Is God in control?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

As you may have noticed, Dan integrated a cool new comment system into the blog. I hope you like it!

To give it a good test drive, I thought I’d write a post about a subject that tends to spark quite a few comments here—Calvinism.

When people find out that I’m not a Calvinist and that I frequently write about the subject on the blog, (see “Calvinism” in the tag cloud), they often ask me, “But don’t you think that God is in control?”

This is a common misunderstanding of Arminianism—that it leaves God impotent and powerless in his relationship to us. 

So lately I’ve been thinking of the simplest way to explain my position on free will. This is it:

I believe that God is in control. I do not believe that God controls.

I believe that God—being all-wise, all-resourceful, all-powerful, and all-good—can redeem anything. I believe that God will accomplish His ultimate purpose of redeeming and restoring our broken, sinful world.

But I also believe that God is powerful, wise, and loving enough to do this without controlling our actions. I believe He chooses not to control us because He loves us and wants to have a relationship with us—and true love simply cannot coexist with absolute control. God didn’t want robots; He wanted relationships.

Working under this assumption, I can still say that God is in control, in the sense that things have not gotten so out-of-hand that they are beyond His ability to redeem them. In fact, I believe that God often intervenes in miraculous ways to bring about His purposes, but that He does so in such a way that does not override our ability to choose to love Him or reject Him.

How does this work out practically? 

Let’s say a young husband decided to leave his wife. She was devastated and did all in her power to reconcile the relationship, but he refused, so they get divorced.  Let’s say that five years later, the woman meets a kind and good man who loves her, marries her, and has three wonderful children with her. Now she can’t imagine her life without him.

A Calvinist/determinist might look at that situation and say, “See, God was in control all along.” The idea from their perspective is that God actually caused the first husband to leave, that the husband’s abandonment was just part of God’s secret plan, which had been predetermined long ago.

The implications of this position are troubling, for they leave us with a God who wills and orchestrates sinful behavior, a God who presides over every rape of a child, every battery or enslavement, every murder, every abortion, every abuse, every abandonment. (They also leave us with a God who creates hopeless people—people He never had any intention of loving, but who were predestined for an eternity in hell. See “Why Calvinism Makes Me Cry.”)

Instead, I would look at that situation and say, “See, God can redeem anything.” The husband’s decision to leave his wife was an act of rebellion against God. God did not desire that to happen, nor did He find glory in it. But God, because He is all-powerful, all-resourceful, all-good, and all-loving, led people (who responded in obedience to His will) to make good decisions that glorify Him and bring about healing and redemption.

The idea that God can redeem the world without coercing it is a hopeful and important one to me. I know that there are a lot of loose ends that don’t tie up perfectly, that God’s ways always remain beyond our comprehension, and that every metaphor we can think of has flaws. But I am convinced that God continually empties Himself on our behalf, loving us without controlling us.

In fact, the season of Advent is perhaps the best time of year to take a moment or two to marvel at the fact that the God of the universe—who has the ability and the right to control us—does not consider that position of power something to be grasped, but humbles Himself to the point of crucifixion on a cross.

Rather than making God weak and impotent, this, to me, is precisely what makes Him so strong.

What do you think? Is God in control? And how do you like our new comment system?

P.S. For some biblical support for this position, check out theologian Greg Boyd’s articles on control, on Romans 9, and specifically Romans 9:18. I don't agree with all of Boyd's positions (I leave a little  more room for shades of gray when it comes to free will and foreknowledge.) But I think he handles Scripture with integrity.

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