What We Mean When We Say; ‘God is in Control’

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 or 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 my socks? The speed of a cyclone, or the actions of my boss?

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

If I don’t pay my bills on time, whittle away my budget on luxuries and land myself into crippling debt, was God in control of that?

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

That sounds more like Muslim theology. Inshallah. Nothing happens without the direct, intervening hand of Allah willing it so.

But Christians don’t believe this. We hold closely to the concept of free-will. God’s love means that we have choices. We are free to decide how we spend our money, how we drive our cars; who we marry and what career path we follow.

So herein lies the thorny theological paradox. How does God’s sovereignty and human free will work together?

It’s a debate that’s older than time. Paul, in his discussion of this as it relates to the salvation of Jews and Gentiles, declares it a mystery, proclaiming: “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 also tried to reconcile the issue with the recent work of Greg Boyd (See God of the Possible) provoking all sorts of controversy in the US and beyond.

So what exactly does this phrase mean?

Here’s two things 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, right and wrong, life and death. He gives us options. He says; ‘Stay faithful to the covenant life’, but doesn’t hit us over the head when we don’t.

2. Not everything that happens is God’s will

Much of what we see here on earth is not God’s will. The Scriptures tell us clearly that there is a “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), an evil foe that is intent on thwarting God’s will and who is powerful enough to impact our lives. If everything that ever happened on earth was God’s will, there would be no reason to pray; “Your will be done on earth as it heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Sovereignty does not mean the mean the same as control. God’s love creates the possibility of freedom and freedom means there are real choices. That means the use of the phrase “God is in control” can be misleading. It can cause us to blame God for the things that go wrong, while shirking responsibility for our own actions.

It may be worth re-working that statement a little. Perhaps we should consider replacing “God is in control” to “God is sovereign.” 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 (Romans 8:28).

What do you think? How do you use the phrase; “God is in control”? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one here!