Jim Cymbala, the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle – a multiracial church in New York City that now numbers over 16,000 in members – went through a very difficult couple of years with his daughter Chrissy. She had been the model child, but then when she was sixteen years old she began to stray away.  He had tried to control her with all that he could say and do, with what would seem to have been well intentioned attempts to keep her on the straight-and-narrow, but he just kept on driving her further away, until finally she did not come home one night. And then God told him that he would only be allowed to speak to him about her.

But then, after some months, a note was passed to him in one of the prayer meetings of the church: “Pastor Cymbala, I feel impressed that we should stop the meeting and all pray for your daughter.”

That prayer meeting became an intense spiritual battle for the soul of his daughter. Nothing happened right then in the meeting other then intense prayer. But 36 hours later she came back, and she gave this confession: “Daddy, I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against myself. I’ve sinned against you and Mommy, please forgive me.”

Even more, she wanted to know: “Daddy, who was praying for me? On Tuesday night, who was praying? In the middle of the night, God woke me up and showed me I was heading toward this abyss. There was no bottom to it – I was scared to death. I realized how hard I’ve been, how rebellious and w wrong. But at the same time, it was like God wrapped his arms around me and held me tight. He kept me from sliding any farther and he said, ‘I still love you.’”

Overwhelmed – and finally driven to pray, and pray to God only, trust in God the Father only – this describes many of the situations which may come upon God’s people in this world, such as happened to Jim and Carol Cymbala. These situations are the Gethsemanes that come upon God’s people throughout the ages. And wherever there is a place of Gethsemane for them, they – we – were long ago preceded into those situations by the one true Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed so long ago by himself as he went alone, to that place of prayer, to trust in God the Father only in that time.

The garden of Gethsemane was where Jesus went to pray after he had finished his final instructions to his disciples, the last Supper. And it would be the place where he met the betrayer and the place where he would be arrested and taken into custody for civil and political crimes which he did not commit. It was, moreover,  the place where the series of events would be set into motion that would culminate in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection. That night and then on that day to follow, the weight of the world was on his shoulders. That night the one who made and held together the world found out what it was to be overwhelmed.

Gethsemane was the place where the Lord spent his darkest night, where the weight of the world was on his shoulders. It was the place which marked the beginning of the suffering of the Messiah, the time that he face what it would mean to bear the sins of the world in the next few hours. And as well it was the beginning of the battle and the ultimate victory that the Son of God would achieve over the forces of sin and death on the cross. His experience of unprecedented agony there is a guide to us of something of the price of our redemption, in what Jesus faced during the next sixteen or so hours. And, moreover, the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane guides us to what we are to do when we face our own Gethsemanes, when we face the greatest challenges that we face in following the will of God in our own lives, and we find ourselves in the times when we ourselves are overwhelmed, not because of anything that we have done wrong but because we face the will of God in a world of sin.

“And they come to a place which had the name Gethsemane, and he [Jesus] says to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I am praying.’ And he takes Peter and James and John with him, and he began to be overwhelmed and in deep distress, and he says to them, ‘My soul is extremely pained, to the point of death; stay here and keep watch.’ And he went on a little further and he fell on the ground, and he was praying that it is were possible the hour would pass from him. And he was saying, ‘Abba, Father! All things are possible with you. Take this cup from me – but not what I decide but what you decide.’ And he comes and finds them sleeping, and he says to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you (meaning all the disciples) keep awake for one hour? (Again addressed to all the disciples)Wake up and pray that you don’t come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ And again, he went away and prayed as he said the same thing. And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him. And he comes back the third time, and and he tells them, ‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest? It’s over! Look! The Son of Man has been betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look! The one who has sold me out has just arrived!’” (Mark 14:32-42, Dale’s sight translation)

The will of God often places his people in situations which overwhelm them. But Jesus was there first. For him, the night in Gethsemane was a night of sorrow and distress. There was not only physical darkness around them, but also on that night mental and emotional darkness started to close in on him as well. Here we see Jesus, as the “ . . .  man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . .” on the night where he would enter into being, ‘’ . . . despised and rejected by men . . .” (Isaiah 53:3).  And on that night, Jesus was overwhelmed. And because he was overwhelmed then, he went before us to show us what to do when we are overwhelmed.

The night of Gethsemane overwhelmed Jesus with a holy dread of what was to come upon him. His experience was a holy revulsion at the coming ordeal of the cross when he would bear the sin of the world. Someone once described this experience as the ‘presentation of the bill of salvation.’  This is how the gospel of Mark describes it in verses 32-24, in its strong, colloquial, blue collar, everyman style of Greek: “And they come to a place which had the name Gethsemane, and he [Jesus] says to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I am praying.’ And he takes Peter and James and John with him, and he began to be overwhelmed and in deep distress, and he says to them, ‘My soul is extremely pained, to the point of death; stay here and keep watch.’”

