Years ago there was a ten-year-old boy named Robert who was extremely stubborn and manipulative; his mother couldn’t get him to behave, because whenever she insisted he do something, Robert would threaten to take off his clothes in public. This prospect was so embarrassing to her she always backed down—so each time it was a case of Spoiled Little Brat 1, Weak Manipulated Mother 0. When Robert was taken to the family dentist for a check-up, he went berserk—grabbing the telephone, scattering files, knocking over chairs, and making a terrible nuisance of himself, while his passive mother merely shook her head in bewilderment. When the dentist finally examined Robert, he found severe cavities that would require referral to a specialist. The dentist he chose, Dr. Smith, was an older man who had the reputation of understanding children. When Robert arrived at Dr. Smith’s office, prepared for battle, the dentist told him, “Get in the chair, young man.” “No way!” “Son, I told you to get into the chair, and that’s what you’re going to do.” Robert retorted, “If you make me get in the chair, I’m going to take off all my clothes.” To his surprise, Dr. Smith, “Go ahead,” so Robert removed his shirt, undershirt, shoes, and socks, while remaining defiant. “Get in the chair, son.” “You didn’t hear me,” Robert insisted; “if you make me get into the chair, I’m going to take off all my clothes.” Dr. Smith responded, “Go ahead, son; do what you want—but you’re getting in the chair.” Robert removed his slacks and underpants, and stood there completely naked before Dr. Smith and his assistant. “Now,” said Dr. Smith, “get in the chair”—and Robert obeyed, and sat quietly and cooperatively throughout the lengthy procedure.
When the dentist was finished, Robert insisted, “Now give me back my clothes,” but to his great surprise Dr. Smith answered, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to tell your mother that we’re going to keep your clothes overnight; she can pick them up tomorrow.” Robert’s shocked mother found her son standing completely naked; instead of protesting, she simply took her son by the hand and walked through the crowded waiting room, despite the stares and snickers, and took the boy home. The next day, when she returned to pick up Robert’s clothes, she insisted on having a word with Dr. Smith—but not to protest or complain. Instead, she said, “You don’t know how much I appreciate what you did for Robert. He’s been blackmailing me for years, threatening to take off his clothes in public unless I immediately give in whenever he wants something. Doctor, you’re the first person who’s called his bluff, and his attitude has changed 180 degrees—thank you so much!” (Charles Swindoll, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes, p. 43).
This is an extreme case of someone playing the manipulation card, and getting away with it for years—until a person of wisdom and courage stood up to him. In today’s world there are constant efforts to control us and make us act and behave in certain ways, and quite often these are successful—often without us being aware of it. The use of threats and promises and various psychological tricks can make it very easy to control people, but no one can trick or manipulate God. His authority is absolute—and only by freely acknowledging and submitting to it can we find true freedom, joy, and peace.
The Jewish religious leaders hated the fact that Jesus didn’t seem to be subject to their control, so they tried to manipulate him by demanding in public, “By what authority are You doing these things? Who has given You this power?” They thought that if Jesus answered “My authority comes from God,” they’d be able to charge Him with blasphemy, and if He gave any other answer, they’d accuse Him of insubordination and rebellion. However, Our Lord would not let Himself be manipulated that way; He demanded His enemies answer an even more pointed and dangerous question on the origin of John’s baptism. The religious leaders immediately realized they couldn’t afford to give an honest answer, so their efforts to trick and manipulate Jesus came to nothing. God is not subject to human control, and we see a further example of this in the Book of Numbers (24:2-7, 15-17). When the Israelites were coming into the Promised Land, one of the local kings hired a seer or prophet named Balaam to place a curse on them. As he was about to do so, however, Balaam was overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, and instead found himself pronouncing a blessing. It was God’s will that the Israelites enter into their promised homeland, and no human power or authority would be able to prevent this.
Because we’re followers of Jesus, the world tries so hard to manipulate us, using a combination of various threats and promises and temptations. Society suggests that religion is too boring or old-fashioned, and that it makes more sense to focus on becoming materially prosperous and enjoying ourselves. We’re also told it’s all-right if we want to practice our faith privately, as long as we keep it to ourselves and don’t witness to Christ publicly; after all, our opponents insist, the separation of church and state means our religious beliefs must not be allowed to have any influence on society, lest we offend someone else or violate the rights of non-believers. This interpretation of the Constitution is, of course, a lie—but the world expects us to swallow it without protest and without thinking for ourselves. If we get uppity and refuse to back down, we may be accused of being politically incorrect or divisive or intolerant, and may even be threatened with legal action or penalties, discrimination, or various forms of societal bullying. Manipulation is the name of the game played by today’s secular society—and if we go along with this world’s rules, we’re going to lose.
Rather than let ourselves be manipulated, the way Robert’s mom was by her son for all those years, we must stand our ground the way Dr. Smith did. If people don’t like it when we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” that’s their problem, not ours; if they’re offended when we pray in public, they’ve just proven how desperately in need of our prayers they are, and we must assure them that we will indeed be praying for them; if they attack our Catholic Faith, we need to defend it vigorously and without apology; if they order us to accept immoral things such as abortion and same-sex marriage, we need to refuse in a spirit of uncompromising charity and firmness; if they tell us to keep quiet about Jesus, we need to proclaim Him all the more. It’s time for all Christians to stop letting the other side set the rules and call the shots, for that allows the people willing to use manipulation and intimidation to win by default. Such an outcome is not part of God’s plan—and if we want to be on the winning side, we have to be willing to fight for what we believe and point out that, like ten-year-old Robert, the emperor of this world has no clothes. Christ’s authority is supreme—and He will exercise it on our behalf, if only we have the courage to identify ourselves with Him.