When “carrying my cross” is code for “I’M A HUGE CONTROL FREAK WHO CAN’T LET GO!!!”

October 24, 2012 | 38 comments

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about the spiritual challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis (which is completely representative of all of our conversations; we only ever talk about how we might grow in holiness, and would never, ever spend 30 minutes complaining about the annoying things we saw on Twitter that morning). She asked me what my biggest struggle was, and I came up with this:

Knowing the difference between difficult situations that are crosses that God is asking me to carry, and difficult situations that that are hard and bad because I need to change something.

The example I always think of is of a time back when we had three kids under age three. The baby didn’t sleep through the night, my heavy 18-month-old still wasn’t walking, my two-year-old was going for an Olympic Medal in the Terrible Twos, nap schedules were too critical to my survival to risk leaving the house, Joe was working 12-hour days, and I had no help during the week. Oh, and, to give me a little foretaste of what I would eventually experience with baby number five, our second child spent a large percentage of her waking hours screaming at the top of her lungs. A gust of wind blew her hair the wrong direction? Five minutes of screaming. I offered her green beans and she wanted peas? Eight minutes of screaming. She had been happily drawing on the couch with a sharpie and Mommy No-Fun took it away from her? Fifteen minutes of rolling-on-the-floor, kicking, thrashing, screaming.

Those were some long days.

I think I have told you before about the crazy moment when I was standing in the middle of my living room, begging God for help, and I heard a knock on the door. I answered it, and it was a new neighbor asking if I needed a babysitter. She was in between jobs, and looking for a short-term gig. Also, because she didn’t have a car and needed something she could walk to, she was willing to offer me a ridiculously low, single-digit hourly rate. (And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that she knocked when I was literally in the middle of saying a prayer.)

I stared at her for a moment, trying to take in the craziness of this situation. Finally I caught my breath, and I boldly answered: “I need to think about it.”

“You said what?!” Joe asked when I recounted the situation later. He added a request that “if Publisher’s Clearing House shows up at our door with one of those huge cardboard checks for a million dollars next time you’re saying a prayer, please do not tell them you need to think about it.”

I sighed, and put on my extra-weary voice as I replied (wishing he could see me gazing into the distance like a saint on a prayer card), “Alas, we can’t afford any help.” (I think I actually said “alas.”)

He pointed out that, at that low of a rate, just cutting back on groceries would mostly cover a few hours a week of this lady’s help. We could draw from savings to cover anything beyond that, especially since it would only be for a few months until she found another job. Then I responded that we didn’t know if we could trust her, and he countered that she had friends in the neighborhood and I’d be home while she was here anyway. We went back and forth like this for days, me offering a reason it wouldn’t work and Joe offering a reason why it would, until I finally ran out of excuses. And when I contemplated the prospect of accepting this as an answered prayer, I was mildly terrified.

I hadn’t wanted this prayer answered — not really. Maybe if God had arranged it so that Joe could work from home, or my mom could retire and move in with us and found that she wanted nothing more than to volunteer to watch the kids half the day, that would have been cool. But I didn’t really want help with my situation if it wasn’t help that was on my terms. Though I had been all ready to have a scribe document my sufferings for a future volume of The Lives of the Saints, the reality is that that suffering was easy for me in a certain way. Yes, my days were long and hard and pushed me to my limit. But I was in my comfort zone; it was a kind of struggle that felt familiar to someone of my temperament. It was a safe kind of suffering.

And — most importantly — I was in control. Sure, the kids and I were trapped in a house all day every day and we were kind of starting to lose our minds, but at least there were no unknowns. I was queen of my own little world. Granted, it may have been a little world that had all the vibe of a pirate ship about to teeter into mutiny, but at least I was queen of it.

But the prospect of accepting this answered prayer changed all of that. Accepting someone else’s help would mean introducing all sorts of question marks into my life. I felt almost suffocated under the weight of the unknowns: What if she and I didn’t click?! What if the kids didn’t like her?! What if she judged me for being a terrible housekeeper?! What if she was so shocked at our feral existence that she ran out the door, screaming while dialing CPS?!

