With all that seems to be happening around us and in the Christian churches, I keep asking myself, "Is God in control?" What do you say about this? -- many inquirers
We have replied briefly to this question in the recent weeks (Q&A 0417), but today let me share with you a paper written by Doug Schaefer, of Columbus, Ohio, which is an extended reflection on this very subject.
IS GOD IN CONTROL?
Back in the spring of 2003, I had a couple of conversations with men I respect greatly. The first was with Paul Frederick, a member of my local church. The second, only days later, and after his message during a Kingdom Kids conference, was with Douglas Jacoby. They both put forth their opinion that we tend to abuse the idea that "God is in Control." This was something I hadn't considered, and the fact that each of them had presented the same basic idea independently, and within days of each other, prompted a study of the topic. This paper is the result of that Bible study.
Does asking that question bother you? It does me a bit. Ask me that six months ago I would have answered immediately, "Yes, of course!" That response would have probably been accompanied by a skeptical look, and perhaps questions about your faith. What were you thinking, asking such a question? In the church, we've been told (and told others) over and over, "Don't worry, God's in control"' "You need to have faith, God's in control." "You just need to let go of that and be confident that God is in control." It seems like heresy to question it, but question it we must.
Satan loves it when we accept things unquestioned. I believe one of his most powerful weapons is to take God's foundation of truth, remove just one brick or two, replace them with his own inferior bricks and hand it to us to build on. It looks a lot like God's foundation, and in fact they are almost identical. Satan just hopes that we won't examine it too closely and discover his alterations. Over the past months of revolution, re-examination and revelation, as we've examined our church's foundation, I've really looked deeply at my own, what I believe and why. One of the many things I've come to a conviction on is that the statement "God is in control." is not completely accurate.
Certainly God is sovereign; he created all that we see. Nothing we see would exist if he hadn't set this whole universe in motion. We did not decide how many fingers man would have, the rotation and order of the planets or what is right or wrong. God did that. (See Job 40 and 41.) Certainly God has more knowledge of the workings of the universe and the inner confines of each of our hearts that we ever will. Science tries to understand the universe but every answer it finds brings more questions. Psychologists and doctors probe the inner workings of the human soul but still can't figure it all out. Also, there are things that we have no say in at all, like when Jesus will return and how to judge the world. So, at the most basic level of all it is most certainly God who is in control, but does that equal control on all levels? Perhaps a better question is "What has God decided not to control?"
To say simply that God is in control implies that he is intimately involved with everything that happens, massaging every situation so that it will come out as he would like. If you believe that God is good and he loves you, there is comfort in that. If God is in control, then I don't need to be concerned with anything, all will be fine. It seems to match the spirit of Mathew 6, where we are commanded not to worry. I hope you can see, though, the slippery slope that statement is. It can quickly go far beyond just being content and free of worry to apathy. If God is in control, I don't need to challenge that brother on his sin; God will take care of it. If God is in control, I don't need to question my leaders; God is guiding them. If God is in control, I don't need to deal with my own sin; God will guide me in the right direction. If God is in control, I don't need to share my faith; God will bring people into the kingdom. If God is in control, we can absolve ourselves from responsibility and use it as an excuse to not be concerned with doing the right thing.
Certainly, God's sovereignty and omnipotence is not questionable, but does that equal total control? Not necessarily. Does a lack of control equal a lack of involvement? No! Consider this imperfect example of an automobile. If you go down to your local Ford store and buy a new Ford, you could say that the designers and engineers at Ford were "sovereign" over your new car. They developed the specifications, designed the components, tested them, assembled it and delivered it to the dealer. They will be involved in it too, sending out maintenance bulletins and recall notices if necessary and providing you with documentation like an owner's manual. But you, not Ford, will be in control of the car. You decide how fast to drive it, where to drive it, how often to drive it, what type of gas to use, when to change the oil and if it should be washed. Ford will give you recommendations on many of these things, but you may ignore them if you choose. If you do, however, you may suffer the consequences of premature failure of your car. If so, Ford will have no sympathy, rightfully so, and will not be held responsible for the repairs. You ignored their rules at your peril.
I believe that God operates in a similar way. He has created a world for us and that world is governed by laws, both physical and spiritual. Those things are constant. Gravity always pulls down and with the same force, lying is always a sin, the sun rises in the east and love never fails. But what if they were not constant? What if God did manipulate every situation attempting to make everything alright regardless of our actions? I would not want to live in such a world and I am quite grateful that our God does not behave that way. Malachi 3:6-7 says that God set things up this way so that we would not be destroyed. Imagine waking up in the morning, not knowing whether fire would burn you or not or if gravity was going to work that day. What if there were situations where it was alright to lie or sex before marriage was acceptable? It would be chaos! Much of the world operates under these 'conditional' morals and look at the mess it is in. No, our God has lovingly given us freedom. But with that freedom comes a heavy responsibility to seek out what exactly is God's will and do the right thing. God is in control only to the extent that he set the rules in place that govern our lives. This is not because of a limitation in God's ability. No, he is certainly able to control it all. He has chosen not to and gives us the complete freedom to do as we please.
