I often hear it said that ‘God is in control’ as a kind of self-soothing mechanism. It can be comforting to believe that the difficult events of our lives have meaning, even if that meaning is impossible to fathom, but is it true? What if in holding to this notion we disempower ourselves and open the door to all kinds of harm God would otherwise protect us from?
The key passage used to express this idea of a God who is in complete control of the events of our lives is Romans 8:28,
‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’
When have you heard this statement made? I put it to you that this is most often if not exclusively spoken in the context of some kind of hardship, with the intention of helping the sufferer come to terms with what they’re going through.
This is not the context of the verse itself, which is part of a rising crescendo of victorious declaration, leading swiftly to this glorious set of statements:
‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’
It seems short-sighted and counterintuitive to extract this sentence from the triumphant, overcoming energy of the passage and put it to work drawing an entirely different plough.
Agencies of Control
I believe God would love to be in control of everything in our lives but that doesn’t happen automatically. It is a journey into submission. If, for example, I drive irresponsibly, I don’t give God control in that area of my life, and if I crash it this simply cannot be seen as an expression of his will. Someone might say God is using the incident to teach me something, which is always true, as God is economical, using the opportunities we present him with to help us grow, but that is utterly different from him being in control of the event itself. What if while driving irresponsibly I crashed and killed a child? Is God so obsessed with personal growth that a child’s death is nothing to him? Of course not. The agency that brought about the crash, in this hypothetical scenario, would be mine and mine alone.
So that’s one agency of control – my choices and actions, and your choices and actions – and there are other agencies of control that have a steering effect in our lives. These agencies include:
•Genetics. I inherited genes which have made me extremely ill at points in my life. I didn’t choose them, and they do not reflect God’s perfect design in creation. These inherent weaknesses are an expression of nature’s diminished state in the world’s current imperfection. One day, all of creation will be liberated from bondage, but right now the world, and life, is not as God ultimately wants it to be. Again, Romans 8 is helpful in this, verses 19-23:
‘For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.'
'We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’
•Other people. Free will is the defining characteristic that separates human beings from animals. It is fundamental to being made ‘in the image of God’, and many of the blessings and difficulties we experience stem directly from the choices of others. Sometimes the only control we have is in our attitude and response.
•The Devil. It seems to me that much of Western Christianity has forgotten that there even is a Devil. I’ve spent years living in poorer, more pagan countries around the world, and have experienced my fair share of demonic attack. Sometimes I worry that Western Christianity has let down its guard and is vulnerable to all manner of attacks and deceptions. The Bible is clear on how to respond to the Devil. 1 Peter 5:8-9,
‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.’
‘Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’
‘Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’
If the devil attacks us, as he attacked Jesus, but our response to suffering is to assume God is in control of everything and that ‘all things work together for the good’, we end up letting Satan do whatever he wants without putting up any kind of resistance. It is a sorry state of affairs when believers can’t tell the difference between the action of God and the action of Satan.
The greatest agency of all – God.
This is where things get interesting. I believe God deeply desires to be more active in all of our lives, but this happens as a result of discipleship. This idea is embedded in the very verse people quote to tell themselves God is in control. Romans 8:28,
‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.’
It doesn’t say that in all things God works for the good of all people, or even all Christians, though I know he wants to. It says he works for the good of those who love Him. Let’s look to the Bible to discover who those people are:
'As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.'
To remain in God’s love (to love God) is to keep his commandments, and his command to us is to love each other as Jesus loved us – sacrificially, deeply, compassionately. To be clear, this doesn’t earn us God’s blessing, but it does give him more access to our lives. When we walk in love, God is free to move.
For me this is the key to discipleship – that we give God increasing access to our lives, yielding to him part by part and thus receiving the blessings of walking with him in each submitted area.
‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
‘But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’
‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.’
‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’
1 Peter 4:10-11
‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.’
1 John 3:16-18
‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.’
I could include many more verses, but I think it’s pretty clear where this is going. Above all else, an ever increasing commitment to a life of love demonstrates love for God – not as a sham or out of obligation, but flowing from a deep place of compassion and joy. God loves a cheerful giver, after all.
How do we reach that place, and give God greater access to the deep places within us? By spending time with him, deepening our relationship with the Holy Spirit and receiving his love for ourselves. We love because he first loved us, not the other way round. If we draw deeply from the well, we have water to share.
I’ll finish with a few questions to ponder:
•If you don’t have a close, tangible relationship with the Holy Spirit, how will you become infused with divine love? How will you have anything extra to give?
•If you’ve never learned to hear God’s voice, how will you know what he’s telling you to do? Will you go right when he’s saying left?
•If you don’t develop the gift of spiritual discernment, how will you know when the Devil is active and what he’s up to? How will you know to resist him?
Intimacy with God is the bedrock of discipleship. Jesus began his days with time alone with his father, drawing the love and strength he needed to live well that day. Why are we any different?
If we are committed to walking more closely from God, learning to hear his voice, yielding to the tangible flow of his love, we have more to give and are much more greatly yielded to him. When he speaks, we know what he’s saying and can follow his instructions; when we discern the intentions and actions of the demonic, we will know how to resist and send the evil one packing; when we are saturated with divine love, we see others with the eyes of God and have plenty to give in service to them and to God.
As we yield to God we give him increasing access to our lives, and as we follow his leading and walk in love, he is able to work all things together for our good. This verse is not a depiction of the status quo; it is a description of a journey.
If you want to spend time soaking this in, I delivered this talk during lockdown.
12/6/2022 5:35:38 PM