Many years ago, a younger and in some ways braver version of me decided to explore a dream I’d had since childhood. I wanted to learn to ride horses. At first, things went well. I was paired up with Shahara, a stubborn, but sweet mare who knew how to handle a newbie. She simply knew more about riding than I did and had an instinctive sense of the speed and motion appropriate to my level. I thoroughly enjoyed her personality and abilities as a teacher. But even as I grew more skilled and able to lead, she continued to stubbornly assert herself. Shahara set the limits of my progress by flatly refusing to move beyond what she thought I could handle. As helpful as this was in the beginning stages, it was nearly impossible to improve my proficiency as a rider when the horse was controlling the reins!
A few months in, this beautiful creature died young and quite unexpectedly. Still hoping to continue my studies, I was placed under the tutelage of a regal young boy named Laddie. Stronger and taller than my previous partner, Laddie shared her ability to read humans and knew precisely what their various cues meant. But Laddie was not in this game to be a teacher and protect me. He wanted to experience the joy of moving and cooperation, to do what he was born to do.
Having gotten used to the pace of a horse who adapted to my weak equestrian skills, my first ride with Laddie was a shock. All of his gears were set a bit higher than Shahara’s, so keeping up with him was a challenge in itself. Even more problematic, though, was his sensitivity to my cues. Laddie took the slightest movement of my leg as a prompt to go faster or slow down or turn. My smallest movements produced big responses from him. But since Shahara had been ignoring my cues and responding to them only as it suited her, I had no idea how my cues registered in Laddie’s mind. I didn’t know what I was asking for. Laddie was receiving cues I didn’t even know I was sending!
Like the well-trained athlete that he was, Laddie did what I “asked” of him every time. Unfortunately, his quick responses to my unintended requests put our movements out of sync with each other most of the time. I felt completely out of control and utterly vulnerable. Instinctively, I held on tighter as he moved faster. But this only told Laddie that I wanted him to move faster still. I needed to release and let go, but fear made that nearly impossible. I had visions of failing and falling and ending up unable to walk because I was unable to ride. And my fears soon turned to facts when a severe back strain ended my horse work altogether.
For many of us, the path of spiritual growth is similarly a tale of two horses, habits old and new that propel us forward in very different ways. Old spiritual habits are like the horse who knows us and doesn’t push us too hard. We walk with her on well worn paths that present few challenges and fewer rewards. But these are safe paths established by experience and unlikely to do us any harm. Here, we can be fearless because all is predictable and planned. This is a path we well know how to navigate. On it, we are in control of ourselves and rarely dare to think we could do or be better.
But that sense of control is as much as illusion as was my sense of control when riding Shahara. I felt like I had mastered some skills, but I had actually found a safe place to be stuck. Similarly, we often feel like we’ve attained some spiritual insight on which to stand, a tradition or practice or lifestyle that uplifts us and has improved us in some way. But as vibrant as those experiences may still be (I enjoyed riding with Shahara), we’ve hit a spiritual plateau. Our spiritual movements aren’t helping us to grow.
Then something happens to shake our faith in the old habits. A shocking life event or change we couldn’t foresee comes on the scene and obliterates the ground on which we once stood firm. Just as easily, we may be hit with a radical change in attitude, shifting from a human perspective to a God’s eye perspective. As we spoke of earlier in this series, even the act of honestly praising God takes us to a place of openness and receptivity to His leading, an unsteady place to stand for one who is used to following his or her own commands. At such points, we need to let go and receive grace, but often find ourselves trying to maintain control over the uncontrollable instead of giving control to the One who can actually right us again.
Surrendering the reins of control to God literally means we are out of our own control, and no person alive enjoys that. It may feel like we are out of sync with God, unable to fit what we thought we knew about right living into God’s unfolding plan. And not knowing the details of His plan, we may find ourselves asking God for things we wouldn’t request if we only knew the whole picture.
In spite of the yucky feeling it produces in our natural selves, and in spite of the fear it may trigger in us, getting spiritually unstuck requires us to get into sync with God, to release our death grip on our lives and give God control of it all. Our old habits and selves need to die off so that they can be replaced by the new self God wants to grow in their place. As Paul puts it, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
This means more than surrendering our prayer time and spiritual practices. It means letting God direct the whole drama, from the minutest detail to the wildest dreams. It means having the food God wants us to eat as much as the career He wants us to pursue. It means the music we listen to as much as the houses of worship we attend. It means choosing by faith to let the Spirit of God work out even the tiniest details in our lives so that they ever cultivate God’s love.
This commitment runs profoundly deep and touches everything we are and do; but we never have to make this shift alone. At every step, we can be assured that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we don’t know how to pray the way we should” (Romans 8:26). Being out of our control isn’t the same as being uncontrolled. We must begin each day by acknowledging our need for God’s presence and power to direct and nurture our lives.
Give Him permission to change you and carry you where He will. And don’t worry. Even if you feel out of control, God can handle the reins. And He will take the slightest encouragement from you as a sign to fill you with His love and fit you for His great purposes.