God Is Not In Control, Pt. 2

I claimed in a previous post that the expression, “God is in control,” is not a faithful representation of how Scripture portrays God’s sovereign kingship and his relation to the world.

This expression is problematic because of how it affects Christian imaginations, especially anxious ones. It activates Christian imaginations to consider responding to suffering in ways that are not found in Scripture, and it prevents us from considering responses to pain that Scripture commends.

And it does not represent how biblical writers address God’s anxious people who face suffering. Scripture does indeed speak to calm anxiety and relieve fear, but it does so in a way that points toward fruitful Christian action in the face of trouble.

I hope to elaborate this from some biblical texts in future posts, but in this one I reflect on how the expression functions problematically in our imaginations.

First, when trouble hits and the expression “God is in control” enters Christian imaginations, it leads us to consider wrong courses of action. We may think that we don’t have to do anything in the face of calamity. “God is in control” and he will take care of things. The expression leads to inaction. It prevents Christians from considering creative efforts to relieve the suffering of the poor and vulnerable.

It may also lead us to consider unwise behaviors. In the current global pandemic, we are told to avoid large gatherings. Church leaders may say, “God is in control, and we can trust the Lord.” This has engendered in some the confidence that they can disregard sober counsel and continue to gather. But this is unwise and it fails to consider that we are to love our neighbors and take action to prevent the spread of the virus.

The way the biblical writers address the prospect of tragedy leads to wise courses of action, as I hope to describe in future posts. The prophets and New Testament writers are unsentimental and relentlessly realistic about the character of evil in this world and they address their audiences in ways that encourage wisdom. They evaluate the prospect of suffering with sobriety.

Second, it engenders false hope. When the expression “God is in control” enters anxious imaginations, it may make us think that we will not suffer, that somehow we’ll be okay. We might find some assurance that we will not lose a loved one, or our possessions. The expression subtly encourages us to be assured about something that we are not guaranteed. False hope leads to profound disappointment.

The biblical writers do not offer such assurances. Christians are not promised that we will be kept from suffering in this world, but rather that we will suffer. Our hope is that while we inhabit a world that involves pain and loss, our true home is the new creation that is to come, a world free of pain and grief.

Third, the expression activates our imaginations to inappropriately discern a divine logic to tragedy. When we see one part of the world suffer while another does not, we may conclude that God does not love the first group of people while he does love the second. Perhaps God is judging there while showing favor here. Surely they have sinned in some way while we are righteous. We may find ourselves saying that “God is teaching this nation a lesson.”

Christians have interpreted tragedies in this way in the past and they have been wrong to do so. The biblical writers discourage this way of understanding pain and suffering in the world.

Fourth, and related to this, the expression prevents us from dealing with grief as Scripture commends. Because we see God as somehow directing the course of tragedy in the world, we feel it is inappropriate to lament and grieve. We feel guilty for questioning God and his wise purposes.

But Scripture contains a rich tradition of lament for Christians to enter into when we suffer. It frees us to express our grief. It liberates us to lament. It encourages us to be brutally honest. We may even question God as the psalmists and the prophets do. Jesus does this as he was about to die. Scripture provides language for our process of grief that leads us toward healing and hope in God’s new creation. And we are called to mourn with those who mourn. The expression “God is in control” cuts us off from considering these practices, leaving our wounded hearts damaged.

Fifth, the expression causes us to ask the wrong questions. We ask, “why would God allow this?” And then we speculate about God’s hidden purposes, which we can never know. This fails to recognize that Scripture has already answered the “why” question, explaining that suffering in the world is because humanity rebelled and plunged creation into chaos. Suffering is now a routine feature of our experience in this world, and sometimes it will grow intense. Humanity is “born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

To say that “God is in control” is to raise all the wrong questions and it leaves us poorly positioned to find good answers. It is an attempt to make things make sense, but it starts in the wrong place and so leads to unfruitful ways of thinking.

We should be asking other questions, not least, “how can we relieve the suffering of others by having solidarity with them?”

There is indeed great mystery about God and his relation to the world in the Bible. But what Scripture says about God when we suffer activates imaginations to discern faithful responses shaped by Christian identity. It does not give us false hope or keep us from lamenting, and it does not lead to speculation about hidden divine purposes.

There is a more faithful way of conceiving of God’s sovereign kingship and his relation to the world, one that is consistent with how Scripture shapes Christian identity and conduct. I hope to describe that from biblical texts in future posts.