The garden of Gethsemane is still there on the side of Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. In that time it was a private garden, and the owner probably permitted Jesus and the disciples to gather there when they were in Jerusalem. Only the gospel of Mark gives the name of the garden. But that was where Jesus came to pray on that night. He separated the disciples into two groups. The group that was closer to him physically were the group of the e inner three witnesses, Peter, James and John. They were earlier the witnesses to the Transfiguration, the Olivet Discourse, and the raising of Jairus’s daughter. And here they heard a little more from him, as he described his overwhelming emotional state to the disciples there.

On that night he was not a teacher discouraged over ignorance of the world, since the problem he came to solve was not good natured ignorance of a lot of well meaning but misguided people. He knew better; on that night he was seeing clearly the defiance and depravity of the sin of the world that he would bear in his suffering. He was not seeing the sins of the series of the any supposed past lives of the people but the sins of humanity, of each individual over the course of a single lifetime but over the course of all time since the sin of Adam.  And he was experiencing the start of the full mental and emotional anguish that would be part of his sufferings. This overpowering mental and emotional distress that was apparently a new experience for his human nature, and indeed, it was a unique experience among all humanity. It was the utterly pure sadness on the one hand, with none of the things that accompany human sadness and make it destructive, the sight of sin and judgment. As the holy Son of God, he was seeing the moral insanity, utter darkness and depravity of sin, as well as the intensity of the wrath of God against sin. His reaction was the perfect reaction of sinless human nature against the horror of the sin of the world. And so that night was the Lord’s darkest night. He was overwhelmed with the weight of the world that was set before him, and that would be on his shoulders as he went to the cross. So this is how Charles Spurgeon described it: “Our blessed Lord saw sin in all its blackness. He had a most distinct perception of its treasonable assault upon his God, its murderous hatred toward himself, and its destructive influence upon mankind. Well might horror take hold of him, for a sight of sin must be far more hideous than a sight of hell, which is but its offspring.”

And so, the promise of the scriptures is not that we would never be overwhelmed ourselves. But note that what Jesus faced here has always been an encouragement to believers in all ages, that he has not undergone anything that we have not undergone before. Being overwhelmed by what happens in a fallen world is not an indication of weakness, but quite the contrary. And yet his reaction of horror at the weight of the sin of this world found far too little in those who claim to be his followers – but more on that later. And being overwhelmed far more often than not a large part of the experience of those who are actually following Christ and who are suffering for Christ in this world, and who may be bearing the suffering of others in this world for the sake of Christ. Just as there was no blame to the sinless Son of God, so also there should be no blame either to believers who are also experiencing being overwhelmed in this world as the weight of this world comes upon our shoulders. And as we follow Jesus in this world, we may well come to see more of what it means to bear more than just the weight of a single prodigal son or daughter, but the weight of a prodigal world.

Being overwhelmed, then, drove Jesus to pray. His perfect example thus provides clear guidance for his people in all ages on what to do when they are overwhelmed as well. There is no better alternative to anyone who has called him Lord and who is standing for Jesus in this world. The experience of being overwhelmed drove him to the one who could strengthen him to bear the weight of the world upon his shoulders. And make no mistake about it, our own eternal destinies, the eternal destinies of everyone around us and who has ever lived, and the fate of the entire universe depended on what would happen in these hours when Jesus was overwhelmed.

In verses 35-36 we understand how the sorrow drove Jesus to pray: “And he went on a little further and he fell on the ground, and he was praying that it is were possible the hour would pass from him. And he was saying, ‘Abba, Father! All things are possible with you. Take this cup from me – but not what I decide but what you decide.’”

This was one of the occasions where his word in prayer to the Father were overheard and recorded. The actual Aramaic word for Father included with the words that he was using, these simple yet deep and profound words. The time had arrived, but now he was asking that it would pass away. The cup was being offered, but he was asking that it be taken from him. The cup was his description of his suffering and death. It was the based on the Old Testament metaphor of a cup that held the wrath of God that was the judgment of God against sin. But there was to be no ransom for the sins of the world except through his drinking the cup in that hour. There would not be any ransom through passing through millions of reincarnations from anyone’s past lives. The redemption of the world, the atonement for the sins of humanity, each one over the course of a single lifetime could only come in one cup of the wrath of God that would be accepted in that hour. The price for salvation of the world  would be paid through the wrath of God freely accepted by the Son of God drinking the cup, and on that night he freely accepted the bill for the salvation of the world.  He accepted the culmination of his mission, in his own words, “ . . .  to give his life as a ransom for many . . .” (Mark 10:45) so that he would become, “ . . . the propitiation for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world . . .” (I John 2:2).

