God is in Control? Clarification on a Common Phrase

, posted by Casey L. Donnelly

I drove six hours home to Oklahoma a few days before my grandmother’s funeral. Her fight against cancer was over. I remember when my dad called me with the news. It did not come as a surprise since I previously visited her for the weekend, but all of this placed an emotional, physical and spiritual weight on my family.

On the day of my grandmother’s viewing with family and friends present to pay their respects and grieve, my mother received a call. Trying to hold herself together in front of everyone, she quickly walked over to my father.

The call came from another family member at the hospital. Our cousin who suffered from cystic fibrosis and survived a double lung transplant a few years earlier was dying.

My dad thought it best that I drive my mother to the hospital. We arrived and walked the dark hall back to the room. We met the rest of the family to say our goodbyes.

In just a few shorts days we lost my grandmother to cancer and a cousin to cystic fibrosis. Disease and death had come to both sides of my family, and with any kind of suffering the questions naturally come: “Why did this happen to this person? Where is God in this? If God is good, why did he allow to this happen? If God is all-powerful, why didn’t he stop it from happening?”

“God is in Control”

After leaving the hospital we returned to the funeral home. We finally started talking about what we hope to do and expressing our concerns for our family. Then, I said it, “God is in control.” I think they knew what I meant. But what did I mean?

It later occurred to me that many really have little idea what they are expressing about God’s sovereignty or providence when they say, “God is in control.” I think the theological truths we intend are present in the expression but we do not articulate them well, so I want to offer a few thoughts on the common phrase.

1. God needs no “Defender.” Many in using the phrase may not intend this first idea, but at times in discussions of why bad things happen I have felt the need to defend God and his actions or lack thereof. Glenn Lucke explains my thoughts nicely when he too engages in conversation with others about God,

He wrote, “In my experience of discussing this [God’s sovereignty] issue with people, they go back and forth between the ‘human’ or ‘everyday’ concerns and rigorous philosophical concerns . . . I think this particularly happens when the discussion seems more adversarial, when I’m seen as the Defender of God and the other is pressing his or her frustration with God.”[1]

Like me, you may find yourself in both positions, defending and pressing. But too many Christians feel this need to “defend God.” I struggle to see the necessity of defending God. For one the position overwhelms many of us. I do not advocate a “cop out” to when questions arise from others. We should seek to provide what biblical answers we can to those asking sincere questions. But people’s faith rest in their own hands.

2. God’s permissive relationship with evil. A Christian view of God’s sovereignty excludes his authorship of evil. Nothing in the world happens without God’s permission, and many do believe God’s will directly and specifically causes certain events. In God’s providence, the entire universe and human history remain under his governance, even sin and evil do not escape it. He permits and limits these without willing or causing them.

If God himself does evil, we would conclude he is not a good and holy God, and therefore not worthy of our worship.

3. God knows the future. Because of God’s foreknowledge of future events, nothing that occurs in the world takes him by surprise. Some affirm true contingencies exist, and yet God knows which way things unfold. Others affirm God knows the future because he determines it. Regardless, God does know all future events.

God knowing the future means he does not need to devise a plan. Nothing happens in the universe that falls outside his knowledge. This leads to the fourth and most common thought in the phrase. I think it also leads us to the most difficult questions on the subject of providence.

4. All human events will serve God’s ultimate purpose. It stands to reason that if a Christian affirms God’s omniscience and in his providential governance nothing escapes him, then God will accomplish what he ultimately wants. But the subtopic of governance probably remains the most controversial doctrine about God’s providence.

How does God govern? Theologians commonly accept two positions: meticulous providence (Divine determinism, Non-relational sovereignty) or relational sovereignty (God’s self-limitation). Some adopt a more mediating view that attempts to embrace an understanding of sovereignty by accepting determinism and relational theism (Compatibilism). Despite the biblical or philosophical disagreements others have over the issue of God’s governance, they each affirm that human events serve God’s ultimate purpose.

All future events stand in agreement with God’s overall plan and purpose. Nothing stands beyond his governance or thwarts his good plan.

The God Who is Good

We can say and affirm a lot about God, but few statements can be made about why God does or does not act in a particular way.

But one thing we can know: he is a good God. We find no comfort in God’s providence when we fail to believe God’s goodness. The Bible tells the story of people who suffer (Ps 34:19; Lk 17:1; James 1:2–4), but it also tells the story of a good and loving God who suffers with us and for us.

What other God takes the form of humanity and takes part in our sufferings? God knows our pain because God the Son experienced suffering. God knows our suffering because he subjected himself to it. In the gospel, we have the most grotesque and tragic event in human history, yet disguised in it we discover God’s good plan to bring about his ultimate purpose from the beginning: redemption.

Does this provide comfort when suffering comes? It has for me and my family. When we suffer God enters into it with us. He will bring about good from whatever situation and will one day put an end to all wrong doing (Prov 21:15; Rom 8:28; Rev 21:4). Does anger, confusion, and questioning come? Yes. But where else can we go? God alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).

All of us face suffering. We can either walk through the valley of the shadow of death with our God who knows pain and suffering from his experience of it, or we can try to walk through the valley on our own (Ps. 23:4). God did not give my family all the answers. But we know he gave us himself, and sometimes in the middle of suffering that must be enough for us, even as we say, “God is in control.”


[1] Lucke, “A Letter About 9–11, Good, Evil, and God.”