One of my favorite writers, Marion Fernandez-Cueto, once wrote an article called Surrender the Choosing that I’ve kept to review often (and possibly tattoo on my back). She says:

Most Christians are willing to suffer a cross, I think, but we want them to be crosses of our own designation, not Christ’s. Thus the saints have always taught that a small suffering imposed by circumstance and embraced for love for God can be worth far more than the strictest voluntary penance. However virtuous the latter, it is often marred by the stamp of self-will. In contrast, the unsought burdens of life present marvelously pure opportunities for grace; our self-will, which recoils from them, is utterly absent from their origin. In the vacuum left by our own designs, God waits to flow in. It is Him alone we must choose.

So I got the babysitter, and everything changed. As an introvert, it was initially a challenge for me to have an adult I didn’t know in the house during the day, but the way that situation stretched me was healthy, needed, and good. Now that I no longer had the excuse that I could do nothing more than survive each day, I looked around and noticed some seriously neglected areas of our family’s lives. I ended up being called to change and grow and carry plenty of new crosses, only these weren’t comfortable and familiar like my old, self-imposed one; with these, I actually had to rely on God since I had no idea what I was doing. (It’s also worth noting that the babysitter was a fallen-away Christian whose relatives had been fervently praying for her, and we ended up having some great, long discussions about religion. Maybe it was an answered prayer for her, too?)

The situation is kind of silly since it didn’t involve any dramatic, life-and-death discernment issues, but I think of it often since it was such a clear case of clutching my own, self-made cross rather than openly following Christ and accepting whatever sacrifices I encounter on the path. As I said to my friend the other day, I think this is an area of discernment I’ll always struggle with: I’d rather suffer more and be in control than suffer less and be out of control.

Unfortunately I haven’t come up with a clear checklist of Signs that You Might Be Being a Control Freak and Not the Glorious Martyr You Think You Are, but I’m learning to be better at discernment in this area. I’m certainly motivated to do so, because I have found over and over again that God’s burden is indeed the lighter one. The crosses he gives us come with the grace to carry them; the crosses we drag along on our own my have worn, familiar grooves that make them fit nicely on our shoulders, but ultimately, they are so much more heavy.


  1. Melissa S.

    I love this post, Jennifer! I’ve definitely found this to be a challenge that I (and a lot of my friends) face.

    It’s so hard to tell the difference between when we should be sacrificing and offering our suffering up for God and when the difficulties we’re facing are a result of the fact that something needs to change — that, in fact, God desires that something change and is trying to convey that to us.

    Thank you for this important reminder!

  2. elena

    In a real aside: have you ever taken the two children prone to screaming off of wheat and corn products? A friend of mine has two children like the two you described and the behaviour improved dramatically with the absence of gluten etc. If they ever eat the problem foods they revert back to tantrums and borderline autistic behaviour. I am not exaggerating.

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      This is very interesting, Elena: I have major issues with grains, and I know that these two children in particular have some issues with food sensitivity. Hmmmmm. Veeeeeery interesting…

      • elena

        Great, go for it. The absence of gluten literally took her kids off the autism spectrum and allowed growth spurts in her failure-to-thrive toddler. She also realised that the issues were not her parenting which she had previously thought to be the case. The kids really are like night and day compared to before. Mom also had gluten and corn sensitivities.

        • Emily

          On this thread, there is a book (which I’ve not yet read, but have heard great things about from multiple friends) called, “What’s Eating Your Child” and it seeks to solve all sorts of medical and behavioral issues through dietary changes. You might look it up!

          Great article–your line early on really spoke to me. It’s a theme God keeps reintroducing into my life lately: “Knowing the difference between difficult situations that are crosses that God is asking me to carry, and difficult situations that that are hard and bad because I need to change something.” Another way of thinking of it is that there are situations wherein God gives us the grace and the human tools to change things because we need that change and He desires it for us; conversely, there are situations where no such human help is provided (though grace abounds!) and this is a sign that God doesn’t wish for us to change a thing, but instead to patiently endure because everything is as it should be in His plan.

