Book Review: The Cost of Control

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I am attempting to read like the wind from now till the end of the year. I have many titles that I set out to read in 2022 and even shoved up there into the Goodreads universe of book goals. But I am distractable; it is the nature of ADHD. But did you know, no matter what things I am “reading like the wind” or like a breeze, I always have one second title going at a rate of about a chapter per day? These books are meant less for entertainment and more for edification. (There are ways in which both of the categories of books accomplish the goals of the other, but this is the basic idea.) I have actually been reading a series of books on sex, Christianity, shame, and the Purity Movement. But when my (new) pastor published a book (last week) which she was covering in her sermons (not related to any of the things I just listed), I decided to break on the series of books to read her new one.

Yes, Sharon Hodde Miller is my (new) pastor. I can’t exactly review her objectively. I want to be nice and I already know I enjoy her teaching. Also, this is a new relationship between me and Bright City, so I don’t want to make any enemies. However, I am some sort of Midwestern and, as my husband says, I don’t do BS. So I will do my best in this review to tell it like it is while also being considerate. Actually, believe it or not, that is the way I attempt to write all my reviews and blogs because, at the very least, I respect writers and the writing process and I believe in, as Miller would call it, influence over control.

The Cost of Control (by Sharon Hodde Miller) comes at the right moment for me. Then again, this book is so timely to our culture and era that I bet almost any sympathetic reader could pick this one up and then say the same. I could have used it ten years ago and I will likely need it in ten more. To quip on Oprah, “You need this book! You need this book! You need this book!” Why? What is it about?

Well, control costs us. We turn automatically to control as soon as we feel out of control, but it’s, as Miller repeatedly puts it, a “devil’s deal.” Control only increases our anxiety, destroys our relationships, exhausts us, and lands us squarely in the middle of unreality, a gerbil on the wheel circling toward an illusive control that never existed in the first place. What’s the good news? There’s a better offer, which is to surrender to the One Who actually is omnipotent, and to exercise our God-given agency and self-control (as opposed to being powerless or reactive). The book is written in four parts. The first defines the terms and argues for the illusory nature of control and the bad deal it is. The second gives many of the ways we use control in our habits and reactions (as information, as power, as money, as autonomy, as theology, as shame). The third enumerates the cost of control (broken relationships, burnout, body shame, anxiety, exhaustion). The last gives us the better options: surrender, agency, and self-control.

I received much from this book. It didn’t go as deep into each argument as I wanted it to (though I think this is partly done because Miller wanted to “stay in her own lane,” at least in some cases). But I also wonder if it has enough stories to attract a reader who is less into deep study than I am. All that to say, it’s an easy read and it’s very easy to see where you might fit in this text (which is likely to be all over the place). Miller framed our daily experience as modern Americans, even as humans, in a fresh way and I would like to see more scholarship in this direction. She covers a whole lotta ground for a slim volume (under 200 pages). She has a trustworthy voice and a readable humility as well as intelligence. I have two sticky notes at my work desk with bullet points for the book and I am taking away from it much more than that. This is the kind of book that can really cause a reframing of one’s life, like you’ll be all (hopefully in your head) that there is a control issue. I see it. Now I’m going to name it, order it, set some limits… While Miller would encourage any of her readers to take this info straight to a therapist, she also doesn’t leave us with yet another checklist to do life better. She at least makes an attempt at a sort of anti-self-help book. In the end is just your brokenness and the Good News.

As for cons, first things first: the editing could have been just a tad bit better. Very few people are going to be as picky about this as I am, and it’s really not glaring here, but I find myself frustrated at the level of editing I see in nearly every book I pick up lately. There were little mistakes or just loose editing here and there in this one. I also already mentioned that I found myself wishing each point made went deeper, even longer, and I also wanted more practical application (though I almost always say this and I do think this is where Miller would say, yeah, I’m not actually a licensed therapist). Perhaps she could have approached practicality from a spiritual side? I mean, she already did, especially with the short prayers after each chapter. I hate to admit it, but I find prayers in devotional/self-help books to be glaze-over-able. I usually can’t even really see them. But there was something about her short, honest, wise prayers that actually made them much more functional as a component of the book than usual, for me. And there are questions at the end of chapters, so Cost of Control could be used for either daily mediation or for a small group discussion.

I really liked this book. If you are a Christian of any stripe, especially if you are an American alive today, you could stand to learn from Miller’s observations on control. At the very least, it’s a new angle from which to consider all the anxiety, depression, anger, animosity, and division that seems to be eating the people of our country alive. Or it might just be that God is about to use it to make you more like Jesus.

