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God Is Not In Control

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Well, of course, God is in control. He’s the supreme being, the maker and ruler of the cosmos. How could he not be in control of what he has made? It depends somewhat on what you mean by “control.” Does God determine everything that happens? Is he responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, witch hunts and revolutions, murders and rapes? Does he get some kind of twisted delight out of tragic accidents or childhood cancer or Covid-19 deaths? If he does not cause disaster and evil, then does he permit it? And if he permits it, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing it?

These are deep questions, and I am ill-qualified to answer them, but like many others, I can’t help trying to come to terms with them. As a Christian who trusts God and believes he is all good all the time, it does not sit well with me to imagine he created terrible evils or permits them. Perhaps, then, he allows evil because he can’t put a stop to it. In other words, God is not in control.

I’ve written already about who rules the world. Here I would like to introduce another bit of evidence, this time from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your name: be hallowed; your kingdom: come; your will: be done. As in heaven, so on earth.” Yet who prays for what they already have? If God’s name is already highly esteemed, if his kingdom is already manifest throughout the world, if his will is already being done, then why make a petition of it? Christians pray for God’s will to be done because it’s not being done. How is it that omnipotence cannot do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases?

One conclusion that many people come to is simply that there is no God. This view has several advantages—a simplified morality where nothing is Good or Evil in some universal, cosmic sense but merely good or bad to or for particular outcomes in particular situations; a sense of intellectual superiority to the vast majority of mankind who throughout history has believed in some kind of god; freedom from arbitrary rules about how to live and behave; and the seductive promise that the pain and despair of existence can’t last forever.

It has disadvantages, too. Without God, there is no ultimate justice. The uncaught murderer will forever go unpunished. Without God, the longing we all have to be fully comprehended and to be loved can never be satisfied. Without God, we each and also collectively face the daunting task of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Without God, there is no lasting life, no meaning to everything. We can only look forward to the heat death of the universe and perhaps—if some models are correct—an endless cycle of new universes that come into being, grow old, and die over unimaginably vast stretches of time and space.

At this point, I think it is helpful to introduce a distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability to act in a situation or context. Authority is the right to act in a situation or context. To act in a way that is good and right requires both power and authority. For example, a police officer might respond to a call about a domestic dispute and discovers that one of the participants is an undocumented immigrant. However, her city is a sanctuary city, and the police are specifically prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are in violation of a city ordinance. The police officer has the power to act but not the authority.

The opening chapters of Genesis reveal a God who, in the act of creating, made creatures enough like himself that he could commune with them and love them. He subjected the world he had made to their authority, and when they rebelled against his good governance, they ceded that authority to God’s enemy. Thus Satan became the ruler of this world, and by his schemes and deceptions he has brought much evil into the world.

If God were like us, his judgment would have been swift and severe. He would have overpowered and immediately crushed the serpent, slain Adam and Eve for their disobedience, and restarted the whole project afresh. But God is not like us. He responded with love like a parent with disobedient children. He gave them consequences for their actions and waited to see what they would do. Would they repent and seek to re-establish the communion they had had with him? Or would they continue in rebellion? Throughout history, some have chosen repentance and some have chosen rebellion1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life. In his efforts to persuade rebellious humanity, God even sent his own son as an emissary, not with violence and threats, but with gentleness and love, to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. He commissioned his church to the same task, calling them out from their accustomed lives to live a new life in obedience to God by displaying his own loving character in their words and deeds.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

For this reason, those who claim to be Christians but act with judgment and condemnation toward others have not rightly understood the mission of the church. The church has not been tasked with making society righteous by advocating for laws that reflect Bronze Age values from the Law of Moses. Indeed, Paul taught that the Law no longer held sway over those who commit themselves to Christ2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians. Therefore, when Christians spew forth vituperation and anger toward those whose political views differ from their own, they are revealing how much their own hearts and minds are still in bondage to the sinful nature. They are still in rebellion against God, who is patient with everyone but especially with those who have never known his goodness and love. Just as parents are gentle with young children who have not yet learned how to behave but harsher with older children who certainly know better, so God has more patience with sinners who have not known him but has less patience with those who have tasted his mercy and forgiveness.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Brennan Manning, attributed
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What If God Ruled the World?

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As a child in elementary school I already had a reputation among my peers as a Christian. Other kids called me a goody two shoes. Boys would try to get me to swear. One day a boy asked me if I believed God could do absolutely anything.”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Can he make a stone so big he can’t lift it?” he responded.

I was speechless. I saw in a flash that if I said he could then I would be admitting there was a stone God couldn’t lift, and if I said no, then I was admitting that he couldn’t make such a stone. Either way, I had to admit God was not omnipotent. I thought long and hard about this conundrum.

I finally decided that what I was being asked to admit was that God could not do what was logically impossible. There can’t exist both an unliftable stone and an omnipotent being who can lift any stone.