  3. Smoochagator

    This is an awesome post.

  4. Ellie

    Jennifer, this is a wonderful post. You have beautifully synthesized some vital truths here … I would never ever have *chosen* a brain tumor and disability, but it takes my breath away (literally) to see how much I have grown and changed in good and positive and healthy ways because of it. I never would have guessed or thought or been able to see how badly I needed to grow in the manner that I have done, these two years or so past; nor could I have imagined being so happy and feeling so deeply **blessed**, thanks to that brain tumor and disability. Hey, I felt I was a good mother, and my children told me I was a good mother; I had good, solid friendships; I was walking in faith before God, discerning His call to me within that church life … Life was **good**, you know? I could have rattled off some arenas in which I was certain I could use some help, certain I could do some growing, but still, you know, I felt like I was doing alright. **insert bemused smile here** Right.

    I know that taking my hands off the steering wheel and giving myself over to God is the way to walk this life: knowing that, talking about that, thinking that, pondering it prayerfully, is all well and good — truly living it is something else entirely. I feel so blessed to have been given the opportunity to learn how good and powerful and right a thing it is, to have such faith in God and God’s will for me.

  5. Jeanmarie

    I so enjoy your thought-provoking posts, and this one was excellent.

  6. Kelly

    Love how you write, and now I also want to read Surrender the Choosing. πŸ™‚

  7. Catherine Post

    Wonderful post, Jennifer, and I can SO relate!

    How do I know that it is God’s assigned ‘cross’ or a familiar, safe, martyr-like opportunity I am providing to myself? I ask myself one question: ‘Am I going toward something that I FEAR in the interests of serving God and others, or in order to grow into a stronger, better person?’ Answer yes or no.

    If the answer is ‘No!’, that there is no fear element that I am facing – nothing new, nothing I am currently trying that I do not know how to do or WHETHER I can do, etc., nothing that causes some anxiety or is in any way an occasion for a pinch of humility on my part; then I believe I am seriously at risk of having taken up that safe, wait-for-the-next-living-Saint book to come out type of pseudo/false suffering that, really, God sees right through. (Dang it! πŸ˜‰

    And what was Christ’s viewpoint on frauds, phonies, B$ and so on? Er….. not so good… But He will forgive me if I take a risk or do anything where I am not 100% in charge! πŸ˜€

  8. Leigh Anne

    I am self-employed in my bakery and am the only provider for our family of 5. When my son was diagnosed with leukemia this past summer, I had tons of people wanting to step forward and help me in the bakery and I turned so many of them down! My reasons were the same as yours: I like being in control, I have a routine, I’m so introverted.. (Really, the main reason was my shame that my able-bodied husband chooses to be unemployed, and I chose to marry him, so isn’t that my cross?) I do have two people helping me out now who have been such a grace to me. I never would have been able to articulate my feelings about the situation like you have in this post: thank you, thank you.

  9. Patricia Sargent

    Love this “You Might Be Being a Control Freak and Not the Glorious Martyr You Think You Are”. I think you could do a lot more with it and rival “You might be a redneck” πŸ™‚

    • TRS

      Yes. This!

  10. James

    I LOVE this post!

    Too many Christians are content to “crucify themselves” instead of growing through the process.

    And sometimes our crosses are there to remind us to depend on others–even Jesus had help carrying His cross.

    Of course, as someone who is a control freak, but not a martyr, my discernment process is a bit different. I have to learn when to quit trying solving the problem and to accept the situation for what it is.

  11. Mary

    Near to tears. What a great post, Jen.

  12. Ashley

    There you go… making me think about things in a serious manner.

    But really, if you ever come across some of those reasons “You Might Be Being a Control Freak and Not the Glorious Martyr You Think You Are”… even if it’s just one or two bulletin points… I’m sure many of us would love to read them.

