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.