I sit in the dim room with other women. As the video starts for the new Bible study, panic rises inside me like fast-moving mercury in a barometer on a hot July day. The speaker, Ann Voskamp, tells about the death of her sister. As she describes the delivery truck pulling up the drive, the screams of her mother, I grow uncomfortable. Tears surface, a softball-size lump forms in my throat. I rehearse in my mind, “Do not cry. Do not cry. Do not cry.”
I try to think of something funny. Like one of my daughter’s jokes that has no punchline. And it’s hilarious because she thinks it is. And she laughs like it is possibly the world’s best joke. When actually it may be the world’s worst one. Thinking about this helps me remain calm, though I am hysterical on the inside.
Why am I having such a hard time listening to Voskamp’s story? Why does it upset me so much that I want to leave the room?
It is not until a few months later that I realize why I had the reaction I did to Voskamp’s story. I reacted the way I did because I have control issues. I have been there in her story — crushed beneath delivery truck moments I didn’t see coming. And because of those occasions, I have had problems with trust and problems in relationships.
How I Became a Control Freak
I didn’t always have the need to anticipate things, the fear of the unexpected to the extent that I would try to micromanage my circumstances. But out of my childhood was birthed the need to be able to have a say, to be able to have some decision over the outcome.
I didn’t get to pick the fact that I lived in a house that I was ashamed of. I didn’t get to choose the fact that I didn’t have any clothes to wear in high school. I didn’t get to have a say when my father came home angry and yelled at us. Which happened a lot. I wasn’t asked when a person in a significant relationship chose to break up with me and leave me outside his house with nothing but a letter. So, I made the decision as a young woman to never let anyone hurt me again. (As if I could realistically manipulate every element in my environment.)
That choice probably didn’t appear pivotal, but it was. Because of that resolution, I put myself in the unrealistic position as one who can control what happens to me. And I really can’t. I can’t anticipate the actions of others and manipulate the people around me so that I can avoid feeling a certain way. But that’s what I’ve tried to do.
And although my struggles stemmed mainly from failed male relationships — my father who ignored me and the boyfriends who left me — this pain translated into destructive tendencies in all my relationships, particularly friendships with women. I asked God why this was, and He told me: I’ve been chasing after power. Because if you’ve ever felt voiceless, then you know that you never want to feel that way again.
When I Let Fear Turn Me into a Mean Girl
Underneath that need to control has been something larger: fear. When I find myself in situations where I don’t like how events are turning out, I get afraid. Afraid of getting hurt. And it’s in that place of fear that I act in ways I shouldn’t.
I circumvent circumstances or hurt people before they can hurt me.
Some time ago, after losing a baby, I felt like I had sufficiently healed from the wound. I felt that I was at peace with what had happened. There was another woman I knew who was pregnant at the same time as me. A woman whose belly kept expanding even as mine was shrinking. A woman who got to go through all the milestones that I would never get to go through with the baby I lost.
I was really struggling with the fact that we had gotten pregnant around the same time. I was angry that God would bless her and allow her to continue on with her pregnancy — and not me. But I knew I needed to do the right thing, so I called her up and told her that I was happy for her, and I wished her well with her pregnancy.
But weeks later, when we attended an event together, I struggled knowing she would be there — reminding me of a loss I didn’t want to be reminded of. Knowing that she would be looking very pregnant, I dressed in a form-fitting dress. If I couldn’t be pregnant, I wanted to out-do her in some way, knowing that she would be weary of her swollen ankles and protruding stomach.
After the event, I knew I had acted in the wrong way. I felt like God wanted me to admit to her that I was having a hard time with the fact that she had her baby, and I couldn’t have mine. So I apologized to her.
Flaunting my skinny body in front of her was about trying to get the upper hand in a situation where I felt helpless. My problem really wasn’t with her. It was about fighting with everything I had against the perceived injustice of a situation.
You see, that “harmless” vow I made as a young person to never allow a person to hurt me made me feel I had to manipulate that situation.
Giving up Fear and My Need to Control
Jesus knew a few women in His time who had difficulties with relationships. A few women who probably felt like me — that life handed them circumstances they didn’t ask for.
In John 4:4, Jesus initiates a conversation with one such woman at a well. She had had five marriages and was living with a man she wasn’t married to, though we aren’t told whether her previous marriages ended because she had committed adultery or her husbands sent her away. Whatever the case, she had no husband when Jesus found her. Maybe she had decided that she had had enough of marriage and had decided to live outside the boundaries of matrimony to preserve her heart.
Maybe like me, she felt that if she could just control x, y and z, she could prevent another heartbreak. Another catastrophe.
Jesus does two really important things when He talks to her. He tells her that He knows all about her past string of husbands and the man she is living with now — establishing Himself as the one who knows her secrets. And then, He gives her a solution when He brings up a conversation with her about “living water” (v. 10).
The solution He offers the woman at the well and offers to you and me is Himself. The ultimate power source. She doesn’t have to hope for a better situation or figure out how to make that happen, Jesus shows a better way — which is not to try to change those around her, but be changed herself. To allow His eternal wellspring of life to live in her.
When we recognize Him as the one in control, we don’t have to be in control. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves “drawing water” from our own wells that will eventually run dry. We have in Him a never ending source of contentment, peace, satisfaction and belonging that fills all those places of neediness where we were never loved or noticed by the people we counted on the most.
The woman at the well drops her water jar and runs to tell the village about Jesus, saying, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did” (v. 29). By leaving her jar behind, we see that she is leaving behind her old methods of satisfying her thirst and embracing Jesus.
As commentator Alexander McLaren notes, the interesting thing about this exchange between Jesus and the woman is that she has no idea who He really is at first, and the truth gradually dawns on her. So it is when we walk with Jesus. We don’t really understand Him or His ways until we get to know Him better.
Not only does the truth of who He is dawn on her, the truth about herself dawns on her as well.
My need to control has not really been a problem with control — it’s been about a problem with trust. I didn’t know that I could trust God in my situation with the pregnant woman. Even though it would appear that I was acting out against her, I was shaking my fist at a God who I felt didn’t notice or care.
But I don’t have to be Carol control freak. Carol walking around with past wounds. He says, “Come to me. I have all you have been looking for. You will find it nowhere else but in me. And your desire for stability, knowing what outcomes in situations will be — I know it all. I can help you better than anyone because I know the end before you know the beginning.”
Those delivery truck moments — we can’t avoid them. They will come. We can’t waste time worrying and trying to avoid pain. We need to rest in the knowledge that Jesus will walk us through those trials.
What I can learn from Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well is that instead of controlling out of fear, I can trust.