  13. Marcia

    What rich insights. The fine lines, the nuances that will occur to us when we sit still and listen… Thank you for organizing those thoughts and writing about them.

  14. Alexis Sutter

    Wow, thank you for this. So true.

  15. Andrea

    Jennifer, I find myself wanting, but not wanting, in-home help for the very same reasons you shared. Many friends have offered their older daughters help, but I’m anxious about it. I’d welcome any tips you could pass along to a fellow introvert for a successful in-home help experience!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Hey Andrea! Great question. I think my top suggestion would be to just say yes to one of those offers, and let things play out. This is one of those areas of life where the easiest way to get the hang of it is to learn by doing. πŸ™‚

      • Andrea

        Thanks, Jennifer. Will do!

  16. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    “The crosses he gives us come with the grace to carry them; the crosses we drag along on our own my have worn, familiar grooves that make them fit nicely on our shoulders, but ultimately, they are so much more heavy.”


    This is surely to be your famous quote when you are canonized πŸ˜‰

    • TRS

      I thought nearly the same thing!

      Thinking I’ll make it a piece of art for my home.

  17. Marie

    This is an excellent, timely, and thought-provoking post. I often think of my (relatively minor) sufferings as the crosses God has given me and I must endure, when really God is opening all kinds of doors for me to change the situation if only I would take Him up on it! I love your last sentence – something to pray about this week.

  18. Allison

    I have a screaming child too! (screamed bloody murder since she was born – people looking through the nursery window would comment on how loud she was..). We have gotten multiple offers for babysitting help, but she even drives the grandma nuts, so I’m scared of accepting help because I think she might scream bloody murder and drive a stranger nuts! Or maybe I just want to be in control…

  19. Janet

    I can not tell you how many times I have asked myself, “Is this the gift of suffering or did I make a poor choice?” I see that I am not alone with discerning this question. It is not always difficult to tell, but I just don’t see how daily dealings with my difficult child is a good thing, at all! Thanks for your thoughts, it is so nice to know that I am not alone.
    774 + O my Jesus, I understand well that , just as illness is measured with a thermometer, and a high fever tells us the seriousness of the illness, so also, in the spiritual life, suffering is the thermometer which measures the love of God in a soul. (Diary of St. Faustina)

  20. Njideka

    You are such a blessing Jennifer. Your ability to put these thought provoking issues to writing, is simply out of this world. I love that I am able to relate to most of your write ups even though I haven’t got to the phase of husband and children but my spirituality is always in check.
    May God continually empower you to enrich us like you do.o

  21. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    This is good stuff.

    That minor scene where Jesus allows Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for a bit has helped me tremendously. I mean sure, Simon was forced by the Romans, but Jesus didn’t HAVE to turn over the burden. And if He was willing to accept help, it can only be pride if I feel I need to so it all myself.

  22. Kathleen Basi

    This is a message I very much needed this morning.

  23. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    Pinning this to my Catholic Mama board. I love it because not only did it speak to me about suffering, but also about motherhood. We are so alike in our desire to stay inside and out of the world. If I wasn’t so introverted, I would ask you to join me for coffee.

    Also, just a random thought, it seems like that burden was a cross that God asked you to carry until he brought you through it and then asked you to make change.

  24. Christy

    Oh man…this is so my most difficult problem to deal with not only on a daily basis but it seems with big life-changing issues as well. I’m finding that somehow the impact of a cross not of your own choosing forces you to acknowledge your own weakness in addition to your own lack of control over life…and the world! I don’t want to acknowledge my weakness even though I’m trying to do this whole “holiness” thing. I feel like somehow I should be “holy” enough, or something(!), to deal with things of my own choosing without changing or accepting help when thats really whats called for. Theres really so many repercussions to our own refusal to let go of our own ego.

    And I’ve had three kids under three…and it. is. rough.

