A Review of
The Cost of Control: Why We Crave It, the Anxiety It Gives Us, and the Real Power God Promises
Sharon Hodde Miller
Reviewed by Rachel Lonas
“That’s a liability issue waiting to happen.”
It’s become a bit of a catchphrase of mine. My kids just expect it from me when we go places. I can find potential accidents everywhere; I get annoyed when others don’t always share my level of worry about all the things that could go wrong and how organizations can be held responsible. If I’m not mindful, verbalizing my anxiety can operate for me like a talisman—a ritual of control to ward off potential disaster. When I fall prey to this mindset, my world becomes small and exhausting. I need more than myself to come out of the spiral.
In The Cost of Control: Why We Crave It, the Anxiety It Gives Us, and the Real Power God Promises, I am thankful to see that Sharon Hodde Miller knows those feelings, too. Her thematic refrain of “whenever we reach for control to save us, it always comes at a cost” is grounding, pointing us toward reflection (12). She lays bare many of the underlying principles for the anxious times we have been living in since Genesis 3. She anchors the book in a well-known literary allusion: the Faustian bargain. Made famous by Christopher Marlowe’s play, the imagined life of Johann Faust demonstrates how one can be seduced to trade his soul to the devil to get that which he most desires.
From the outset, Miller reminds her readers that control is only an illusion, though it certainly feels a lot safer to say control is real and attainable with a little more self-discipline or hard work. She notes with compassion that “behind every struggle for control is a hurting person searching for peace in a chaotic world” (33). Her pastoral heart knows that even in sharing what the Bible says about anxiety we must understand that people are often tethered to it because it feels like protection.
I often believe a related lie, too—that if I can just be more efficient, I can handle more things on my plate. Miller points out that the more we optimize our lives, the lower our window of tolerance is for any kind of unpredictability. Our notion of what should be is based on how much we can control, not the pace of life as it is. Like Miller, I am a mom of young children, so I related to the examples she gave about knowing your limits for yourself and your family. There have been many times where I have looked at the aftermath of our overscheduled life saying, “But they all seemed like such great opportunities when I signed up for them….”
One of the biggest themes Miller emphasizes is that we cope with our lack of control by exerting unchecked power over others. This could be in a work relationship or in a parent-child situation. No matter where a power dynamic shows up, it disorders things. She rightly points out that even serving others can deceive us; we may think we’re giving up control in generosity, but may actually be nurturing the part of us that says we’re the only one equipped for the job of caring for others. Our god-complexes flow from our anxiety.
So what do we do when we recognize ourselves as broken people who are products of broken systems? Miller says we remind ourselves what is actually within our control and rely on the Holy Spirit to help guide our sense of agency when we attempt to manipulate others or our circumstances. She explains the many ways God has given us a healthy form of choosing through agency and challenges us to see what forms of choice we do have such as naming, ordering, praying, setting limits, and practicing care. She says, “We may not be able to fix all the problems around us, but we can imagine and build creative solutions with true and long-lasting impact” thus blending the “functional” and “meaningful” aspects in the act of creation (173).
She concludes by saying that when our default is one of controlling broken external circumstances, “it only breaks them more” (181). She knows we cannot fix a habit of control by only reminding ourselves of what we must not do, but rather by readying a healthy habit to replace it. She encourages readers to consider the true value of biblical disciplines like self-control, patient listening, and trusting the Lord’s compassion and sovereignty when you can’t see the next step.
Ending each chapter with a brief, specific prayer and short, accessible discussion questions Miller engages readers in application, confessions, and honest pleas for wisdom and guidance. These questions could be facilitated in a group or if done individually, written in a journal for personal use or to discuss during counseling.
Though I did enjoy the framework of naming the problem and identifying root causes before suggesting a way out, her chapters on the why behind our habits of control would have been helpful had there been more engagement into the impacts of trauma. I recognize there is ongoing debate within many church spaces about how pastors should leave trauma work to therapists and licensed professionals; however, more acknowledgement of psychological causes, unprocessed grief, and other underlying issues would have presented a more pastoral posture than simply stating we misuse power because “we can.”
This book is a place for Christians to reflect and reconsider the anxious life so many of us are leading. In the vein of You Are Not Your Own by Alan Noble and You’re Only Human by Kelly Kapic, her voice is one of a sympathetic chorus helping us evaluate our cultural bonds with anxiety and pointing us toward the hope that Jesus’s non-anxious presence provides.
Rachel Lonas is a writer and educator specializing in literature and composition. Several of her pieces can be found at Fathom Magazine. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband,
Justin, and their four daughters. She enjoys all things creative—watercoloring, nature journaling, landscaping, and being inspired by botanical gardens.