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God Is In Control?

by Tim O'Hearn

Sometimes when bad things happen to good people I hear somebody say, “God is in control.” It is rare to hear this when good things happen, or when life goes on the way it has been. Usually that phrase is meant to comfort and reassure. Is it really comforting, though? More importantly, is it true? The answer to both of these questions is, “yes AND no.”

To some people it may have been reassuring, after the attacks of 9/11/01, to hear that God is in control. The intended thought is, “since God is in control, we need not worry; he will take care of us.” That may be comforting, but some would question whether God being in control means that the fall of the twin towers, with the resulting deaths, was planned by God. Does God give a specific person cancer for his own reasons? Did God determine that my brother’s only child would die in an automobile accident? This is hardly comforting. If God is in control, couldn’t he have used less deadly means to whatever end he had in mind as a result of 9/11?

Certainly Christians can be comforted that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purposes.” (Rom 8:28) Certainly God can take bad things and bring good out of them. In a very broad sense, God is in control. But when we try to comfort someone with that phrase we are more likely to be heard as saying that it is OK that God caused some “bad” thing to happen because it is really good that somebody died, got sick, or lost a job.

So, is it true? Again, yes and no. When discussing evolution you have to define whether you are talking macro or micro. Macroevolution, the idea that all dogs can be traced back to wolves or a wolf-like ancestor, is a proven and observable fact. Microevolution, the concept that all life has derived from a single source through “natural” forces that continue to act in the same way they always have, is a theory that is impossible to prove. In the same way, we have to define what we mean by “God is in control.” On the one hand is macrocontrol; God will work everything out to the best for his people in general. On the other hand is microcontrol; God controls every aspect of every life. This is more commonly called “predestination.” Unfortunately, most people who use that phrase do so in the latter way, whether they claim to believe in predestination or not. A flat tire is, thus, not just a flat tire, but may have been God’s way of preventing a more serious accident farther down the road. The problem is, nobody can prove it.

God may use a flat tire to protect his people. Or the flat tire may be because the driver didn’t check to see that no nails fell on the driveway after he fixed his roof. The way most people say that God is in control takes away free will. It takes away personal responsibility. Instead of Flip Wilson’s, “the devil made me do it,” we could excuse sin because “God made me do it.” Furthermore, either God will save everyone regardless of their sins, or else God chooses who he will save or condemn based on arbitrary criteria. Joshua’s admonition to “choose you this day whom ye will serve,” (Josh 24:15) was a worthless plea because the people couldn’t really choose. (But neither could Joshua choose to say anything else.)

Habakkuk once asked God why the wicked Chaldaeans were defeating God’s people, the Jews. God told him not to worry; God is in control. (Hab 1, 2) At the same time, Jeremiah told the people of Judah to surrender to the Chaldaeans, or die. (Jer 38:2) God’s control did not extend to the personal level. It was, and is, general rather than specific.

It is not wrong to say that God is in control. There are a few people who might draw comfort from that statement. It is, after all, true to some extent. We just can’t know to what extent it is true. Anyone who uses that statement must be careful that it is expressed and understood in the general sense, rather than carrying the idea that God controls every specific action of every person everywhere. It might not be a good idea to go blaming God for things he just did not do.