  25. anna lisa

    My horrendous screamer just turned out to be amazingly *bright*. He was also a control freak. (“Mommy do it!”) I literally had to apologize to my closest neighbor, because I knew there were times when I just had to let him rage. The good news is that he has turned out to be a very thoughtful, orderly and responsible kid. He’s almost nine now, and has been breezing through life with his giant brain since about five or six.
    As for the “help” part of things, I just can’t conceive of my life without it. I had the same woman help me for about ten years. She would come two weekday mid mornings(3hours) , and on Saturday evening, so my husband and I could be alone together. I would put the kids to bed, and she would iron clothing while watching Spanish TV. She even. kept. my. car. clean and vacuumed…
    You are right about the control thing, I never would have coughed up the $ and intrusion into my privacy, had my husband not insisted, but after I settled in with my new routine, when she would walk through the front door, I would exclaim, “Anita! Gracias a Dios!”

    • Pattie

      This summer, I attended a lovely nuptial Mass, where a handsome young groom dedicated his life to God and his gorgeous bride. It was a joy to watch. But……

      Twenty nine years ago, this young man was a baby/toddler/little boy who had TWO modes….joyful & laughing; and screaming kicking meltdown hating everyone! Yes, he is my son, and like many of you here, I felt like the world’s worst mother for my inablity to “control” this kid, who could reduce my late sainted mother to near tears (even though she had raised five of her own)

      I merely want to encourage you mommies still in the trenches. The same spirit that made my son so determined to have it “his way” then has led to him being a soldier for Christ and his faith now. Get away when you need to, accept help, and know that THIS TOO SHALL PASS!

  26. Briana

    Wow! I am going to mail this post to my husband. It sums up all my issues with help. But then maybe I’d have to change some of my thinking.

  27. Rowena

    Wow, thank you! This is a fantastic post, and I can relate with EVERYTHING you posted! God works in amazing ways because my husband e-mailed me this post just now and it relates so well with the things going on in my life (and how I am as a person in general).
    May God continue to bless you, your family, and your work; you reach out to so many with your writings!

  28. Hope

    Thank you for this article! I love this. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about before, but now I will be more aware of what God wants of me.

  29. Katie

    Hi Jennifer,

    When Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, I actually don’t think that means that we have to lift up all the different difficult situations in our lives and drag them along as best we can as we try to follow the example of Christ’s love, compassion, etc. The call to take up our cross and follow Christ is a call to die. Die to our own self-will, die to our flesh, die to the “me” that is always saying “MY will, not yours.” That’s why he says we have to take up our crosses daily – because we have to die to ourselves daily. But right after that he says that this death is really the only way to life – “whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

    So I think it might be a little misleading to look at a specific difficult situation and wonder whether you should be working to make it less difficult, or just accepting it as an appointed “cross to bear.” The point of the cross is the death on it, not just that it’s a heavy load to carry. Maybe it would be more helpful to look at the difficult situation and ask “have I died to my self in this situation?” I’ve found that when I do have this perspective, once I’ve laid down my own self-will and said “yes, Lord, whatever you want here,” it is much easier to see clearly whether I just need to shoulder up under the difficulty for a while, or whether I do need to make some changes, accept some help, get some grace! I think you’ve got the key of it in the quote you mentioned – crosses embraced for the love of God. If we are choosing to give up our love of self and live to our love of God, everything becomes clearer. Thank you for this article – I enjoyed it, like all of your writing!

  30. Adrian G

    I like this so much I’m commenting for the first time. I really struggle with stress and lack of sleep. I can frequently wake up at 5 or even 4am and then have to teach 24 6 year-olds during the day and come back to 4 sons and a daughter aged between 14 and 4. But is my stress just disorder in my planning and procrastination in tackling difficulties -basically self-inflicted- or is it something to be accepted as from God? In the meantime I find myself praying along the lines of ‘I offer up my day to you but can you please make it a lot easier’. I suppose we basically have to be asking God for light. Like today’s Gospel, can you help me see through this clearly Lord?
    I really like yours and Rachel Balducci’s blogs -glad to see there is another male posting here. I don’t seem to be able to find male blog equivalents of yours and Rachel’s.

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