Christians tend to take God’s omnipotence for granted. Yet it raises a lot of questions. How can God stand by and allow horrors like the Holocaust or the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan genocide to occur unchecked? And if God allows such things because they fall under the free will of human actors, then how can he stand by and allow natural disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Maria, or the tsunami that claimed so many lives in southeast Asia or the earthquake in Haiti? Some Christians propose that such catastrophes are punishment for sin. Yet what kind of punishment sweeps away the innocent with the guilty and visits the worst disasters on the poor while sparing the rich?

There are only two possible conclusions. Either there is no God, or God is not omnipotent. Many of my friends on Facebook have opted for the former explanation. Some of them were raised in Christian homes, and their disappointment with God has fueled their disbelief. I have come to conclude that God is not omnipotent, at least not in the way we commonly think of omnipotence. In fact, I think that belief in God’s omnipotence is one of the most successful lies of the devil. There are things God cannot do, not because he lacks the power or will to do them, but because he lacks the authority. To act without the authority to act would call into question his goodness.

The New Testament is very clear about who the ruler of this present world is, and it is not God. It is the devil, Satan, the serpent who beguiled our original parents into giving up their authority over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field. It is the devil, along with those deceived by him, who are responsible for the evil in the world.

Jesus revealed God as a loving Father who cares for his children and wants them to love as he loves—without condition or favoritism. Jesus demonstrated that love by healing the sick, curing those who suffered from inner demons, and by eating and drinking with the outcasts of his society. He touched the untouchable, forgave the unforgivable, and esteemed the worthless. What he did is what God does, and it is in this context of putting forth extraordinary effort to find ways to be kind that we must understand that with God all things are possible. You can be kind to those who hate you. You can love those who say awful things about you. You can contribute your hard-earned income to help those unfortunate enough to have been born in poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. You can use your own influence, however small, to bring God’s rule into the world ruled by the devil. This means war. It is inevitable when kingdoms are in conflict.

There will be casualties. Don’t give up.

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Opportunity to Display God’s Work

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In chapter 9 of his gospel, John launches into the story of how Jesus healed a man blind from birth and the aftermath of that healing. Here is how the story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1-2

Notice the assumption behind the disciples’ question: this man’s suffering is the result of sin—his own or his parents. In other words, this man is bad or was badly brought up. That’s why his life is messed up. This same assumption is still current in our society and in our churches. People are poor because they’re lazy. People are sick because they eat junk food. Some even say that natural disasters are the result of sin, often sexual sin. (You can find examples here, here, and here.) Jesus’ response sweeps away this kind of thinking.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him….”

John 9:3

Jesus first addresses the disciples’ false assumption. He says remarkably, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Now, of course, Jesus was not claiming that this man and his parents were paragons of virtue who lived sinless lives. Imagine, however, what it was like to be a man born blind in a society where misery is regarded as proof of God’s judgment for personal sin. Since the man was born blind, the judgment fell on him at the moment of his birth. This means that either it was a judgment on his parents for some terrible sin they had committed, or it was a judgment on the man himself for some prenatal sin. In fact, the disciples were not seeing a suffering man at all. They were seeing an opportunity to hear from the Teacher about an academic discussion current among the religious sages and scholars of the day: can you sin before you’re born? To the disciples, the man himself and his misery evoked no compassion. He was merely Exhibit A in an intellectual debate. To be fair, the disciples had no idea that the man could be helped in any substantive way, but their ignorance was in part due to their assumptions about the justness of the man’s condition. To help such a man might be to oppose God’s righteous judgment.

So when Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he liberated the man from the judgment of God. He also liberated God from the inexorable logic of cause and effect. Then he explained how his disciples were to regard suffering, “…but this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It’s tempting at this point to regard God as some kind of monster who afflicts people with blindness so he can later heal them and get praise and adulation for his “mercy.” This is not at all the God that Jesus revealed. Jesus consistently blamed suffering and evil in the world on the devil and his demons, and he credits God with doing good and overthrowing the schemes of the devil. According to Jesus, the devil lies, steals, kills, and destroys, but God tells the truth, gives to all who ask, raises the dead to life, and restores all things. So God can’t be blamed for the man’s blindness. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in the question of who or what caused the man’s blindness. He focuses instead on the opportunity the man’s blindness presents, an opportunity to respond to the situation with God’s work.

And what is it that God does when faced with blindness? He heals. Again and again in the gospels when Jesus confronts suffering and oppression, he responds with love and compassion. Nor is his compassion an empty feeling of good will or empathy. He acts on what he feels. He touches lepers even though doing so makes him technically unclean. He heals the sick even when doing so angers the religious authorities because he does it on the Sabbath. He feeds the crowds of people who came out to hear him even when doing so endangers him because the people are ready to force him to be king. Jesus risked ostracism and opposition from the authorities to meet the needs of people who needed his help. Sometimes, as in this instance, he even invited opposition in order to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in power.

For Jesus, therefore, and for all who want to follow him, suffering and oppression never represents an occasion for assigning blame or railing against the results of sin. Instead, they represent an opportunity to display God’s work—to heal the sick, to deliver the mentally ill from the destructive thoughts that torment them, to provide help to the poor, to feed those who are hungry, to give drink to those who are thirsty, to alleviate suffering and pain wherever it appears.

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