How often do you hear people say “God is in control”? Oftentimes, when you share a difficult situation with someone it is difficult for them to find the right words to say. The one comforting thing that they usually can say easily is “God is in control”. You politely nod in agreement and say “yes, thank you” or an emphatic “Amen!!,” and you both cordially move on to something else.
I don’t remember when it happened but a while back I started questioning this whole idea of “God is in control”. There was just something off about how that sounded to me all of a sudden. You see, if God is truly in control, it means that not only did He sit there and watch the horrible thing happen to you but also willed it; not only does He see people die but He’s promoting it; not only does He know children are starving but also approves. As Christians, you and I both know that cannot be the case.
Now, before I continue, I want to make a distinction. There are things that happen to us (like car accidents, company downsizing, etc.) and things that we do to ourselves (drug use, poor diet, unhealthy relationships, etc.). When people say things like “God is in control” they are always referring to the things that happen to us; random acts of place and chance and circumstances that we ourselves have no control over. They are never talking about the things that we control: poor habits, poor choices; somehow God is not in control then.
Control of Everything or Nothing
God gives us space to choose in our personal life but is a dictator in every aspect of our lives that doesn’t involve our direct binary, yes or no, up or down, decision-making. Somehow we are like characters in a video game where the computer dictates the scenario and we play through it, hoping to choose the right door every time.
And so the question still remains: how can it be that if God is “in control”, He cannot control my actions but is in charge of everything that happens around me: from the drunk driver t-boning a soccer mom’s minivan full of children to a stray bullet hitting a five-year old on a Harlem street corner? As you can hopefully imagine by now He is either in control of everything or He’s in control of nothing at which point the cliché phrase “God is in control” is misnomer at best or willfully misleading at worst.
Two Simple Truths
After some careful consideration, I have found that there is only one way to put this square peg in a round hole. It starts with two simple truths. The first is that God has given us free will. Humans are free moral agents with the ability to make choices; choices that have direct and indirect consequences both on ourselves, those around us and extend out to an unknowable degree to others around the world. Imagine the example of a butterfly flapping its wings in the amazon creating a hurricane in the Caribbean. One small localized change can have a cascading effect on people and circumstances thousands of miles away.
The second truth to keep in mind is two-fold. The first part is that God is a free moral agent as well. Just like humans he has choice. He can choose to interfere in our everyday lives as well as choose not to. What’s important to realize is the second part of this truth and that is that God will not force Himself on anyone. As Scripture teaches us, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock”. It doesn’t say that He “breaks down the door”. He does not and will not force His will on anyone. His will, as we know from Scripture, is that “no one should perish”. The mere fact that not all come to repentance is a clear sign of both our free will as humans as well as God’s gentle character that He will not force anyone to do so.
This brings us back to our original question: is God really in control? What strikes me the most is that it is usually well-intentioned Christians that give God credit for bad things that happen to us. Whether it’s an illness or a financial situation or a myriad of other scenarios, the comfort offered is always “God is in control”. I guess they can actually picture God sending that horrible circumstance your way. It is in many ways a very Islamic god that goes tit for tat with you, a bean counter of sorts that sends immediate retribution for wrongs committed and holds long-standing accounts on the good you have done and stores the reward up for when you make it to heaven.
So, what is it? Is it possible that all those well-intentioned Christians could have gotten it so wrong? Unfortunately, however unwillingly, the short answer is yes. God is not in control. God is not playing some cosmic video game where He holds the game controller and each of us is on a separate game console. Control is what we as Christians want to give God; it is by far not what He has!
If we as Believers struggle daily to surrender to God, how much more difficult is it for God to control the lives of non-believers? Like the Apostle Paul said “the good I will, that I do not do; the evil I do not will, that I practice”. If the best Christian I can think of struggled daily with surrender, what chance do I have in surrendering? What chance does God have in controlling me? But if God is not in control, then who is and, where does that leave God?
The answer to that question is eloquently simple. We are in control but God is sovereign! Now I know what you may be thinking: it sounds like a distinction without a difference. I assure you it is deadly serious. Consider this: if God were truly in control we would be excused in having the same form of fatalism expressed by Muslims when they say, “all is as God wills it”.
In fact, Muslims have a sort of abandonment to life and to circumstances that is not typical of Christians, nor should it be. But that is exactly what the phrase “God is in control” expresses. Perhaps not intentionally, but it is expressed all the same. In fact, Muslims believe that everything is already set in stone. Their lives are just a series of steps in a pre-ordained set before them. That sort of theology is more closely comparable to a Calvinistic theology rather than a “saved by Grace” Armenianist approach.
