Does God Always Get His Way?
I suspect that question would surprise most Christians and atheists alike. Most atheists I read seem to operate on the assumption that Western monotheism includes God’s absolute sovereignty such that whatever happens is God’s will. Most of them fall back on some version of the problem of evil to attempt to sweep away belief in God as impossible (because no one expressly questions God’s goodness). But Christians (I’ll limit my comments here to Christians although they could apply to other monotheists) give atheists their ammunition by believing that “God is in control” (a bumper sticker I often see).
I see two versions of “God is in control” among Christians. One is theological and the other is folk religious. The difference lies in considered reflection versus unreflective assumption.
Many Christian theologians believe and teach that whatever happens, without exception, falls into the category “God’s will” in the sense that it conforms to God’s “blueprint” for history and individual lives and, even though evil and innocent suffering may grieve God, God ordains and governs them for a greater good (e.g., his glory). I call this divine determinism because it fits the ordinary definition of “determinism.” Those who teach it often deny that it is deterministic. At the very least it is meticulous providence. Not only Calvinists teach this; it is a view held in a perhaps more nuanced way by many non-Calvinists (e.g., conservative Lutherans).
My hunch (I haven’t taken a poll) is that most Christians believe some version of divine determinism often inconsistently. This is revealed when, after a tragedy, they say “God knows what he is doing” and “God is in control.” Very often, however, that is not what they say or appear to believe before the tragedy strikes. That is certainly the view I was taught growing up in the “thick” of evangelicalism. Or perhaps I should say I wasn’t so much taught it as I caught it from my elders. Many of the songs we sang in church reflected some kind of divine determinism or meticulous providence. (E.g., “Day by Day and with Each Passing Moment”)
Recently I introduced a group of students to my saying that “God is in charge but not in control.” Some were shocked and indicated they probably could not accept that even though intellectually they do not think God controls everything that happens. My conviction is that “God is in control” is a cliché that has taken on a life of its own among Christians and is inevitably conveys the impression that God plans and renders certain everything that happens without exception. That is, God always gets his way in everything.
Let’s look at ordinary language. If I say that so-and-so is “in control” of a certain situation (and not only himself or herself), most people will automatically assume I mean that the person has a plan and is manipulating events to fit that plan. They will assume the person I’m talking about always gets his or her own way in that context. That’s what “in control” means (when said of a person about his or her management of a context).
Someone might quibble about that, but I believe especially when “in control” is attributed to God, who is believed to be omnipotent, it always automatically implies meticulous providence.
That is a problem, however, in light of Scripture and history (including contemporary events in persons’ lives). Many Scriptures more than imply that God was not getting his way in certain situation. The clearest one to me is Matthew 23:37: Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s rejection. Was God getting his way there and then? The Bible is filled with examples of God not getting his way even though he was able to bring something good out of those disappointments. History also gets in the way of saying “God is in control” or “God always gets his way.” Just the other day I was told about an incident in a poverty-stricken country not far from America’s shores where a woman and her boyfriend invaded an orphanage at gunpoint, kidnapped three children they believed were theirs and took them away. When confronted by police the adults brutally butchered the children. What I want to ask people who say “God is in control” and who believe God always gets his way is: Do you believe God controlled that situation and got his way in it?
Now, many theologically minded Calvinists and other divine determinists will, when pushed against the wall and forced to answer, will say yes, even in such a horrible situation of innocent suffering God was getting his way and was totally in control. My complaint here is not with them although such an answer leaves me absolutely bewildered. I do complain about them and that answer, but not right now. Here my complaint is about the widespread, almost universal, unreflective assumption on the parts of non-Calvinists, non-divine determinists, that “God is in control.”
I theorize that this folk religious belief in God always getting his way sets especially young people up to adopt divine determinism, meticulous providence, when confronted with it. What’s wrong with that? Well, in my opinion, it can have the effect of making them immune to the real horrors of history and of sin and evil. If all that is God’s will, if in it all God is getting his way, if in it all God is “in control,” then why be fired up with indignation against it and go out to fight against it? Also, it may cause them to ignore whole chunks of Scripture and think dishonoring thoughts about God. Finally, I know from personal experience it leads some young people to think that they don’t need to resist sin in their own lives because, if they are succumbing to temptation, it must be God’s will.
One of my favorite books about all this is by South African theologian Adrio König. It’s title is Here Am I! A Believer’s Reflection on God (Eerdmans, 1982). Here is one of the best statements against meticulous providence (whether theological or folk religious) I have ever read and it is by a Reformed theologian!
Anyone who levels things out in vague generalizations by attempting to explain everything and all possible circumstances as the will of God always ends up in the impossible situation that there are more exceptions than rules, more things that are inexplicable and that clash with the picture of God that is given to us in his word, than there are comforting confirmations that he is directing everything. … Anyone who tries to use the omnipotence and providence of God to propose a meticulously prepared divine plan which is unfolding in world history (L. Boettner) will always be left with the problem that other believers might not be able to discern the God of love in the actual course of world events. … [i]t must be emphatically stated that…the Scriptures do not present the future as something which materializes [sic] according to a ‘plan’ but according to the covenant. … There are distressingly many thing that happen on earth that are not the will of God (Luke 7:30 and every other sin mentioned in the Bible), that are against his will, and that stem from the incomprehensible and senseless sin in which we are born, in which the greater part of mankind lives, and in which Israel persisted, and against which even the ‘holiest men’…struggled all their days. … To try to interpret all these things by means of the concept of a plan of God, creates intolerable difficulties and gives rise to more exceptions than regularities. But the most important objection is that the idea of a plan is against the message of the Bible since God himself becomes incredible if that against which he has fought with power, and for which he sacrificed his only Son, was nevertheless somehow part and parcel of his eternal counsel. (pp. 198-199) (I apologize for the spaces; I cut and pasted this and some of the formatting went strange. I don’t have time to fix it.)