I don’t think that we can see Jesus here in any way to be shrinking from the physical suffering of the cross. He was a man of such physical bravery that he could walk right through a crowd which was intent on throwing him off a cliff. Rather, this was the realization of all that that the cross would mean to him of separation from God during that time through his suffering in his human nature, to the point where he would utter the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

So Jesus asked for the cup and the hour to pass from him. He was acting and speaking within the limits of his human knowledge but at the same time he was submitting to the will of God with his unfallen human will also. His brief prayer as recorded was probably a summary of a more protracted struggle of continued, heartfelt prayer that he had before God the Father. And yet he followed with a perfect faith before God the Father and a perfect perception of the Father in this time of crisis. And so he then continued on in prayer with the full submission to the will of the Father.

Again, Jesus guides us what to do when we are overwhelmed. What he was experiencing then may have been and may have often been what believers have been doing the nights in prisons before their executions for following Jesus throughout the ages, and that which is still something that believers are called to do. But even more, if there are no experiences of being overwhelmed and driven to prayer among us there will be no growth and expansion of his kingdom on this world. The further call then is to the place of prayer and submission wherever we may be. This includes the need for prayer beyond the prodigals in our families to the prodigals outside our families — something that seems to happen far too little among us any more.

I would put it that these are the Gethsemanes that believers around us are entering far too little any more – the Gethsemanes of intercession for the world around us rather more than just a continued and perhaps even obsessive supplication for a loved one who may be rebellious and straying – and often enough, this rebellion is the rejection of the overcontrol of obsessive parents who use Christianity to try to control their children. This intercession, where we can pour out our heart for those who are around us who are lost who may not be a part of our family is where our heart reflects more and more the heart of God for the world. And often, isn’t one of the underlying motives about the prodigal often include our family and our reputation?

So where we make the Gethsemane of our lives to be about the prodigal world rather than the prodigal child we declare before God, the world and the prodigal child that our love for God and the prodigal world is more than about our family and our reputation. We send a message to prodigal that it really isn’t about them, they don’t get control with their rebellion, and that it’s up to them to stand before God as a responsible adult who has reached the age of accountability before God. An intercessory and surrendering prayer will often be a part of this, where we seek God and entrust them to God and stop trying to overwhelm them with our obsessive and often deceitful and selfish attempts to control. And when we do so, we will find tremendous opportunities for ministry.

I can’t recall where, but I do remember a story of two Christian parents whose child started ‘hanging with the wrong crowd.’ They were upset and discouraged, but then they saw this as an opportunity to minister to the adolescents from the wrong crowd; after all, the circumstances were bringing them right into their own home. They ended up winning several of their child’s friends ‘from the wrong crowd’ to Christ as they prayed for them, invited them to dinner and to evenings with the family. And lo and behold, their child came back to Christ when that child saw that those whom that child thought had the answers wanted what that child had had all along. So I would leave you with these words from a song from Billy Joel. I don’t like most of what the song  says, but these words should be extremely disturbing to the church and should awaken the church to its responsibility toward the lost and winnable individuals from ‘the wrong crowd’: “You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation / She never cared for me / But did she ever say a prayer for me?”

Unfortunately, though, not everyone will respond to the experience of being overwhelmed by prayer. These are the disciples of Jesus who are not careful to respond to the hour of trial and temptation without placing themselves squarely in the will of God and receive the power of God through prayer. They will then still face defeat in this world, because they are living with less than God is ready and willing to give them in their situation.

So here’s what we see in verses 37-40: “And he comes and finds them sleeping, and he says to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you (meaning all the disciples) keep awake for one hour? (Again addressed to all the disciples)Wake up and pray that you don’t come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ And again, he went away and prayed as he said the same thing. And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him.” The Lord continued in prayer even though he could not rouse the disciples to continue with him. They also were overwhelmed. Their distress seems to have come from their anticipation of the departure of Jesus. That would be the loss that they did not understand and still could not grasp. They had heard ominous warnings over the course of the ministry of Jesus which they could not square with their understanding of how the Messiah would act, and that evening they heard the predictions of betrayal and the predictions of their abandoning him in the hour of crisis. And when that time of crisis came they could not even keep their eyes open despite all Jesus tried to do to arouse them.  

