Is God Really in Control?

You have heard it said “God is In control”, but now I tell you “not really”.

Well that sounds heretical. God not being in control. If this bothers you, may I suggest you stop reading this and do a quick word search on “control” in the Bible and see what your find. Here’s a handy link.

There are quite a few verses on self-control in there, and on kings controlling lands and people, but precious little on God being in any kind of control at all. In fact, if we can put our theological commitments to one side for a moment and reflect on what is going on in the world in which we are actually living we have to agree that there is actually quite a lot of chaos in it –  natural disasters, man’s inhumanity to man, human suffering, disease, and a multi-year pandemic right?

For the person who likes to think that God is in control, then you have a lot of explaining to do about the effective power of this God, or how it is that He can so cheerfully preside over this mess. It’s a difficult case to make, and one that has been troubling thoughtful people for a very long time.

Under Construction

Maybe we should revisit this idea, and posit that the world is more like some kind of giant post-war construction site full of hazards and half-built things. God is in the process of fixing it, but it’s not there yet. It’s still possible to fall down a shaft or get crushed under a collapsing wall (Lk 13:1-5). He has put up all the warning signs and written the safety manual but most people around here don’t seem to be taking much notice of those.

We humans like to be in control. At the very least, it’s safe, it’s predictable, and we can be efficient and reduce waste. At its worst, we exploit people, damage relationships, split families and create our own toxins through our exercise of control. People don’t thrive when controlled. They rebel, zone out, go slow, or die. 

Order is fine, but control – not so much. I like the fact that gravity always works, my streets are pretty safe, and the rubbish gets collected every week. Yes, order is good, and God has had a lot to do with that in our natural world. 

So if God is not in control, then how does he operate? Through strong invitation. Timeless instruction. Provision. The tools are there but you have to pick them up and learn how to use them.

Invitation and provision

Jesus said: “Come, follow me…”(Mk 1:17), “Learn from me and you will have rest for souls” (Mt 11:29).  “Try it out for a while” (Jn 7:17). That’s the invitation and instruction part. On the provision side we are told to take a lesson from the birds of the air, and notice how they all seem to get fed (Mt 6:25-34). Yes, God provides. He even sends rain on the unrighteous (Mt 5:45). God  would make a lousy control freak – giving benefits away like that.

Getting back to the construction site, God has also in a very non-controlling way had left quite a bit of the fixing up to us notoriously unreliable humans. 

The way this works is that God asks us to trust him, which means to trust that doing things His way will lead to the best outcome. But we are never forced to do this. We have completely free will – I am sure some readers of this piece did not click on the link above! That’s your free choice in action right there!

In this world, at this time, God has opposition. God is able to jump in and intervene on any occasion, but most of the time He just doesn’t. He sets out his will clearly in writing. People disobey it, and God gives them a very long leash. Just look at Old Testament history. A large part of it is the plot line of “God tells his people not to worship idols, his people worships idols, God sends prophets to warn and remind them not to worship idols, people don’t listen, God waits several hundred years before sending judgment”. A very long leash indeed.


God has jumped in of course. The incarnation – God living amongst us in the person of Jesus Christ was a radical intervention. Immanuel – God with us – was a completely intentional historical act, bringing the Kingdom of God near (Mt 4:17). Jesus laboured to communicate what this kingdom is all about. It is like no other kingdom you have ever seen. Everything is upside down. All the things we have learnt about how to get ahead do not apply in this kingdom (Lk 9:48).a

This is not to say God cannot be influenced or petitioned. This is where prayer fits in. We are encouraged to ask God to act in our world and in our lives (Mt 7:7-11,  Jn 11:22, Rom 1:10, Jas 1:5 etc.). Also, if we go back to the passages that do talk about control, we find that most of them talk about selfcontrol. So it appears that that is where the challenge really lies. God has chosen to exert his influence in the world through the self-control of those who listen to him. He is looking for partners in this project, not spectators.