God is not in control.
As a Christian, this comforts me.
I’ve heard this phrase used often in the past week by Christians left and right, from those who oppose Trump and those who do not.
Those on the right—more conservative evangelical Christians—often use it to placate and reassure. “This is all happening as it should, so chill out and just have faith.”
Those on the left—more progressive Christians—do not use it as frequently. But when they do, it’s often used as a kind of pretty bow on the end of a lament (conservative Christians do this too, of course). Such Christians will share their angst, concern, even indignation at the election results and what it means—symbolically or literally—about our country. But rather than ending on a sorrowful tone, they end with a hopeful lift: “but I know God is in control.”
To all my brothers and sisters in Christ who find solace in “God’s in control”: I respectfully encourage you to stop. Stop needing God to be in control. It’s a problematic theology that’s not truly helping you or others.
But why? Five reasons come to mind:
- We use this in a theologically inconsistent way. It’s really hard to avoid implying that God causes numerous atrocities while saying God is in control. No matter how many times you defend the sentiment with “God’s ways are not ours” or “we can’t see the whole picture,” you’ve made a theological choice. But please, don’t appeal to “mystery.” Sure, there is mystery in life, and humility requires us to admit there is much we do not know. But what about our actual lived life? What about the many choices we face every day? Our theology is not a non-factor in these things. What we believe implicates our actions. You can choose the “master planner God” who permits genocide and rape and exploitation because God has some point God wants to make and wants us to just trust and “wait and see.” Or you can choose a God who for whatever reason cannot stop such things but weeps because of them, empathizes with us, and is actively working to lead and grow us out of such atrocities. I’ll take the second God. I don’t need God to be in control to be a good God.
- We say it because we’re scared, not because it’s true. Much in life makes us anxious. Especially when other people are anxious—that really makes us anxious! But we do others’ experiences (and our own) a disservice by too quickly trying to reassure and resolve. For example: we offend someone; they are visibly offended; we say “no I didn’t meant it like that,” hoping this will tidily resolve the tension. But in this attempt, we’ve failed to listen to the other and failed to truly pay attention to ourselves. We have not helped the other person because we’ve been dismissive, caring less about listening and more about cleaning up a verbal snafu. And we’ve told ourselves that our own character is not flawed but that we’ve simply misspoken. We need to listen to our anxiety, not ignore it. “God is in control” is like a drug, distracting us from potentially solvable problems rather than leading us to courageously face them.
- God’s upset. I recognize few people mean “God’s got God’s emotions in check” when they say “God’s in control,” but I have a hard time believing God is cool and calm when violence, hatred, and oppression rear their ugly heads. I think God is pissed. But I also believe God is more like a caring, attentive and responsive parent then a stoic, hard-ass one. Which, by the way…
- It’s patriarchal. Human are perpetually at risk of making God in our own image. The notion of a controlling God, where nothing out of God’s will is taking place, sounds like a relic of the days of kings. Or an expression, in more recent times, of a male-centered world, where the man is the head of the household, not because of his character or talents or personality but simply because he has a penis. This is the God of slave-owners and abusive men, not the God of lighthearted but weepy, fiery but gentle, confident but teachable, foot-washing but foot-washed Jesus.
- It creates passivity. “My child just got punched in the face by another kid, who is on his way to punch my other child in the face! But it’s okay: these things happen, but God is in control!” Nobody would really react like this right? If you are a half-decent parent, and you see that second punch coming, you would actively intervene! The “God is in control” narrative is silencing. It’s the kind of thing the oppressors tell the oppressed to maintain the status quo: just accept your suffering, God has a reason for this. What a horrible lie. If “God is control” means Christians take a “wait and see” approach when injustice is prevalent, we’ve missed the point. Missed the point of Jesus, who did not wait for God’s action but acted on behalf of justice himself. Missed the point of following Jesus, which means doing what he did in the way he did it rather than simply saying every Sunday, “boo me, yay Jesus!” “God is in control” creates complacency, inactivity, and makes us complicit in the horrors we are abstaining from addressing, relying instead on faux-faith to let us of the moral hook.
I don’t need God to be all-powerful to be good. I don’t need God to be all-knowing to be good. I don’t need God to be “in control” to be good.
I just need to God to be close. To be present. To care. To be gritty. To be hopeful, having a vision or dream for creation that keeps God actively moving in the world, luring creatures toward greater goodness and love. This close, present, caring, gritty, and hopeful God is the God for whom I have affection. The God who entices me.
God has graced humans with creativity and passion and a longing for justice. If our theology silences these impulses—as I believe a theology of divine control does—it needs to be rejected, because it is allowing not good but evil to flourish under the guise of “God’s plan.”
God is with us. But God is not in control.
And this gives me hope.
“Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9 NRSV).
Matthew Boswell is the pastor of Camas Friends Church, a Quaker meeting in Camas, WA. He recently obtained a PhD in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.