The disciples were overwhelmed beyond their spiritual ability and beyond their own strength and understanding even to pray in that time – but that made it more necessary to pray. They were unable to get what was going on with Jesus and that situation, and they surrendered to the weakness of their human nature in that time. Even so, the situation was far more overwhelming to Jesus himself, and the situation did not stop Jesus from continuing in prayer. And note that Jesus was not asking them to pray for him. Rather, he was seeking to have them do what praying that they could in that time to be able to stand on their own when he was led away in chains. While it is true that here we see Jesus seeking to rouse his closest friends to stand with him, I think that we can also see him as a king seeking to rouse his troops to seek the strength stand their ground in the conflict that he knew they would face. And three times Jesus rebuked them, and both the second and final rebuke very ironic and show his extreme disappointment. But eventually the lesson did come home to them, much later and here is the lesson that was recorded by Peter: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring ion looking for someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8 ).

Likewise, being overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion, to being unable even to pray has often been the experience of believers throughout this world and often in the face of all the weight of the world seemingly coming against them. Yet they may still not seek God in prayer, so that they are still unable to face the weight of the world coming down around them with the strength that God is ready and willing to give if they simply come to him in prayer. These believers  may then be those who fail others in the time of trial, when they themselves cannot really get what is going on with the situation that is overwhelming them and overwhelming others. So they have become lost in the overwhelming experience and  do not get to the place where they can find the way out, even if they are trying with all their own might to be tough and self-reliant in the face of all this world brings against them. And once again the London preacher Charles Spurgeon has a pungent word to speak to this situation: “Temptation lets us known how weak we are, and drives us to our knees. It tests our faith and tries our love, and lets us see whether our graces are genuine or not.”

Being overwhelmed, then,  is not a mark of something wrong with us, but of the world that we live in. Nowadays many of us may experience too much of the wrong kind of being overwhelmed from the times that we may be of trying to play God ourselves and in the lives of others in this world. The lesson of Gethsemane, of the horror of the sin of the world, is too little realized among us nowadays. Our own lack of a clear understanding of the horror of the sin of this world leaves us too often too ready to take the side of the sinner against the holy, perfect God who says that sin must be atoned for and points to the cross as the remedy. And too often our concerns center more in the wayward family member than the wayward world around us. And thus there remains too little regard for the seriousness of sin, too little appreciation for the love of God who gave his Son, and too little awe at the utter submission of the Son of God to the will of the God the Father.

Being overwhelmed is the place where we may find ourselves in this world. But it does not have to be a long term or permanent state of our lives. It can be the place which leads to the beginning of a victory that glorifies God to all eternity. Through persistence in prayer the overwhelming situation concludes in victory. For Jesus, the night in Gethsemane ended in victory. The battle which he began there as a part of his war against the forces of darkness continued to its ultimate culmination. He was victorious then and there in Gethsemane so that he could continue in victory to the end on the cross.  The conflict within gave way to his standing up to the beginning of his suffering with the betrayal. So being overwhelmed gave way to standing up and standing firm in the face of what would happen to him over the rest of the night and the next day to the final victory on the cross.

The crushing weight which overwhelmed Jesus became bearable to the point of facing the road to the cross. This was the starting point of the final series of events for which he came began with the acceptance of the cup from God the Father and the victory for which he came.

Here is what verses 41-42 say: “And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him. And he comes back the third time, and and he tells them, ‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest? It’s over! Look! The Son of Man has been betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look! The one who has sold me out has just arrived!’”  These were the last words of Jesus before the betrayal and arrest. That was then not something that he faced unwillingly but with the full submission of his will. He knew that the time had come, and he went forth to meet the betrayer, the betrayal and the arrest by an armed mob of hired political flunkeys.

There is some dispute over the meaning of v. 41: “‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest?” This was most likely an ironic question that was probably put quite gently to the disciples. After this question he announces the next event in the series of events that would happened over the rest of the night and the next day: his betrayal into the hands of sinners. The words of Jesus recall his own predictions of his death and resurrection which he gave to the disciples earlier during his ministry, which are recorded in Mark 8:31, 9:31,10:33-32.  He was now fully willing to get up  and to  enter into the events that would happen. He had now entered into the full acceptance of the cup of the judgment of God upon himself for the sin of the world and all that would mean to him. The time of prayer has made the change in him now to face his mission clearly, as he rises up from this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. He rises from the place of prayer to the path of submission and obedience to the will of the Father to the uttermost. And, just as well, the failure of the apostles then may have been a later victory themselves once the lesson of Gethsemane came through to them years later when they faced their own suffering and martyrdoms.

