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.
- Dealing with Disappointment . . .
- Notes on Achieving Adulthood for Adulescents
- Marriageability, Not Foolish Fixups
- Denizens of the Empire, Not Necessarily Citizens of the Kingdom
- The Lost Generation of Church Going Young People
- ‘Weird’ People, Christlike Love And Pastoral Care
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