God is Not in Control

God is not in control. At least not the way you think HE is. God does not have A PLAN, at least not in the way you envision. It’s meaningless, meaningless. All is meaningless.

It pains me, saddens me, makes me mad when I hear the words, “despite [insert terrible thing that has happened], I keep telling myself that God is in control. that God has [this place / these people] in the palm of HIS hands.”

And while it may be true, in one way or another, while it may be true that God has the whole world in God’s hands, I guess I just don’t buy it.

I don’t buy that there’s some underlying meaning to that death, that massacre, that rape, that miscarriage, that war.

I just can’t buy that God had it out for that particular friend of yours who suffered that particularly horrendous thing, just so HE could make a point later on. I guess I just can’t stomach the idea that God would hand this to you, or to them, or to that entire people, to somehow be glorified.

Or, perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure I can believe that God receives any glory through the incitement of death, massacre, rape, miscarriage or war. It just doesn’t add up.

And I get that we want things to make sense. I get that we want there to be some sort of hidden meaning in the godawful things that happen to us, to our friends and family, to those in the world around us. I get that we want it all to hang together. But sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes it makes no goddamned sense.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I’m not sure that God had anything to do with it.

One thing I do know: God may not have fore-ordained that disaster, but God is present in the midst. God is present with us the midst of our brokenheartedness. God is with us in the midst of our despair. God is with us in the midst of death, massacre, rape, miscarriage and war.

And God is not there in some triumphal way. God is not there celebrating another victory enacted through untold violence. No. This is Emmanuel. God with us.

With us. Not against us.

God, through Jesus, has entered deeply and profoundly into the suffering of humanity.

God, through Jesus, has entered deeply and profoundly into the suffering of creation.

But God has not entered into this suffering with easy answers. God has not entered into this suffering to prove a point or activate some sort of bizarre plan rooted in divine violence.

And yet God enters into the story of this long-suffering creation to accompany us, to walk with us, and to invite us into a community of suffering servants who do not now, nor must ever again walk through suffering alone.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

14 Responses to “God is Not in Control”

  1. Ian Clary (@ianclary)

    I’m interested to know, in all honesty then (not as a point of debate), did God intend the cross?

    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Ian – A good question. And I think it’s a good question that points to the many ways Christians throughout history have understood the cross. It’s not always been Penal Substitutionary Atonement, even though I think that’s probably the mindset of many Christians today. If God did intend the cross, how was it intended? And if God did not intend the cross, how do we understand its significance for our faith?

      I guess I find it hard to believe that God’s plan was ever infanticide. I find it hard to believe that redemption comes through violence.

      As I read the stories of creation in Genesis, I see the story of God’s generative, loving, gracious gift in creation. And this gracious gift lies in stark contrast to the creation stories found in the surrounding Babylonian culture where creation is rooted in deep violence.

      Walter Wink talks about this stuff extensively in his paper on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. I guess you could say that I’m influenced by that reading, and that it causes me to call particular understandings of God’s agency in violence into question. Which isn’t to say that I have really solid answers. More that I suspect something is problematic with that interpretation.

  2. Elliott Siteman

    For me, I see the cross as a choice of humanity – “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” – and out of that choice God chose to act. God took the decision to betray and kill Jesus to bring about a moment of creation that brought order to the chaos of sin and death. God felt death that day and it was disturbing. So disturbing that there was silence in heaven and then like the wailing of a grief-stricken parent there was earthquake and fire and the cloth of the temple was torn apart. Out of that grief God chose to act so that death would be overcome with the Resurrection.

    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Elliott – Thanks for these thoughts. It really helps to refocus things around whose choice it was. We chose to kill Jesus – it wasn’t just some crazy ruse that God orchestrated. This is perhaps why we need forgiveness, and God does not, in this instance. I really like the idea that when Jesus says “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” this is an eternally valid statement.

      Looking throughout the scriptures, God’s people continually break covenant, and yet God continually invites us back. What Jesus says here is exemplary of the God who has welcomed back covenant-breakers for all of time.

      I’m always amazed at the ways in which God brings a moment of creation, as you say, to the chaos of sin and death. That is breathtaking, astonishing good news.

  3. Armen

    Hi Andrew,

    I don’t know how much clearer Scripture can be re: the cross.

    “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

    Praise God for each and every wonderful thing that He intended to achieve by the cross! Even (especially) the stuff we find distasteful, like his dealing with our sin through the substitutionary death of his only beloved Son.

    “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

    “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”


    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Armen – Since there have been hundreds of years of debate about the meaning about the cross, I don’t fully agree with you that scripture is clear. If it was, there would be no debate!

      I’m appreciative towards the words that Elliott shared here in the comments, focusing on the “forgive them for they do not know what they do.” I think that this puts blame/forgiveness in the right place. We killed Jesus.

      And while the scriptures are replete with understandings of the cross that could point us to a penal substitutionary atonement position, these are not the only metaphors/descriptors used.

      I think that the challenge in all of this is to understand what the broadest sweep of scripture tells us about God (even when we cannot know everything about God). If God proves throughout scripture to be a vindictive, violent character, then your reading is perfectly fine. If God reveals himself in other ways, then we have to look at other possibilities.

  4. Armen

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your reply and sorry for the confusion. I fully affirm and celebrate the richness of the cross, and offered those last two quotes to show that atonement is at the heart of Christ’s death. That quote from Acts wasn’t meant to show the clarity of the cross’s meaning. It was in response to your question about whether God intended the cross: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” I’m puzzled how this can square with the idea that the cross somehow caught God by surprise. God is both sovereign and humans are responsible.