Being overwhelmed, then, does not have to end that way. That experience does not have to be the permanent experience of the believer. Though we are living in a world which may often beat us down and always, seeks to beat us down does not mean that that being overwhelmed has to be the last word on us and our experience. The path to victory after being overwhelmed comes in getting up and going forward after spending as much time on the knees before God as it takes. So most certainly today there is far too little realization that the victory is won first in the place of prayer. There is the place where we come into the embrace of the will of God there and receive his power, then to the path of submission and obedience.


The gospel of salvation is therefore the invitation to participate in the victory of Jesus Christ. The whole point of his death and resurrection to provide the salvation which is received by repentance and faith in him alone. The whole reason why he suffered and died is so that you might come to the place where you  receive his death as the price for your salvation, for the forgiveness of your sins. This calls for the conscious decision from you, for the conscious reception by faith, the saving faith which is the basis of entering and standing in the salvation which Jesus has brought, since without him our sin is overwhelming to us from now to all eternity.

Dark hours and overwhelming situations still come upon us in this world. Some will come unexpectedly, and some will come simply by taking the next step in following the will of God in this world. But his victory makes possible our victories in our darkest and most overwhelming hours. He has shown us the place to find the victory if we find ourselves in our darkest nights, so for us the place to be in the hardest times and in the times of greatest temptation is in the place of prayer. There we can find his power to help us and his presence to guide and strengthen us. There is no need to be thrown into dependence on our own strength and wisdom, but in the place of our own Gethsemane we can receive his strength and wisdom for the next steps on the path of the will of God. And his victory also makes it certain that the earthly troubles will finally end and that finally there will be nothing but eternal, infinite love and joy in the presence of God. And often enough, the overwhelming situation may also have nothing to do with our own sin, but with the sins and follies of others around us. So there remains among us to the end of the world the need to go into the place of persistent prayer, to a Gethsemane of intercession for this world, for not only for the wayward family members but for the people of the prodigal, wayward world around us.


‘Let Go and Let God!’

Updated again!

One of my memories from the time that I was a prayer counselor for the Rex Humbard ministry back in the late 1970s and early 1980s was how wrapped up many Christian parents and, sometimes, Christian leaders would get in the lives of their children and even other adult believers. I can remember how one sister in Christ, with sons of her own on her heart, telling another mother quite compassionately, “Let go and let God.”

That’s an old Alcoholics Anonymous expression, but it does speak to the exaggerated sense of responsibility that many believers, often Christian parents, take for the lives of other people. They become interfering ‘helicopter’ parents in the lives of others, usually their own children, but sometimes others as well. Many times Christian leaders fall into this trap of over-responsibility, when they come into a kind of stubborn self delusion that they know what is right for another believer. They may then fall into very devious and sinful ways of trying to force another adult into what they believe is right for that person. For myself, I can think of at least three fellow pastors to whom I have felt a need to say, “Let go!” There was one of them in particular that I really felt that this was a message that God had for him. Out of these experiences, I developed my own twist on the First Spiritual Law from Campus Crusade for Christ’s list of the Four Spiritual Laws: “God loves you, but everyone else has a wonderful plan for your life!” I think that often we fail to emphasize that God brings no one into our lives, especially another believer, as the vehicle for our own ambitions and plans but that together we may all follow his plans for our lives.  As for myself, I have kept and will always keep the final responsibility to discern and follow God’s will from his Word for myself (II Timothy 3:16-17, Romans 14:9-12, II Corinthians 5:10, Philippians 2:12-13), and I think that’s really God’s plan for every adult and every person who is growing into adulthood.

I don’t see this sense of over-responsibility and surrogate over-parenting which I have mentioned in the Bible, either in precept or example. I first mentioned this in an earlier blog post (We’re Not Your Parents!):

How unreasonable this is can simply be seen by looking at the scriptural pattern and God’s design for the world in his creation and providence: God only gives parental authority and position to those who have children by birth or adoption, and parental authority is only given to them over their own children and ceases when their children become adults. We need to recognize anything else as a self serving deception.

Jesus calls us away from all that attitude of self exaltation over another two sentences later: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). His call is away from any path to or self justification of power over others for the sake of my own pride and self satisfaction to the way of Christlike servanthood and humility. In this age of self serving pride, this is the way to show the reality of our salvation and our ongoing relationship to the Son of God who took on the form of a servant and humbled himself even to the death on the cross (Philippians 2:1-11).

