It’s what many said when hurricanes threatened the Northeast this year and devastated the Gulf Coast region a few years ago. It’s what many Republicans said when Barack Obama was elected President. It’s something many say after a car wreck, relationship break-up, or hospital visit. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. Even if not, you’ve probably heard it. It’s a common response to evil, misfortune, or uncertainty: “God, we know you’re in control.”
We Christians seem to love this phrase whenever something doesn’t go precisely as we would have designed it. But what does it mean, and when the rubber meets the road, do we truly believe it?
I’ve discovered a lot of the discrepancy with this phrase stems from different understandings of the word “control.” In fact, it’s a means of division between many Christians. How you understand the meaning of control often can say a lot about what and how you believe.
So let’s get to the bottom of this and answer the big questions. What do Christians tend to mean when they say “God is in control?” Which definition matches most closely with what the Bible teaches? And perhaps most importantly, how do we live as a result of the previous two questions? Today I’ll address the first. Look for follow-up posts about the second and third questions soon.
When I was a kid growing up in Nashville, I loved going to Opryland theme park. Unfortunately, the owners of the park got greedy, electing in 1997 to tear it down to build a mall because it wasn’t making enough money. Nashville has several nice malls. It only had one theme park. It was a bad decision.
Anyway, Opryland didn’t have as many roller coasters as some of the major parks (Disney World, Six Flags, etc.) but it had a few great ones. My favorites were the Hangman, a coaster in which your feet were left dangling during the ride; the Wabash Cannonball, the first corkscrew coaster I ever rode; and as a child, the Tin Lizzies. They removed this attraction in 1995 to make way for the Hangman, but when I was young, the Tin Lizzies was one of my favorite things to do at the park. This wasn’t a roller coaster. Instead, it was a little concrete track on which you could drive (albeit slowly) cars resembling Ford’s Model T. Obviously, my fifteenth birthday (and subsequently obtaining my learner’s permit) removed the need and desire for the Tin Lizzies, but as a young boy I loved driving those cars. My parents also loved it because they knew it was safe. A metal rail ran in between the wheels of the cars, keeping them on the track no matter how badly the driver steered. This is what enabled a six-year old boy to sit behind the wheel of a “car” without having to sign a liability waiver. It was great for everyone.
So what does my reminiscing about riding roller coasters and driving at 5 miles per hour have to do with how God controls things in the world? I’ve been trying to come up with a simple metaphor to explain different views of control, and the best example that comes to mind is found at Opryland.
The Roller Coaster
Some people think of God’s sovereignty (another word for power or authority) much like a roller coaster. Life is full of twists and turns, and sometimes it may give you a funny feeling in your stomach. You may even feel like you’re upside-down. But the path has already been laid out for you. No matter what you do as a passenger on a roller coaster, you can’t alter its course. Similarly, those who hold the “roller coaster” view don’t believe we have any active part in God’s plan. God lays out the pathway, and we simply fasten our safety harness and hang on for the ride. God being “in control” means that God actively controls every detail of life. What you eat for breakfast, the clothes you wore today – it’s all part of God’s plan laid out for you. Some but not all Calvinists hold this view, and it is distinctive from Calvinism. It is commonly called hyper-Calvinism.
The Tin Lizzies
Others view sovereignty more like the Tin Lizzie attraction at Opryland. Much like the metal rail that keeps the cars on track, God exercises a certain degree of control. But the difference is that the Tin Lizzie view allows for a degree of flexibility – what we call free will. Those who view God in this way believe that God allows us to make decisions and God holds us responsible for the choices we make. While the degree of free will we have is often a source of debate, Arminians and many Calvinists alike hold this view.
So which definition of control most closely resembles the teachings of the Bible? What do these definitions mean for us, and how do they affect our understanding of God being in control? Stay tuned!
In the mean time, what are your thoughts on the two definitions of control? Which one most closely resembles what you understand God to be like?
Update: Continue reading part two of the “Is God In Control?” series here.
This I a topic I have been really struggling with. I grew up Arminian and then went to a church that preaches Calvinism. So I am still trying to figure out how much God does, versus how much we are supposed to do. I know that salvation begins and ends with God. It is only by his grace in revealing the Holy Spirit to us that we even have the ability to choose Him. I believe he offers this to everyone.
Where I struggle is, where is the balance between what God does and what we do, in regards to daily sanctification as followers of Him?
I have an anxiety disorder, and my lifeline is knowing that God is in control. So it is uncomfortable for me to explore the different interpretations of that “control” and to be unsure where I stand. I know He is in control because the Bible makes that clear. But what does that mean?
I really like Jonathan’s metaphor here. A pastor once told me that the Christian life is less like a balance beam and more like a road. It’s still the narrow road the Bible mentions though, because it’s not nearly as wide as the path of least resistance that Satan lays out for us and that most of the world (knowingly or unknowingly) follows.
I remember a ride similar to the Thin Lizzies from when I was a kid at Six Flags Over Texas. I also remember the bumper cars at Disney World. Both rides allowed the driver a certain amount of control, but not so much that they could wreck the cars and be seriously injured or killed.