    God is certainly not vindictive or irrational. He is holy and just and will have no truck with anything that messes with his good creation. That includes us, the same people who killed his Son. Yet God uses that same act to reconcile repentant sinners — Christ’s very killers! — to himself. Isn’t this amazing news for you and me? God cannot simply welcome back covenant breakers willy-nilly: “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” It was most certainly his will to put Jesus on a cross, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

    Andrew, this isn’t fundamentalism or a wooden literalism, it’s the wonderful gospel. Please know that I’m praying that God would reveal to you just how gracious, kind, just and merciful he is for giving up his Son for us.


  5. Tian

    I wonder if it’s fair to say that we just simply don’t know the meaning of these sufferings, and why it happens is not up to us to decide, and to certain extend, not important. It is impossible to comprehend God’s thought process and how everything maps out in his grand plan. He might or might not intended them to happen, it is not up for us to decide or debate against each other, maybe we can only take it matter up with him. I know though through all these suffering, we grow closer to him and know him better. Justice or injustice is not up for us to judge.

  6. Jaison

    I may not be able to answer the question of evil, but I know that He is in control and that He has to allow even the hair on one’s head to fall. I believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. Further, I believe that we are made for God and not the other way round. His dealings with humans are not always understood. This in no way is to be construed that He is a terrible God, but should be seen as a reflection and reminder of our own finiteness. The God of the Bible defies our understanding but we can trust Him to be good and just in all that He wills and permits – the good, bad and the ugly. As C S Lewis rightly stated, Aslan is not safe but He is good. Would love to continue this conversation if so inclined. Regards JA

    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Hi Jaison – Thanks for your thoughts on God, sovereignty, and pain. I too would be interested in carrying on the conversation.

      I guess that through my reading of the scriptures, and my experience of God, I still find it difficult to see sovereignty as an exercise of control. God blesses one, but not the other. God curses one, but not the other. This may, in fact, take place, and yet, there is something in the midst of this that we need to chalk up to human choice / will / etc.

      Whether it’s the original choice in The Garden, or its the choice of Israel to worship the golden calf, or it’s the choice of Christians in the Central African Republic to take up arms against their Muslim neighbours, or the choice of a suicide bomber to blow himself up (along with many others) in a café in Kabul, I’m not sure we can chalk this up to God’s initiative.

      I guess I struggle with the role that we humans play in the state of the world. Do we bear any responsibility? If so, I wonder what responsibility we bear for the injustice experienced the world over.

      This conversation reminds me of one view of God’s sovereignty that has been deleted from many versions of the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful:

      The rich man in his castle,
      The poor man at his gate,
      God made them high and lowly,
      And ordered their estate.

      There’s something to this song that made a lot of sense for a lot of time, but our understanding of God has shifted, and our understanding of society’s stratification as not-necessarily-ordained-by-God has also shifted.

      I think that there some things we have traditionally chalked up to God, that we later realise had a lot to do with our human understanding in that place and time. That’s kind of where I’m coming from.

  7. Thomas Jay Oord

    Andrew – I like what you’ve written here? Have you run across my new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God? (IVP Academic) I think you’d find the kind of theological justification you’re wanting.

    FWIW – Tom

    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Hi Tom – I haven’t yet run across the book, but I’ll keep my eyes out for it. Thanks for reading and leaving your comment too. Hope we can have more conversation on the topic.


  8. Gregor

    Thanks Andrew – I just wrote a similar piece (Reward and Punishment). I am interested in some of the comments on the question of the cross. It seems to me that the cross, as “part of God’s plan”, has to do with the restoration of human nature. God, as Christ, as human, transcended his human nature to choose God – it was that consent that restored human nature allowing all other human beings to follow the same path. Divination or Theosis is just this – our participation in the path of divinizing our human nature in Communion with Christ. Christ passes through the cross into hell – the furthest separation between human and God. As the Resurrection Icon shows Jesus standing on the smashed tomb at the gate of hell, his hands wrapped around the wrists of Adam and Eve, hauling the first out of the grave. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs restoring life!” (Easter Troparion). BUT, lets remember that His incarnation also depended on a human consent – Mary. Outside of creation itself, God’s activity seems to manifest at the hands of those who have yielded to him – did not St Theresa say “Christ has no hands but yours?” So all in all – I think “the plan” is the fulfillment of God’s intention in all people, in all creation – but that rests in the Eschaton, that for us as servants of a linear time universe is a future we reach towards, whereas for God who exists in the now – I love how Augustine says God sees time like a painting, all at once….St Maximus says that the future of the cosmos is dependant on man’s self-determination – the boundary of freedom God will not transgress, then again, he has all the time in the world to wait!

    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Gregor – Great thoughts here, and they get my mind moving in multiple directions. For now, I think that I’ll latch onto the Eschaton (why not?!). I do believe that we are waiting for something, and that even while we are awaiting the full arrival of God’s Kingdom of Shalom, we are to be – with Theresa – Christ’s hands and feet. What a beautiful image! What a powerful call!

      My initial post was a reaction against a (simplistic) argument that said that God causes terrible suffering for people / communities / aspects of creation only to prove a point. I hear that argument all too often, and it sickens me, even though I know the world from which it emerges.

      In terms of the cross itself, Jesus embraces his full divinity/humanity through submission to God and God’s will, moving beyond, calling into question, and dismantling the the cycles of violence we humans inflict on one another. In so doing, he invites us to embrace a full humanity that fully images the divine.


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