9 thoughts on “God Is Not In Control, Pt. 2

  1. Ryan

    Dr. Gombis, this post seems all anecdotal with a lot of assumption. This may be purposeful considering your first post attempted to be more theological and scriptural. On several points in this post, I think people say just the opposite in their experience while holding to the God is in control view. People may agree with your interpretation of certain sections of scripture while still holding the view that God is in control. People act with wisdom while holding the view that God is in control. People “evaluate the prospect of suffering with sobriety” while holding to the view that God is in control. People understand that they will suffer while holding to the view that God is in control. People lament while holding to the view that God is in control. People can understand that scripture has answered the “why” question concerning suffering and chaos in the world while holding to the view that God is in control. People understand that there is great mystery about God while holding to the view that God is in control. (Sorry for the redundancy in my sentence formation… my writing imagination is still developing:)

    I will be interested to see how you engage biblical texts in future posts.

    1. timgombis

      Indeed, Ryan, insofar as people respond to realities in life as Scripture commends, all while having poor conceptions of God in their minds (like me), that is good! But I also think it’s a good thing to seek to understand as faithfully as possible how Scripture depicts God’s relation to the world.

  2. David Baker

    And what place, then, for the New Testament theology of prayer? If God is not in control, then he cannot respond to our “prayers, requests and supplications” – for example for kings, rulers and all in authority (1 Tim 2v2), because he cannot do anything about them… If God is not in control, to pray to “be delivered from wicked and evil people” (2 Thess 3v2) is a waste of time because he cannot direct the circumstances to do so… If God is not in control, how can we ask him to give us “good things” as Jesus commands us (Matthew 7v9-11) because we might just as well end up with a stone (v9)…

    1. timgombis

      Good question, David, I hope to get there at some point. I think that prayer for such things is still wise even if God is not in control. Scripture portrays God’s relation to the world as complex, with other factors involved, as well. I think it leads to trouble when we imagine that God is in control and our prayers for these things don’t come about. It leads us to speculate about the divine logic behind this move or that. Why deliverance here, but not there? Why provision here but starvation there?

      The logic that drives praying in Scripture makes good sense against the complex depiction of God as sovereign king and as genuine participant in the drama within creation as it unfolds. I do realize I need to demonstrate that, and I hope to do so.

  3. Kevin Allard

    I think you’re working with a lot of false assumptions about what people mean when they say “God is in control” and what people understand when they hear other people saying it. For me, it would be perfectly normal to say things like:

    – We rejoice in our sufferings because God is in control – he will use our sufferings to make us more like Christ
    – We can take risks because God is in control and even if we suffer losses, he is able to use that for our good, in fact he has promised to do so.

    It is precisely because God is in control that we can suffer well and take risks.

  4. eric boothe

    I think a lot of times Christians can have a very hard time listening to others because we want to be quick to respond and attempt to reassure others. Sometimes we will use phrases like “God is in control” which does nothing to reassure those who may not believe there is a god or someone who’s emotions feel out of control. When we leave it at “God is in control” it can lead people to musing such as this: https://youtu.be/usN-pKfw6Q8

  5. Andrew Brown

    Let’s use your logic that god is not in control. Fine. How about this. Jesus never expected to be killed. It happened out of his control.

  6. Pingback: On God and Control | Prodigal Thoughts

  7. Margo

    I am not a bible scholar, but a Christian of almost four decades, often reflective and challenging cliche and status quo of the Christian culture I’ve been brought up through. After almost three years of the global pandemic situation we’ve all been touched by, I’ve come to consider this ‘God is in control’ perspective more along the lines of what Tim is describing. Often, perhaps not always, the statement is a simplistic absolute one. Without knowing more that a person means when saying it, we can mislead ourselves and one another. My perspective (albeit limited), is becoming more this: God rules, yes; but He is not ‘IN Control’. He gave his children (Adam and Eve up to an including us) free will, and thereby shared ‘control’ over what would take place on Planet Earth amongst us. He has always desired for us to be co-creators and vice-regents, participating with Him in ruling creation and life on earth. He did this and does this, as a perfect, loving parent, and as a parent myself I understand to a certain extent how this ‘works’, and how messy it can be. So I don’t see it as either ‘He is fully in control of every detail and decision’ nor ‘He is fully not in control amidst all this chaos’. To me, it must be a complex, nuanced level of give and take on his part in relation to us, his wayward family (wayward, yet also seeking to live into the fulfilment of redemption for our part, awaiting in Hope upon His promises).

    I just heard you Tim for the first time today, chatting with Phil Vischer. Looking into your blog a bit, I discovered this topic that has been on my mind and making its way into my conversations more often recently, as I share with others my hesitancy to agree wholeheartedly with the often-cliche statement that God is in control. Thank you for helping me not to feel so alone in this thinking.

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