What I would like to know is, to use the metaphor of the Lizzies as representative of God’s sovereignty, how wide is that little metal track between the wheels? The wider it is, the less control the driver has.
Maybe this is an illustration of Romans 8:28 which says that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.
Bottom line is, I need to be spending more time in the Bible about this.
Ahhhh….the issue of control. That’s a difficult one because we rather like to control things ourselves.
It is my opinion, that we cannot measure or draw a line where God’s control is concerned. We do not have the authority, power, or even the right to attempt to limit or measure His control. I think the amount of control God desires to use varies on the circumstances. He is a patient God and often times will allow us enough freedom to hang ourselves before He steps in and takes control. Then, there are the times when He steps in from the very beginning and overrides any control we may attempt to apply to our situation. He is God. He is Almighty and All-Powerful. He may choose to do whatever He wishes; whenever He wishes.
We know from scripture that He does give us a certain amount of freedom. He even gave that freedom to His Son, Jesus. Jesus, as a man, was given the freedom of choice. We see this in several areas of scripture. One example is in Matthew 4 where satan tempted Jesus with “all the kingdoms of the world.” Jesus could have made the choice to follow him because, as a man, He was given that freedom. Of course, you may say, “Yeah, but He was God. His choice was easier because of that.” Yes, He was (& is) God, but I don’t think His choice was any easier because of that. He made the choice of right over wrong because He was living under the control of God’s Spirit rather than yielding to the sinful nature of earthly man. We are given that same freedom of choice. We can choose to allow the Spirit to control our lives or we can choose our own earthly desires. Gal. 5:16 says, “…live by the Spirit & you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Freedom & control come as the life of the Spirit overpowers the ongoing pull of sin in you life.
Phil. 3:21 says, “Jesus has the power to bring everything under His control.” When & how much He chooses to apply that power is up to Him. He draws the line. We MUST have trust that He knows where to draw it, when to use it, and how much control He needs to apply. That is FAITH, my son.
Enjoyed the post and the analogies. I think the Tin Lizzie approach is closer to the scriptural view.
A similar analogy I’ve heard is of an ocean liner going from one port to another. The people on the ship can move about as they would like. But in the end, the destination of the ship is certain, and not even jumping off the boat will change where it’s going to go. 🙂
I’ve thought about this a lot, this idea of whether or not God is in control. I don’t know anything about Calvanism or Arminianism at all. But when I had cancer, the issue of just who is in control came up a lot, not just for me, but for others around me.
Control in the context of human will and choice is one thing – in this case, are we not talking about whether God will let us have it? But when something happens that is hard to make sense of, such as when someone gets cancer or dies or has an accident, people will often say that “God is in control.” Really, its just a way of saying “I’m not in control, and I can’t explain this, but I would have stopped it from happening if I could have, and I don’t know why God didn’t.”
I choose to believe God is good and not always in control, over believing He is always in control. Because if He is, then He isn’t the God we thin He is.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m so sorry to hear of your battle with cancer, but if I’m correct that it sounds like you’ve beaten it, I’m very glad to hear that. This is one of the biggest things at stake in the conversation about God being in control – what do we make of pain, suffering, misfortune, and evil? I plan to discuss this at length in my follow-up post, hopefully coming very soon.
The thing I find funny is that you propose that it’s an “either/ or” proposition – EITHER God’s level of control is like a roller coaster OR God’s level of control is like a Tin Lizzie – and that “either/ or” is Universal. How about this theory instead: Whether we ride a roller coaster or a Tin Lizzie is up to US depending on how much control WE choose to give to God. See, here’s the thing – if you ride the Tin Lizzie, you get more control, but because you need that control, you can’t go fast or very far. You have little rails that keep you from straying too far, but you get to go at your own pace and steer -to some degree – wherever you want to. On the Tin Lizzie you get a much greater feeling of control, and if you NEED that control, our loving God will make it available to you. But, let’s face it, it’s not real exhilarating or exciting. On the other hand, if you want to go fast and experience the chills and thrills of an exhilarating roller coaster ride (and let’s face it, some of us LOVE roller coasters!) then you have to allow yourself to be “locked down” into God’s will the same way a roller coaster car is “locked down” into the track. Some of us are super excited about putting on our crash helmet, strapping on our 5 point harness and letting God take us where he will! Whoo-Hoo! But for some people, that’s not an adventure or an enjoyable experience, but a nightmare – and for those people, God invented the “spiritual tin lizzie.” And you know, we’re also not locked into one or the other. I spent 9 years on a roller coaster, and then God took me off it. And for the first time in my life, I found myself both longing for – and enjoying – a little time on the Tin Lizzie. Other people have spent their lives on the Tin Lizzie, and God is working on building up their trust so they can experience and ENJOY the thrills and chills of an exhilarating roller coaster ride. I find these days I spend most of my time on the Tin Lizzie – it’s what I enjoy more now, but every once in a while, God surprises me with a sudden, unexpected roller coaster ride. But because I knew He’s in charge, and I know they will end and I will reach my destination safely- and just because I love them – when I suddenly find myself on an unexpected roller coaster ride, I stick my hands in the air and scream “WHOO-HOO!!!!”