Moreso, the Lord’s prayer is proof that all is not as God wills it on Earth. His perfect will is, for now, only fully executed in Heaven. As Believers, we have a longing to see God’s will play out on Earth as we patiently await the Hope of Glory. Unbelievers on the other hand want anything but God’s will to play out on Earth. In the words of one of the 20th century greatest proponents of humanism would say, “I did it my way”. That is, in a nutshell, the anthem of the atheist humanist: my will, my way, always! This is just another reminder that if it is true that God affords humans free will, and so many insist on having their will play out in their lives, then it stands to reason that God cannot be in control.
Now, to say that God is sovereign is not admitting to a lesser form of oversight over our lives in any way, shape or form. Quite the contrary. Let me explain. When we talk of control, it evokes an image of automatons simply following their programming; a world where God is simply waiting for the coding to run its course, reward His teacher’s pets and punish the ones pre-ordained for the flames. That couldn’t be further from the truth. On the other hand, sovereignty points to a scenario where, in His omniscience, God has seen all the possible scenarios play out: the willing Believer hands over control to the Spirit and is led, the unwilling make their own choices, and all the possible permutations end with the same result: the Second Coming, the Millennium, and Eternity with God.
Just like in the “Time Machine”, the paradox is that the End always plays out the same. God always has His way. He doesn’t need to be in control, He doesn’t want to be in control: He is sovereign. Simply put, sovereignty of God extends above and beyond the mere control of individual decisions, actions and circumstances. God’s sovereignty means that regardless of the individual decisions made by people, His will is always the end result.
Now, an unbeliever would take exception to such a statement, stating that God is still somehow playing king-maker and puppet master. They would claim that His will winning out in the end is proof of just how unfair God truly is. But for Christians, we take comfort in the fact that “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). For Believers, that is our Life Assurance policy. God takes even our bad choices and missteps and weaves them into His master plan because, as Scriptures says, He knows the End from the Beginning.
The job you shouldn’t have taken, the move you should’ve made, the ministry you started late, you can be assured that you are always where you’re supposed to be. That may sound like circular reasoning, to say that “you’re where you’re supposed to be”, but keep in mind that there is no version of the future which God has not seen and arranged for through the things He can and does control, outside of the will of humans. How does He do it? Your guess is as good as mine.
Divine Sovereignty is what affords humans their free will while still safeguarding God’s “executive privilege” over Creation. Scripture says that “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose”. As we mentioned before, the verse can only apply to Believers who want and allow God to “to will and to act”.
By no means does it apply to unregenerate unbelievers who want no part of God nor any part of His will in their lives. But, despite the choices that both Believers and unbelievers make, God’s will, His final checkmate will always play out just as Scripture says. In fact, we have written plainly,
“regarding His plan of the fullness of the times, to bring all things together in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
As Born-again, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing Christians, we cannot be portraying a worldview that is not in line with the will of God. God’s Grace is not, as Calvin would say, “irresistible;” people unfortunately choose to perish every day. I know that we mean well when we say that “God is in control” but to a grieving mother, father, husband, wife, those words don’t bring them closer to God but only make God the perpetrator of the evil that happened in their lives, which is ridiculous at best and blasphemous at worst. In fact, God is the only one who cannot be blamed. God only gives good and perfect gifts. Everything that is evil must come from elsewhere.
If we’re looking to really comfort people, we should start with the Truth. The Truth is that God promises to give us “beauty for your ashes”; God promises that He will never leave us nor forsake us; God promises to stick “closer than a brother” and that we don’t know how He’ll do it but He will. Why? Because He is sovereign and that’s better than being in control. Control is what humans want and never achieve, sovereignty is what God has and cannot be taken from Him.
The will of God in people’s lives is not an unstoppable natural phenomenon. If it were, it would nullify free will, His atoning work on the Cross and Grace. As Men of God, it is our High Calling to teach our wives, our children and those around us the difference and live in the absolute freedom that God’s sovereignty affords Believers that make the choice to follow Jesus and want Him to live in us and through us (Romans 8:28).
Bondservant to Jesus Christ, Married to Michele, Dad to Madelyn, Claudia, and Joseph and educator by trade, apologist by calling and saved by Grace. Antonio loves to read, write, and discuss all-things-apologetics. He has many passions in life including reaching, teaching, and keeping men for Jesus Christ. Waiting on God’s big reveal: Antonio knows He has something beautiful in mind.