On God and Control

The question of God’s sovereignty has a different heft when what lies at stake is the health of one’s nears and dears as opposed to the navel gazing satisfaction of an academic exercise. Not to say that academic exercises have no point – being able to dispassionately assess a subject on its merits without the cloud of emotion and peril has its place – but when the stakes relate to matters of life and death, hope and desire sometimes trump cold hard facts. Implicit here is the assumption that God exists, that he is reasonably well depicted by the Bible and that some objective truth about his character can be deduced from that book. The orthodox Christian (Calvinist?) position is that God is Sovereign and in control, and that he “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass“, to quote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tim Gombis, Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, offers a rebuttal of that position in a four part series [Part 1, 2, 3 & 4] from last year, one that I read in the middle of my season of rethinking. L’s arrival and the ICU trips which followed have afforded me the opportunity to re-read the arguments from the perspective of someone with skin in the game. As I understand it, the core of Dr Gombis’ argument is that there is a distinction between God’s identity as sovereign and the manifestation of that in the world today. What guarantees there are, if any therefore, relate to a final transformation of this broken world not control over the minute details of our lives. Until then pain, sorrow, chaos and the likes are part and parcel of our experience this side of the divide.

It is not the concept of God being in control that Dr Gombis’ has a problem with per se, I don’t think, but rather the wrong responses, actions/ inaction and decisions it can engender in our lives. The second part of his essay identifies five such responses:

  • Inaction, in which we fail to consider ways in which we can positively affect outcomes, instead folding our hands waiting for God to act,
  • False hope, in which we conclude that if God is in control then the reality of the pain/ undesired outcome that stares us in the face is somehow not real and that things will work out
  •  Discerning a divine logic, ie if God is in control and something manifestly wrong has occurred then there must be a meaning to it
  • A refusal to engage grief and lament, instead focusing on trying to learn the lessons in the pain ‘God’ has sent our way
  • Speculating on God’s purposes in the pain

The problems articulated in the article and summarised above are ones I recognise, several of them being core beliefs of the American brand of Charismatic Christianity exported to my native Nigeria many moons ago. In that worldview, if you sow seeds, name things and claim them, life will be all honky-dory with nary a cloud on the horizon. That this is a manifestly warped view of the world is not in doubt – even the most cursory of glances reveals the falsity of that. What we have to hold in tension with this on the other hand though is the question of prayer, and what we hope to achieve by prayer.

If God is not in control, then what does prayer seek to achieve? Is it merely preparing and changing us to accept whatever outcomes come our way or does it/ can it materially affect outcomes? Fortunately or unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, a consistent theme I see in these musings of mine.