Rather, especially in Jesus, I see a turning back of the responsibility to follow God’s Word back on adults who already have that responsibility. I can see much more the entrusting of the people for whom they had concern back to God, often in an explicit commitment of them back to God in prayer. That, in fact, is often part of the meaning of the nice little benedictions that close the New Testament letters like Jude 24-25: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy . . .” It is the point of statements like Paul’s in his farewell to the Ephesian elders at Troas: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

Many of the Christian parents that I knew in the past had come to the place where they had entrusted the lives of their children to God, and took pains to leave them there, as they themselves often said. They could pray in faith for them and trust God for them without attempting to interfere in their lives, control them, or enmesh themselves in their lives and wrap themselves in their lives. Those who dedicated them publicly to God before the church sometimes bring back the memory of that act to bolster them when they are tempted to fret or become over involved in their lives Even more, I believe that this kind of entrusting someone into the care and keeping of God above all is necessary for every believer, every Christian leader, to do with everyone with whom they are tempted to do so the same. So, if you have any kind of anxiety or concern about anyone’s life, do not discuss it with anyone else, and make it a subject of gossip.

What this comes down to is that we need to be careful to treat other people in age appropriate ways if we are to be truly loving as Jesus has loved us, and this means making sure that we treat adults as adults much more often. “ . . . love does not act in inappropriate ways . . .” (I Corinthians 13:5).  I believe that often a controlling, helicopter parent takes these tendencies into his or leadership style if he or she becomes a leader in a local church, denomination or or other evangelical institution. Too often it seems like this is often neither recognized nor rebuked, even among the official leaders of churches, when they begin to act as surrogate parents, even in the lives of other adults. Again, I have seen this tendency most often among church leaders when they have been helicopter parents. When they become empty nesters there is a real danger that they become helicopter people. It’s not hard to recognize the characteristics that this obsessive, unwanted and unwelcome interference in the lives produces in the lives of those who are consumed with it: hovering, intrusive, interfering, fearful and obsessively observant about the life of another adult.

There was once an an egregious example of how destructive this kind of helicopter parenting can become in the classic film Now, Voyager. In this film Bette Davis showed her tremendous acting ability as the youngest daughter of a tyrannical mother who tried to rule her every possible, miniscule way. In the film Claude Rains played the psychiatrist who diagnosed her character with a severe mental illness and managed to get her away from the tyranny of her mother. Nowadays, her character would not be diagnosed with mental illness but arrested development and psychological injury due to repeated verbal and emotional abuse. The mother would be recognized as being more pathological than the character which Bette Davis played. Her character, before the psychiatrist pulled her away from her toxic home life, showed a life which could be described as prematurely aged and emotionally exhausted, robbed and ransacked through having to deal with her mother’s tyranny over her life.  Unfortunately, though, it’s not often one parent but both spouses in a marriage who get caught up in this kind of treatment of others. This is an extreme example, and rarely comes to this, but I do want anyone caught up in this kind of treatment to understand that the personal and emotional consequences can be quite destructive. Here is the portrayal of what this treatment brought to this still young woman.

This is not where God has called us, brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather, follow the scriptural path of entrusting the people in our lives entirely to God and renouncing any kind of over-responsibility or interference in their lives. Learn to leave them in the hands of God if you are ever tempted to try to over-reach in responsibility and criticize and sabotage decisions and actions that they have made with full responsibility before God and man. Confess any previous meddling or controlling actions as sin before God (I John 1:7-10, I Peter 4:15 – note the word ‘meddler’).

  • Admit before God that you act as a surrogate parent to feed your own ego and your own reputation and to avoid your own fears, needs and disappointments, and that you have not been willing to step back and allow God to work in the lives of the others but have tried to play God yourself in the lives of other people. Admit that you have not seen God the Father but yourself as the perfect parent, that you have not recognized the Son of God but yourself as the one who should be in charge of someone else’s life, and that you have not realized that God the Holy Spirit is the one who brings about real changes in another person’s life and not yourself.
  • If you are an empty nester parent and you finding yourself being drawn to play the part of the self appointed surrogate parent, admit that you miss your own children and that you obsessively watch for  and prey upon the real, supposed or exaggerated weaknesses of others to try to enlist them to be in the place of a child so that you can keep on playing the part of a parent in someone else’s life.
  • Thank God for every moment that you have had with your children, and work on your own relationship with your children. Explicitly renounce control of them and entrust them to God.
  • Work on your own marriage if you are married. If you are obsessed with controlling any other person, there is a good possibility that your spouse is being cheated out of the proper attention, respect and affection by that obsession.
  • Develop healthy, respectful, non controlling relationships. Keep on reminding yourself that Jesus is Lord, not you for as long as it takes for the message to sink in. If it helps, develop a habit of seeing Jesus as standing between every other person you are tempted to try to control and yourself.