QUOTES (or some of the more pertinent ones):

“…these decisions are not guarantee of anything at all, but they make us feel better in the meantime” (p30).

“We as individuals and we as a culture crave control so desperately that we will reject reality and live in denial of our limitations for as long as w possibly can” (p30).

“What the Pandemic took away was not our power to predict, or our certainty about the future, but our illusion of those things…” (p33).

“Simply put, this world is not as it should be. Behind every struggle for control is a hurting person searching for peace in a chaotic world” (p33).

“…the lie that any gap in our knowledge any boundary on our power, or any limitation on our choice is something to fear, challenge and resist” (p38).

“By classifying anxiety as a personal issue rather than a systemic issue, we place an enormous burden on the individual, who then must modify their personal lives to alleviate the suffering that anxiety brings” (p44, Mark Sayers).

“It is no coincidence that the original story of control centers around a tree of ‘knowledge’” (p51).

“Every time we open our phones to check social media or the news, it’s as if we are taking another bite of that forbidden fruit, ingesting far more knowledge and information than our souls can handle” (p52).

“The more we learn about God and His creation, the more its true scale comes into proportion. The details become clearer. Our own sense of ourselves is corrected” (p57)

“…we begin to misuse our power after a subtle shift occurs inside our hearts: away from the care of others and toward the protection of ourselves” (p69).

“We want to use wealth, but ‘differently.’ We want to use anger, but ‘differently.’ We want to use power, but ‘differently.’ We brand these approaches as ‘redemptive’ or ‘Christian,’ but Jesus displayed no interest in attaining worldly power” (p72).

“For Christians, power is a person. Jesus Christ” (p72).

“When we cling to money for stability and predictability, and live in dread of losing it, we are using money to feel in control” (p77).

“…how easily we will adjust our theology to fit our wealth” (p78).

“Our relationship with money can not be passive or vaguely well-intentioned. It must be sober-minded, it must be humble, and it must have accountability, and there is one practice that cultivates all three: generosity” (p80).

“The money in our bank account doesn’t feel like abundance. That’s why Scripture so often describes material wealth as a form of poverty—spiritual poverty. It constantly seduces our affections and our trust. It relentlessly vies for our worship with it’s promises of stability and control…” (p81).

“This, combined with the American ideal of individualism, has produced a society that places autonomy as our highest value” (p86).

“…we are at our freest when God alone is on the throne” (p88).

“…we are advised again and again to seek wise counsel rather than go our own way” (p90).

“The true gospel is not a rigid contract/ Your life is not a constant test. And God is not coming to collect” (p100).

“…our primary work is not to earn His protection, but to open our hands and receive it” (p100).

“Some of the anger is righteous, but most of it is me wrestling with my total lack of control” (p128).

“Will we trust God or ourselves? This question is at the heart of our faith. If faith is believing what we cannot see, control is the opposite” (p130).

“The world is full of weird and wonderful experiences, and our bodies are a form of self-expression” (p134).

“…our bodies are ground-zero for a lifelong tug-of-war with control” (p134).

“Don’t you know your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…” (p137, I Corinthians 6:19)

“Any time our joy or contentment depends on our body’s conformity to a standard, or ability to perform, then it is our body—not Christ—that determines our contentment and joy” (p142).

“When we are guided by the question, ‘What will people think?’ we are likely to make decisions based on anxiety” (p149).

“Not to win people to myself, but to win them to Jesus. My reputation isn’t getting anyone to heaven” (p153).

“…the burden of creating our own identities can produce anxiety and stress as well” (p157).

“For Christians, however, the standard is stable and clear. Our true self comes from Christ, and He is the standard by which we gauge our authenticity” (p158).

“…but these particularities, which are so subject to change, cannot serve as the foundations of our identities. We need something more stable in order to feel secure” (p162).

“I prefer to speak of ‘agency over our bodies’ as opposed to ‘control’” (p169).

“In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul writes, ‘For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.’ This is agency in a nutshell” (p170).

“Like any good things, order can become an idol of control, but it is also God’s literal answer to chaos” (p172).

“When life is too much and you feel out of control, stop and reflect on what’s really going on inside you (name it!), and then consider what systems or structures might solve the problem (order it!)” (p172).

“…creating is not purely functional; it is also meaningful” (p173).

“…restoring our limits so we can thrive” (p174).

“Sometimes the effect of prayer is not change someone else or to ensure a specific outcome, but to stop ourselves from sinning” (p176).

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