It is not so much a matter of what we are doing, but of what powers we are employing to do it; and who is controlling those powers. (Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life, p. 231)
Revelation, my favorite short story by Flannery O’Connor, is about a stout middle-aged Southern white Christian woman, named Ruby Turpin. Ruby is ever ready to help out a neighbor in need or her church – and to let those around her know about her good deeds. She is quite happy with the respectable life she and her husband, Claud, have established in their small town and with her habit of doing good unto others. She is also in the habit of sizing up the lives of people around her, determining after a long glance or two, whether they are deserving of her time and attention.
One day as she sits in the waiting room at the office of her husband’s doctor, an ill-mannered young woman silently observes, with increasing hostility, as Ruby prattles on in a self-satisfied way about her life to those in the room who will listen. After some minutes pass by the young woman suddenly explodes in a fit of rage and flings the book she’s been reading at Ruby, hitting her squarely above the eye. Next, lunging for Ruby’s throat, she hisses into Ruby’s ear, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” In that instant Ruby realizes the girl knows some deep truth about her, a truth Ruby is not sure she wants to admit.
The rest of the story is about Ruby’s efforts to come to terms with the girl’s assessment of her life. It is a brilliant portrayal of pride and complacency and how insidious and mundane sin can be. As the story nears its end, Ruby is given a vision of heaven as she looks up from the business of hosing down the hogs she and Claud keep on their small farm and into the twilight sky. In the vision Ruby sees a long parade of people marching off into the heavenly realm. At the head of this procession are not the upstanding people like herself, whom she assumed would be first in line, but instead those whom she always considered beneath her socially and morally. Much to her surprise, she notices that her kind of people, those who “had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right” are bringing up the rear.
Miss O’ Connor elaborates on Ruby’s vision writing that, “[the people whom Ruby considered to be like her] were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet [Ruby] could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away…”
The author’s phrase about virtues being burned away has stuck with me ever since I first read that story, yet, I hadn’t considered how badly I needed the refiners fire myself until a few years ago. As I wrote before, in my fourth installment, I had always held in high regard several of my talents and traits, in particular my organizational skills and dependability. However, since I had not fully surrendered my life – and my virtues – to the Lord, that profound sense of responsibility and commitment I had were not really in service to him. Instead, they fed my pride and unredeemed emotional needs. I was ministering out of my brokenness and not out of God’s grace. In effect, I was only getting in his way.
If Jesus is to be Lord of our life, then even the characteristics we value in ourselves – and which others admire about us – such as our decency, generosity, kindness and good nature, must be surrendered to him. Apart from Jesus sin permeates all our attributes, skills and talents and they are of no use to him. So any character traits which are unredeemed and under our own authority will always be tainted. And unless or until we submit to Christ all aspects of our personality we are no different than the Ruby Turpins of the world – do-gooders who aren’t doing the Kingdom of God any lasting good – and his nature cannot take hold in us.
In addition to our character traits, our natural abilities or skills such as leadership, administration, hospitality or those in the technical or mechanical realm must also be surrendered to the Lord. In his book, The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee gives the example of someone whose natural talent is public speaking – the ability to get up before a crowd of people and address them eloquently and without reservation. However, Nee notes, if that person uses her talent to preach without first surrendering it to the Lord, then she will inevitably end up calling more attention to herself than to Jesus.
Therefore, anything we can do comfortably and naturally on our own, without first humbly seeking the Lord in prayer, asking for direction, guidance and blessing, does not serve his purposes. Better that we are unskilled, yet completely and humbly dependent on God, than skillful and prayer-less. God has ahold of the person surrendered to him, but not of the one who can get by on innate talent and good character. So losing control means that even our virtues and natural endowments must first be offered up and refined in the sanctifying flames of the Holy Spirit.
Summing up Losing Control. Surrendering our relationships.