Good Questions: Is God in Control?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

How many hundreds of times have I heard someone confidently profess that “God is in control”? But is it true? I understand entirely: when tragedy strikes, when chaos swirls, we cling to the idea it’s not all just random, that evil isn’t really in control. It feels comforting.

Yet if God is in control, then God becomes the author of abuse, wars, meanness, murders, starvation, cancer and tragedies. If you’re relatively comfortable, coping with normal challenges, it’s not hard to say Relax! God is in control. But ask the mother hiding in a bombed out home in Ukraine, an abused child, or someone riddled with lethal cancer pain. Atheists scoff at the possibility of God precisely because these things occur under God’s watchful control.

On Monday, we asked What is God like? If the Bible is the clue, God is love. And so God is not a manipulator. Love doesn’t and can’t control. Since God is love, then God isn’t the great orchestrator of events around you, or the bubble wrap to shelter us from all harm, or the guarantor of happy endings. Like good parents, the God who is love lets us go out on our own, knowing we’ll get hurt and do dumb stuff. Like good parents, God doesn’t swaddle us away in a safe room, but gently nudges us out of the house. Would my grown children say “Don’t worry; Dad’s in control”? Dad’s there, Dad loves, but Dad isn’t and wishes not to be in control. God has no secret, master plan. God loves. Love wants the beloved to be – yes – free.

The promise love makes, in life and in the Bible, is summed up in a single word, not an omni- adjective or a noun or even a verb, but a mere preposition: Sam Wells says the most important theological word in the entire Bible is with. God is with us. Jesus’ nickname at birth? Emmanuel, meaning God with us. Jesus’ parting words at the Ascension? I will be with you. Always. What a sufferer or even a successful person wants and needs is simply to be heard, to be known, not to be alone. The Broadway song “You’ll never walk alone” moves people for good reason. That’s the dream. Even at the moment of death: most folks dying don’t want a last second rescue, or to jump on a plane and fly to Paris to die. They want someone who matters just to be there, to hold hands and speak words of love.

God’s “control” is a thing – big picture that is. Eternally. God doesn’t control this or that event in your life or in the world’s history. But in the long-term, ultimately, God will redeem all of us and all of creation. When time is no more, God’s vision will be fully realized, and all will be well. God is involved and active now, but God still leaves space for what grieves God’s heart – for now. Chris Green, explaining “God is Not in Control,” offers the sobering truth: “We must patiently endure until God’s will is finally, fully done. Then we will see that God indeed is good.”

Philip, at the last supper, urged Jesus to “Show us the Father.” He did: a baby desperate for feeding, a young man misunderstood and mistreated, with no hint of omnipotence or immutability – or control. “He was wounded….” Abandoned by his friends, he was arrested unjustly and executed shamefully. That’s how it goes with love, and the beauty and lovability of Love is so much richer and lovelier than omnipotence, ineffability or control – for all of us. “In Christ, the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19).