taking the words of Jesus seriously

God is in control.

It’s a phrase we use often, mostly as an easy slogan when something goes wrong. “God is in control, ” we say when someone dies; when we lose our job; when our health fails.

But what do we mean by this?

Do we mean that God controls every decision, every event; every single thing that happens?

The colour of the socks I wear, the speed of the cyclone, the actions of my boss?

That’s Muslim theology. Inshallah. Nothing happens without the direct, intervening hand of Allah willing it so.

But Christians don’t believe this. We hold firmly to the notion of free-will. We are free to decide how we spend our money, how we drive our cars, who we marry, what career path we should follow.

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So herein lies the thorny theological paradox. How does God’s sovereignty and human free will interact? It’s a debate that’s older than time. Paul in his all-over-the-place discussion of this as it applies to salvation of the Jews and Gentiles, declares it a mystery and proclaims: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!!” (Romans 11:33) Theologians in history have tried to reconcile the issue and the recent work of Gregory Boyd in God of the Possible has opened the discussion again.

So what exactly does this phrase mean?

Here’s what we can be sure of:

1. God is not controlling.

God does not control us. He does not give us free will then take it away. He offers us blessing and cursing, life and death. He gives us options. He says; ‘Stay faithful to the covenant life’, but doesn’t usually hit us over the head with a sledgehammer when we don’t.

2. Not everything that happens is God’s will.

If everything that ever happened on earth was God’s will, there would be no reason to pray; “Thy will be done on earth as it heaven.” (Matthew 6:10). Much of what we see here is not God’s will. That’s heaven.

Sometimes I think using this phrase can be dangerous. It can lead us to blame God and avert taking our own responsibility.

So if I chose to drink myself silly during pregnancy and my baby is born with an disability as a result, was God in control of that?

If I don’t do my pay my bills on time, recklessly whittling away my budget on luxuries and go bankrupt with crippling debt, was God in control of that?

If I don’t resolve the failings of my relational behaviours, learn to manage my anger and my marriage falls apart as a consequence, was God in control of that?

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I wonder if we should re-work that statement a little. I wonder if we should change the default line from “God is in control” to; “God is always good. He is always able to bring good from any situation as we trust him.”

Yes, his awe-inspiring, miraculous and mysterious, all-knowing sovereignty means while I make my choices and they have consequences, a life consecrated to God means that he can take my fumbling weaknesses and use them for his glory. It means that when people wrong me and the consequences of their decisions fall upon me, I don’t miss out on his favour. That no matter what happens to me that is outside God’s perfect will, he is able make all things work together for those who love him.

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