGOs in half. He pushes and pushes and pushes until SNAP. The plastic can’t give anymore. 

People are like this. When we force them to do something they are unwilling or unable to do, something snaps. It could be their sense of having a voice, their confidence, or it could be the relationship itself that breaks, but relationships and control cannot coexist because God did not design them to.

In the garden of Eden, before sin even entered the world, God ruled supreme over creation, but not through control. It was only when Adam and Eve rejected this order, stretching out their fingers for more knowledge and autonomy, that they fractured their relationship with God and with one another. From that moment on, Genesis describes one relationship after another, all broken by control. 

Most notable among them is the story of Abraham and Sarah. If you are not familiar with this couple—or you simply need a refresher—Abraham and Sarah are the founding patriarch and matriarch of Israel. After God appoints Abraham to this role, he instructs him to go to a land that God will show him (12:1), and he promises to make Abraham into a great nation.

 At first Abraham and Sarah trust this promise, obeying God’s instructions and walking in faith.

But not for long. Although God assures Abraham and Sarah of his plan, they begin to make decisions as if God’s plan depends on them, and this lack of trust manifests in relational control. In Genesis 12, for example, Abraham and Sarah enter Egypt, and Abraham is concerned that he will be killed because of Sarah’s beauty, so he tells her to “say you’re my sister so it will go well for me because of you, and my life will be spared on your account” (v. 13). 

Dutifully, Sarah does exactly what he asks. Soon after, Sarah is invited to the palace, and Pharaoh treats Abraham well on her behalf. He gifts Abraham flocks, herds, and even slaves, which implies this whole charade went on for quite some time. But like all lies, this one did not remain hidden forever. God strikes Pharaoh and his household with a plague, causing Pharaoh to realize he has been deceived. Once he realizes the scam, he sends Abraham and Sarah on their way. 

This whole debacle should have been the end of Abraham and Sarah’s attempts to control. It should have taught them their lesson, but it did not. Four chapters later Sarah is still struggling with infertility. Despite God’s promise of countless descendants, she cannot get pregnant, and she begins to doubt God once again. 

I imagine Sarah felt confused, betrayed, and maybe even a little foolish for believing something so impossible in the first place, and it is in this state of desperation that Sarah decides God must need her help. She instructs Abraham to sleep with her slave, Hagar, in order to build a family, and before long the plan seems to be working.

For a little while, anyway.

After some time, it becomes clear that this is nothing more than a Faustian bargain. Not long after Abraham and Hagar’s child, Ishmael, is born, Sarah begins to feel jealous of Hagar, and in an act of terrible cruelty, she drives Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, vulnerable and alone. 

In the quiet aftermath of her actions, Sarah finds herself in the exact same place where she started. Except now she has the abuse of Hagar and the neglect of Ishmael on her hands. She has also unleashed a relational brokenness that will be felt for generations. All because one person thought she knew better than God.

Sadly, the urge to control was a generational sin that repeated itself throughout the book of Genesis:

Sarah eventually gives birth to Isaac, and then Isaac (like his father before him) tries to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save himself (Gen. 26).

Rebekah—Isaac’s wife—manipulates Isaac into blessing her favorite son (Gen. 27).

Laban—Jacob’s uncle—tricks Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter (Gen. 29).

The stories go on and on. Each new family is fractured by members who trust in their own sovereignty. These individuals connive and deceive and manipulate outcomes, but not once does it produce the wholeness they think it will. Never does it bring them closer to one another. Never does it heal or unite. It only breaks and divides. This is what’s at stake whenever we are tempted to control others. It’s a reality that genuinely chastens me when I am trying to control my husband. When I am pressing Ike to lead our church a certain way, or make the decision that I think he should make, I now wonder, What sort of damage is this doing to our marriage long-term?

This truth also haunts me as I raise my kids. They are still young enough that I can “make them” do virtually anything I want. But there is a dance here: balancing my God-given authority as their parent with my limitations as a human being. While I can teach them wisdom and truth and godly habits, I cannot “make them” love activities they do not love, or have a specific kind of personality they do not possess. And as much as I wish I could, I cannot make them surrender their lives to Christ.

 If I try to control these things, I do so at my own peril. To control my children is to undermine my relationship with them in the long run. This is yet another cost of controlling people. Broken relationships are not an if, but a when. When we control people, we will inevitably fracture our relationship with them, because God did not design people to be controlled.

Excerpt from The Cost of Control by Sharon Hodde Miller  provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2022. Used by permission.


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Sharon Hodde Miller

Sharon Hodde Miller, PhD, is teaching pastor at Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina, which she cofounded with her husband, Ike. The author of Free of Me and Nice, Miller has blogged at SheWorships.com for over ten years, has been a regular contributor to Propel, Her.meneutics, and She Reads Truth, and has written for Relevant, Christianity Today, (in)courage, and many other publications and blogs. She lives with Ike and their three children in Durham, North Carolina. Connect with Sharon on Instagram and Facebook.

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