Once I heard a man reminisce about his wife, who died of breast cancer, leaving many young children behind. Before she even knew she was sick, she told her husband that the great sorrow of her life was knowing she couldn’t keep her family safe.
As a young mother, I heard her fear and resolved to try harder. The safety of my children was my obsession, morning, noon, and night, so I held on to them as tightly as I could. In my head was a constant harangue: Don’t let them near the street, don’t let them out without bug spray and sunscreen, don’t forget to lock the gate, don’t forget to bring a hat, make sure the buckles are buckled all the time. Tighten up. Have a plan. Know where the exits are. Read all the articles, the more paranoid the better, and always err on the side of caution. Double, triple, quadruple check. Then the children will be safe.
If you live like this for long, one of two things will happen: You will crack in two from the sheer strain of trying so hard to hold on, or you will learn to let go.
Of course, it was my duty to try to keep them safe. I’m still on the hook for that. But it was also my duty to recognize that all I can do is try. I cannot guarantee their safety.
And it was hard. It still is. My genuine concern for my children made it painful to realize I couldn’t actually guarantee their safety. But there was another reason I resisted this knowledge: There’s a lot of pride mixed in with love when it comes to this urge to rescue and protect. Almost as much as I wanted to keep my kids safe, I wanted to be that irreplaceable one who could keep my kids safe — me, no one else, and not with the help of anyone else.
And so, when my kids did turn out to need help that I could not provide (as every child will at some point), I dragged my feet. I thought I was listening to my mothering instincts and being the expert on the children that God had given me; but really, at least part of me was listening to my instincts of self-preservation, trying, in essence, to be my children’s creator, their sanctifier, and of course their savior, their mother-god.
I thought that I relied on God to keep my children safe, but really I was using God as just one of many tools to keep my children safe; and when the whole “trust God” aspect didn’t seem to be doing the trick, I’d try something else.
Readers, this is a failing strategy on all counts. Any strategy that puts yourself at the center is a failing strategy. The only way not to fail is to realize that, no matter how much responsibility you have, you can’t actually save anyone. The world is not safe, and salvation is not the same thing as security. We are in God’s hands, and that is not always a snuggly place to be. He is so big, we may be secure in fact, but what it feels like is falling.
Here’s another example of what I mean. Many years ago, before I ever thought of writing a book about NFP, I used to write about sex a lot; and I talked to strangers about sex a lot, too.
A loyal reader was struggling mightily with abstinence, and he asked me and his fellow readers which was preferable: To commit a sexual sin with his wife, or to masturbate to relieve the pressure? He knew his wife didn’t want to use contraception, and he knew they didn’t want a baby just then; but he knew he was likely to fall into one sin or the other. Which, he asked, should he choose, for his wife’s sake?
A wise reader, another man, understood this fellow better than I did. He told him that what he was really asking was how to save his wife. And he told him that no one could save his wife, except for Christ. We all want to be stronger than sin, and some of us want to put ourselves in harm’s way for the ones we love. But this strategy is futile. Worse than futile: this is pride. We can’t protect anyone by sinning, said the second reader. That’s not how it works. Only Christ saves. We all need saving by Him.
To me, his answer seemed spiritualized to the point of uselessness. I thought the better answer was: Get your freaking act together. Man up, get control of your penis, and just take care of your wife like you should. Thank God the other commenter was there to say his piece after I said mine!
Because he was absolutely right: The central problem the fellow was grappling with wasn’t lust, it was pride. There’s no such thing as protecting your wife by sinning. The only way out of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum is to take yourself out of the center altogether, to admit defeat, to seek personal repentance, and to let God work out how to bring salvation out of that humility. The fellow couldn’t make any progress with his sexual compulsions because he was trying very hard to make sure he was still in charge — not only of his own behavior and his own soul, but his wife’s soul, as well.
But you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t offer safety to another human being. You can’t offer salvation. You can’t make yourself the creator, redeemer, or sanctifier of anyone else, not of your kids, not of your spouse, not of anyone. All you can do, when you love someone, is surrender him to God. It doesn’t let you off the hook; you still have to try as hard as you can. But you have to acknowledge your weakness; and if you don’t — if you imagine that your own efforts alone can save someone else — then you will end up deeper in sin, dragging down those you claim to love. Surrender may make you feel like you’re falling, but pride really will drag you down.
God saves. Only God saves. We can only put ourselves and each other in God’s hands. Striving heroically to serve each other is part of this, but if we’re not also looking to give up personal sin, especially the sin of pride, then we’re not really open to God’s salvation.