OK, I've talked enough; let's consider some examples from the scriptures:
* In Genesis, Adam and Eve had the choice to eat or not from the tree of life. They chose to eat and had to live with the consequences of their disobedience for the rest of their lives (and so do we!). God certainly didn't control their eating.
* Joshua 7, we read the story of Achan's sin. Achan decided that the treasure was worth the risk. Not only did he pay for it, but his entire family and 36 others died as a result. Did God unmercifully kill these men and women? No, Achan stepped outside of the rules of God and the consequences were severe.
* Later, in Joshua 10, we see God stopping the sun over head. God temporarily suspended the physical laws he had set in place, why? Because Joshua, a righteous man on a Godly pursuit asked him to so. Was it God's idea to stop the sun? No, it was Joshua's. He simply did not want to let sundown leave the work of God unfinished. (I've often wondered about those who knew nothing of this battle. As they worked that day, what did they think as the day wore on, and on, and on...)
* In Isaiah 37, it might be said that verse 26 or verses 28-29 show that God was in control of the situation, dictating the outcome. Look, though, at the entire passage. In verses 21-22 God sends a message to Hezekiah through Amoz. He tells him that he has said these words "Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria." Was God unaware of the sins of Sennacherib before Hezekiah prayed? No, he is sovereign and omnipotent, and it seems clear from the passage that God knew exactly what was going on. However, it was the action (prayer) of a righteous man the moved God to act and bring down a king. The implication is that God was willing to do nothing and let the evil stand as long as the righteous did nothing. But one man prayed and God unleashed his army and killed 185,000 men and saved his people. So, was God in control, or was Hezekiah?
* In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Mathew 25, it is the lives and actions of the people that determine which group they will be placed in. It is not God's choice, he is simply judging them by the rules he set up. God made the rules, but the people are in control of the outcome.
* In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira lied about their gift in order to look good in front of the disciples. They lost their lives as a result. God did not strike them down arbitrarily; they let their pride and desire for praise from men sear their consciences to the point that a lie was acceptable. Once Peter exposed their sin, they paid for it with their lives.
The list of examples goes on and on. Throughout the Bible, people rebel against God or seek him and submit to him and receive the consequences, good or bad, of their actions, but what of God's involvement in the world? One of the reasons we pray is the hope that God will respond to our prayers and get involved. If God simply set up a world with boundaries and rules, why bother to pray? Why ask anything of him at all? Why not just simply study the Bible intently and do our best to do right? It seems a bit depressing to think that we may be on our own here!
But look at those passages again and you'll see a pattern. God indeed gets involved, but mainly after being invited. God revealed Achan's sin after Joshua and the elders reacted in alarm and petitioned God on what to do. God stopped the sun at the request of Joshua so he could finish the job. God sent an angel to slaughter 185,000 enemy soldiers and turn back a king after Hezekiah prayed. God struck down Ananias and Sapphira after Peter challenged them on their sin. God got involved because of the actions of righteous men. The notion that 18th century British parliamentarian Edmund Burke put forth is true, 'Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.' In each of these situations, if the righteous had done nothing, evil would have had a victory. (Interestingly, look at the motives of the men in these examples. They were passionate for God's honor not their own safety, security or well being.)
Interestingly, the results of the actions are frequently disproportionate to the actions themselves. Little acts of faith and obedience by the righteous equal huge actions from God. Just before the story of Achan, Joshua and the Israelites simply marched around Jericho and the city implodes. Hezekiah says one prayer and a king and his entire army are routed and destroyed. Peter challenges a lie (some might even water it down to an exaggeration) and two people loose their lives and the entire church ramps up its respect for God's standards.
Does God act without our request? Certainly! I believe that he is constantly calling out for righteous men to take a stand for him. He called many men throughout the Bible ' Moses, Jonah, Gideon, Paul, David, Jesus' 12 disciples and others. But take note, each one of these men could have said no. Jonah did, but God didn't give up that easy. In fact, we have no idea how many others stood at that burning bush and walked away. How many Jonah's were digested instead of repentant? Even in the times that God started the conversation, men were in control of the outcome. Perhaps God, through his spirit and the scriptures, is calling you to something. What is your answer?
So what's the point? Well, it isn't to put God in a box and clearly define the limits of his responsibly or dominion. We'll never fully know that, and it would be foolish to think that we could, especially in a short paper like this. And certainly the point is not to crush your faith and make you doubt whether God is with you or not (although perhaps a better question than "Is God with me?" is "Am I with God?"). No, the point is to more fully understand the nature of God and how he relates to us and how he loves us. He loves us enough to keep his hands off and let us find our own way, but when (and if) we call on him, he stands ready to respond in ways we can't even imagine (see Psalm 18 and Ephesians 3:20). Even more than that, the point is to take a sober look at our lives and understand the consequences of our actions and the depth of our convictions. We cannot have a shallow understanding of the Bible and simply 'go with the flow' and expect that, because God is good, things will be OK.
God has put the responsibility on us to determine what's right and to act accordingly; we must not try to put that burden back on him. In this sense, God is not in control -- we are!
September 3, 2003
This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2003. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.