In addition, if you are tempted to keep on meddling and hovering around some other believer, pray, confess and do nothing but thank God for that person and praise God that he is working out HIS will in that person’s life. Do not talk or complain about that person any longer, and go to those you have expressed your ‘concerns’ and retract what you have said as out of place, unnecessary, self serving and most likely distorted!

End your bossiness, meddling and gossip.

In case you just immediately missed or dismissed or ignored what was just written, end your meddling and gossip.

In case anyone else advised you to miss, dismiss or ignore what was just written, end your meddling and gossip.

In case you are bristling at what was just written and your habitual stubbornness has arisen when as it usually does when you are confronted with your bossy, meddling and gossiping ways, understand this: you still need to end your bossiness, meddling and gossip.

In case you are now calculating how ending your bossiness, meddling and gossip will damage the exaggerated reputation that you have tried to construct for yourself through talking yourself up and talking down that other person, understand this: you still need to end your bossiness, meddling and gossip.

If you are now trying to say that God has led you or led anyone else to encourage you to speak and act in these unscriptural ways, understand this: you still need to end your bossiness, meddling and gossip.

If you cannot get the picture out of your mind that that other person is immature and needs your help, understand that immaturity is not necessarily a permanent, lifelong state, that what you think is immaturity in that other person may not now and may never have in fact existed as a long term problem, and that your immaturity and your own long term problem is your bossiness, meddling and gossip. Rather, thank God for whatever ways in which he guided, protected and preserved you in spite of yourself and your own immaturity and find some humility in recognizing all the ways in which you have failed, messed up, sinned and fallen short of all your own desires and expectations. So you still need to end your bossiness, meddling and gossip.

Then, find the way to pray for the person with which you have been wrapped up in getting your way in that person’s life. Getting your way in that person’s life is not an item on God’s agenda for that person’s life.  Give the almighty, all-wise and all-loving God the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he is doing and can do in the life of another person, and be prepared to give that other person the benefit of the doubt if you are or have been praying for him or her and he or she has been making choices that may not fit your ideas but which do not violate scripture. Here are some ways to pray for a fellow believer, whether your child or someone else’s child – but still God’s child — who needs to be entrusted into the ultimate keeping of the almighty, all-wise and all-loving God:

  • Pray for that person to be built up and established in the Word God, in faith, love, witness and maturity (II Thessalonians 1:11-12, Colossians 2:6-7).
  • Ask that that person grow to maturity in Christ, in life, service, and fruitfulness (Ephesians 4:11-16).
  • Request that God fill that person with spiritual insight, to be receptive to the Word of God and in first hand, personal knowledge of God (Colossians 3:15-17, Ephesians 1:15-20).
  • Pray that that person be filled with the love of Christ through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-21, Philippians 1:9, I Thessalonians 3:12, Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25).
  • Ask that that person be filled with the Spirit of prayer in the name of Christ, to become a person of constant prayer (Romans 8:26-27, Ephesians 2:18, 3:12, 6:18).

Here are some ways to pray for someone for whom you may be concerned who is not a believer:

  • Agree with the gracious desire of God himself that that person come to salvation in Christ (Ezekiel 18:23, John 3:17, I Timothy 2:4, II Peter 3:9).
  • Reason with God that the salvation of that person is the fulfillment of the purpose of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 12:23-24, I Timothy 2:5, II Corinthians 5:14-15, Romans 14:9).
  • Ask that that person come into contact with a daily witness with an open heart (Acts 2:47).
  • Ask that Christ be made manifest in the gospel to that person through the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 4:6, Isaiah 9:2, John 6:44, 15:26-27, 16:8-11, I Thessalonians 1:5, Psalm 83:16).

If you are a pastor, then, learn to let go when people leave your church for any reason. Pray over them as I have just mentioned. There may be problems that they have had with you or your church, or even other problems with which they have been suffering in silence at your church. It may well be that they need to get away to deal with them. People rarely run away a loving church with sound Bible teaching, but they do run from interfering, controlling and even abusive people in churches. If that person is not you, you may still need to let them go to find a safe haven. While scripture does call us to remain in fellowship with other believers, I cannot find anywhere that it says we must remain in fellowships where interfering, controlling or abusive people continue to wreak their mischief and pain upon a believer, especially if the leaders in the church tolerate, encourage or even participate in that same interference and abuse.

