A while back my friend was teaching on Psalm 115:16. He’s an excellent teacher but something of an iconoclast. “People like to say God is in control,” he said. “I’ve got news for you—He’s not. If God were in control, this world would look a lot different than it does.” His words have echoed around in my head for months.
Some people were scandalized; some were energized. His point was that we have been told a great many things about God in our lives, but have we examined them to see if they fit with our personal experience? For example, Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is breaking in (Matthew 4:17), but doesn’t that mean there are places on the earth where God does not rule and reign? What is the evidence in my own life: Is God “in control” of my heart? my thoughts? my actions? What about my own world: Is God is control of my neighborhood or community?
Many people embrace the idea that God is somehow pulling the levers behind the screen of life. “God is all-powerful,” they say. “His will cannot be denied. Therefore, everything that happens must be part of his plan from the beginning.” But does “power” always mean “control”?
It’s true: God does manage to draw wonderful outcomes from the foolishness of men. It is also true that the glory of God’s power and wisdom is frequently on display in human affairs in spite of our choices, not because of them. Part of the glory of God is his ability to accomplish his will in the midst of the complexity of a billion human choices. He does not over-rule our lives. He works within them. He is forgiving, patient, and kind. He knows our weaknesses and chooses to partner with us anyway. What some people mean for evil, God turns into good. God is never the author of evil, but he is the editor!
Two Questions About How God Is in Control
My purpose here is to ask the kind of question that people in the pews are asking. Many pastors, based upon their theological training or conviction, will have different answers. The important thing is that each pastor face such real-life questions.
Question One: Does the fact that God is in control strip away responsibility for our choices?
Saying that God is in control can undermine the call of God to repentance as a way of life. If God is in control, then someone might reason that God is in control even of the unrepentant choices one makes. If God is in control when we preach that sinners should let Jesus take the throne of their lives, doesn’t that mean that God has previously allowed them to make choices against his will? Or worse: An adamant position that God is in control of ALL things might see believers—who ought to be disciples—come to believe that their sinful choices have been the will of God all along.
Question Two: By accepting the phrase “God is in control” without examining it closely, do we see each and every event in life as part of God’s foreordained plan?
I have watched followers of Jesus embrace tragedy as if it were sent from God! Sickness is a prime example. Many of God’s children embrace sickness as part of God’s dealings in their lives. I have heard some Christians refer to cancer as “my gift from God.”
It’s true that in our sickness, we can experience the grace of God or develop Christian virtues such as long-suffering. For example, those who are afflicted may have learned so much about God’s love and care through the ordeal of treatment. But God is not the source of sickness and disease. What earthly parent would infect a child with disease in order to teach character lessons? Why would the perfect heavenly Father do what is unthinkable among us?
Wise pastoral ministry needs to address these questions because people out there are asking them. Sin and sorrow have been loosed on the earth from the very days of the Garden of Eden. We may at times be subject to them, but our Father has never inflicted them upon us for our good. Christian fatalism lures us into a false expression of God’s sovereignty and separates us from his glory. Perhaps we can discover more of his greatness by standing with him against the sin and sorrow of our age.
I’d like to suggest that there’s a world of difference between “Everything happens for a reason” and “God brings reason out of everything that happens.” This is how I see the phrase, God is in control.