If God is in control, why does the world seem totally out of control?
In the previous post in this series, I referred to three reasons bad things happen. Christians struggle to make sense of evil and pain in the world, just as anyone does. Why would God allow it? Why did he create our world this way? We often respond with a shrug, and a fairly tepid, “Well, God is in control.” Usually Christians understand God’s control in one of two ways, and we’re going to review them in this post.
First, some say that God has given us free will, because he wants to be in a loving relationship with us, and that requires free will. In order to have a real, genuine give and take relationship with God, we need to be able to say “No” to him. We need to be able to deny him, to turn away from him. If we have no other choice but to love and obey him, that would not be a genuine relationship. That means we would have no free will, or maybe we would have a seriously diminished free will, and I suspect few of us would really want that.
There are, admittedly, times in my own life when I say to God, “Lord, make me a robot for you, because I am so sick of my constant screwing up.” But if God would turn off our free will, our person-hood would cease to exist, and we would essentially be robots. The result of free will, though, is that we are NOT robots, and that means we often make terribly selfish choices against God, against each other, against ourselves, and against the world. Those selfish choices lead to pain and disaster, as we see all the time on the news. You might think, “Geesh, if that is what God did, creating free will…was it worth it?” Because the pain and evil has been really bad, hasn’t it? It has! God took a massive risk in creating free will. Thinking relationally, he risked that his creation that he loved, you and me and all humanity, could deny his love. When you give people a choice, they can and do sometimes make poor choices. And thus there is much pain in the world.
So the free will view explains that God actually does give up a measure of control…and he gives it to us. But we’re not all bad, right? We can do amazingly beautiful creative loving things with our power, limited though it is in comparison to his. Throughout the ages, people have done acts of amazing artwork, invention, unity, friendship, commitment and love. I’m not just talking about famous artists or world-changers. We all have an opportunity to use our free will in God-honoring ways. From how we parent and grandparent. From how we neighbor, how we work, how we handle ourselves in school, and certainly how we participate in a church family. Lest we get too negative and jaded, we need to look for the amazing results of godly free will all over the planet.
So maybe the free will view could be summarized as saying that God is in control to the degree that we give him control?
That brings us to the second way Christians explain the presence of evil in the world. God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty is about God’s control. Free will gives humans control. Sovereignty says that God has never given up control, no matter how out of control the world seems.
We believe that God is control in the master plan sense. Satan or evil people cannot ultimately thwart God’s master plan. Throughout Scripture we see this many times. Nothing could stop Jesus from being born, from living his life, from having his ministry. Nothing was going to stop the resurrection of Jesus, for example. Nothing will stop him from coming back. In that sense, yes, God is in control.
But he also gives us a measure of control. My denomination, the EC Church, is in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition and we believe God allows free will, and we must use our free will to choose him. Many do. And it is a primary aspect of the mission of God’s people to help others choose God too.
But we also know many do not choose God. So there is a proper sense in which the phrase “God is in control” needs some explaining. If all we mean, when we say “God is control” is that he is going to work out his master plan, then it is a true statement. But if we mean that God is going to make things great for people in suffering, then it is not a true statement. He might allow the pain to continue. We might never know why we went through the pain. In fact, there might not be a spiritual reason. It could simply be that we live in a broken and fallen world. To people in those situations, it could actually be counter-productive and harmful to say to them “everything happens for a reason” or “God is in control.” As we saw last week, there’s a much better way to come alongside people who are struggling. And we’ll talk more about that in a future post in this series.
One thing I would recommend we don’t say to people who are struggling is the next phrase that we are fact-checking, and we’ll cover that in part 4.