If people leave your church, do not:

  • Try to track them to any churches where they may be attending, or ask anyone that you know is a friend of that person to keep an eye on them and report on what happens to them. (This may in some cases violate anti-stalking laws.)
  • Keep on trying to get them back to attend your church again, especially if they have become involved in another church.
  • Express any concerns about them publicly or privately, or write any letters or have any discussions about them with people at a new church if they start attending one.
  • Especially do not share any of your concerns or perhaps personal disagreements or quarrels with a fellow pastor, even if it’s in a letter or email and under the guise of a referral. (This may meet the legal definitions for libel, slander and defamation of character.)
  • If you know of any medical treatment that this person has undergone – and this includes counseling and psychotherapy – be extremely careful what you say. You might be opening yourself up for legal action under HIPAA regulations.

If you are a pastor and another pastor does something like calling you to tell you things about someone who has started to attended or sending you letters or emails about that person, here’s what I would advise:

  • Let that pastor know that you are prepared to let that person know everything that is said or written, and that he or she will get a copy of the letter or email for his or her consideration.
  • If that pastor starts to backtrack and try to get you to stop you from doing any such thing, then ask for a complete retraction of everything that was said, especially if it was done in a letter or email.

Some years ago V. Raymond Edman wrote about the tremendous damage that can be done through the letter writing campaigns that many had brought much suffering to many believers, both pastors and otherwise. In a previous blog post, Recommendations, References, Evaluations and Slander, I wrote about how this can cause problems in finding employment and other unnecessary vocational obstacles, and I do believe that many of the files of our pastors, churches and denominational offices do contain documents which amount to de facto slander against fellow pastors and fellow believer. Over the years I’ve also met those in our churches and among our leaders are extremely vulnerable to receive and pass on slander, hearsay and rumor. The very least that any leader in the church of Jesus Christ can do is to refuse to receive it and act on it, especially if they themselves have been devastated when it happened to them.

During my time in the pastorate, I found that there was usually at least one controlling person trying to hold the reins in a stagnant and declining church – and often this was a married woman going into or past middle age. Often I found that in families where patterns of addiction are entrenched that there was a person who had been trying to control others for years or decades. In an earlier blog post (Controlling Others As Counterfeit Love), I dealt with the issue of trying to control other people. I still think that we have not dealt often or loudly enough about this tendency to try to control, rooted in human pride, the desire to play God in someone else’s life, in our preaching and teaching. Here is some of what I wrote then:

Biblical, Christlike love is servanthood, not control:. . . serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:14). It is seeking the highest good of another person according to the standards of the Word of God. Attempts to control others pollute love, sabotage their God given responsibility for their own lives, and may eventually destroy the relationship. Here are some of the self deceptions of the person who attempts to control others in their lives.

1. Self Deception: “I believe that a person who changes to my specifications will be a better person.”

Reality: This is a dangerous arrogance of personal authority and presumption of personal knowledge of what is best for another person. Only God can be the real judge of what is best for another person.

2. Self Deception: “I am responsible to make another adult do what he should do.”

Reality: Each adult has his own responsibility before God to follow his will, and will answer personally to God for how he has fulfilled that responsibility.

3. Self Deception: “God has given me special insight and capability to help this person make necessary changes in his or her life.”

Reality: This is mistaking the voice of obsession for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and is a rationalization of attempts to play the Hoy Spirit in another person’s life. The real agenda of the Holy Spirit is different than that of another human being, and he does not originate nor stand behind obsessions.

4. Self Deception: “I would be happier if this other person changed.”

Reality: Happiness is dependent upon your personal choice of the will of God.

5. Self Deception: “I meet my emotional needs by exerting power over others.”

Reality: God wants you to find satisfaction in a humble walk with himself.

6. Self Deception: “I am overprotective of those whom I love.”

Reality: God alone is sufficient to protect and defend his people. . . .

  • “Results in another person’s life are not my responsibility.”
  • “My preconceived notions of what the end result of my helping may be far from God’s actual intentions for another person.” .
  • “I cannot change another person, no matter how much I care and want to help.”
  • “No strings of control are to be attached to my gift of love.”
  • “I am not needed in the role of Messiah.”
  • “I must never underestimate my own human vulnerability.”
  • “I must never overestimate my ability to know what is best for another adult.”
  • “I am not superior. I am just a friend, a person who has chosen to love.”
  • “Only eternity will reveal the fruit of love I have sown in other’s lives.”
  • “When I love another person, I offer it as a gift to Christ.”

Here are some other posts in which I dealt with this issue of over-responsibility and control, and the results that it may have in the lives of others. The issue of escaping the control of a hovering, controlling parent is something that has often been mentioned in the lives of young people when they leave our evangelical churches. Again, I think that we need to keep on talking about the need to go beyond a childhood version of one’s faith, or a second hand or heirloom faith, as a part of growing to maturity in Christ and as an adult.

All scripture references taken unless otherwise indicated  from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers