A Fatal Attraction: The Law As Means of Control

One of passages from our Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) that […]

David Zahl / 9.15.17

One of passages from our Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) that we hear about most often:

If no one fulfills the law, the question naturally arises: Why should we care about it? If it accuses and condemns us—two things that no one likes—why do we pay it such mind? Why does it keep coming back?

Perhaps because the law [of God] is a true and good thing. Just because we are not able to live up to God’s standard does not somehow invalidate it. That is, we may find it impossible to stop worrying about the future, but that does not mean that less anxiety would be bad. If people were less afraid, the world would undoubtedly be a safer place. No matter how far we’ve wandered off the path, the ‘straight and narrow’ is not easily dispensed with, especially when it is inscribed on our conscience (Heb 8:10).

The real reason we cling to the law is more prosaic, though. It has to do with control. Think back to Sunday School (if that’s a part of your past), to lessons about gardens and snakes and apples. The portrait of human nature we find in Genesis is of men and women who cannot resist the allure of mastery, who want to be their own Gods. (The serpent’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 are actually “You will be like God.”) The grasping for control is the opposite of faith and the essence of original sin, just as it is the essence of our lives. The pursuit of power drives all manner of striving and exhaustion. Conversely, nothing gets people worked up faster than the prospect (or fear) of powerlessness. Spend time in a traffic jam, or in an airport when a flight gets canceled, and this truth becomes self-evident.

So we may dislike being told what to do, we may abhor being criticized, but we love being in control. The predilection seems, well, uncontrollable. So, we love the law because it promises us domain—it puts the keys to our wellbeing in our own hands. If I can just do x, y, or z, then I will get the result I want. If I can just be a such-and-such kind of person, or project those qualities publicly, then I will be loved.

After all, the law is not just a command, it is a command attached to a condition. In the Bible, these conditions are spelled out (‘Do/be this and you shall live’). In society, the conditions tend to be implicit, but they’re still there (‘Do/be this and you’ll be lovable, valuable’). The schema varies in specifics but not in its underlying logic: Achievement precedes approval. Behavior precedes belovedness, and so forth. It’s no wonder that the lexicon of conditionality—owing, earning, deserving—is baked into our vernacular at a subrational level.

Of course, like the law itself, conditionality isn’t bad. Some form of quid pro quo is necessary. It makes our lives more reliable and less confusing. If you flip the switch, the light will come on. If you don’t study hard enough, you will fail the test. This is simply the way things are. We live in a conditional world where actions have consequences.

The problem comes when things don’t go as planned, which they never do. When we sleep through our alarm or blurt out an insensitive remark. When our picture ends up in the paper. All of a sudden, the measurements we throw out on our good days boomerang back on our worst. Because for every ‘If you do,’ there’s an ‘If you don’t,’ a threat of punishment for every promise of reward. And with threats come resentment, insecurity, and fear, emotions that are often larger than our ability to control them. In these moments, life-management based on conditionality reveals itself to be a [bad/sad] dream.

Martin Luther called this condition “The Bondage of the Will,” meaning that we are creatures whose decision-making capabilities are fundamentally compromised, and thus we are not free to always fulfill the conditions of success or belovedness. Our wills are distorted so that they desire the wrong things (or the right things for the wrong reasons): as trivial as watching another episode on Netflix when we know we should be doing laundry, or as serious as cheating on a spouse. “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” is how one theologian put it. This does not mean that life is pre-determined or that we do not experience choice between, say, oatmeal and cereal, black socks or white. We have a will, it’s just not free to choose what is good. That is, no one can, by sheer force of will, resolve to choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love.

In fact, the truth of why we do the things we do is always less flattering than our inner optimist would care to admit. And the problem goes deeper than traditional misconduct or fear. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” is how the apostle Paul puts it (Rm 7:19). Meaning, even if we wanted to fulfill the law, we cannot. Theologian Gerhard Forde wrote that we are in “bondage to spiritual ambition, legalism, and tyranny.” Nothing shows our lack of freedom better than our addiction to control.

People who are addicted to control—which is all of us, religious or not—are addicted to the law as a means of control. The sad irony of our lives is that our desire to be in control almost always ends up controlling us. For this reason, some would describe our relationship to the law as a fatal attraction.