How “In Control” Is God?

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If you’ve been a Christian for a long time, you probably remember Twila Paris’s hit from 1993, “God Is In Control” (which, by the way, has a totally nineties music video to go along with it – I’m still trying to figure out the purpose of the ballerinas…). Many of us Amen the hard-charging refrain in the song that God, indeed, is in control. But translating that truth to real-life experience can be a bit tricky.

Oh, certainly, when bad things come our way we are prone to remind those we have conversations with that “God is in control.” But do we feel as if He really is? Do our prayers, our thoughts, and our actions reflect this thinking? And, dare I ask, how in control is God after all?

Some don’t agree with Twila Paris’s assessment at all. Noted Baptist theologian and professor E. Frank Tupper of Wake Forest University recently argued in a podcast that “theological responses to issues and providence are so outdated and so unrealistic that there needs to be a revolution among theologians and in the church about understanding how God works in a modern scientific understanding of the world.” Here is a sample of Tupper’s self-prescribed revolutionary thinking:

“I do not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world…Indeed, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world.”

That’s about as forthright with it as one can get.

Tupper goes on to explain that when we come to God’s sovereignty in Scripture and theology that we are talking specifically about “God’s sovereignty in love,” and not as much real-time, providential control of the events surrounding our daily lives.

The question of how “in control” God is of our lives, both as humanity and as individuals, is a weighty one. This one blog post won’t be able to answer every nuance, as the debate over God’s providence and the extent of it has been ongoing for thousands of years.Logically, we can narrow our options to three: either God has no control, God has limited control, or God has full control. We will soon see that Isaiah 44-45 has much to say about this big question, and much to say against Tupper’s claims.

At the opening of Isaiah 44, God reminds His people of their election (44:1). When we see the concept of election in Scripture, it is most commonly associated with “the people of God,” a collective look into the nation and Kingdom God is redeeming and building. But in the very next verse, we see how God begins His address to His elected people:

“Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you:” (Isa. 44:2)

God now invokes childbirth language not only to speak to His people as a group, but to speak to every single one of His people. Just as He chose a nation-state of people, so He formed every individual, knitting them one by one together in their mother’s womb. God challenges anyone to stand superior to Him, asking, “Who is like me? Let him proclaim it” (44:7). Of course, we know that none are like Him, and God exposes the futility of substituting anything to stand in place of the one true God (44:9-20).

God has commended Himself in Isaiah 44 as completely sovereign in His creation, His election, and His righteousness. Now, In Isaiah 45, God points to a specific historical moment and person where He will make these truths about Himself come alive, through the life of King Cyrus.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped” (Isa. 45:1)

In the verses that follow, God outlines that He will work in a very real way to not only set the course of world history through Cyrus’s reign (45:2-3), but He will also control the very rain that falls from day to day (45:8). Verse 7 summarizes God’s discourse on His providence: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.”

That sounds like more than a co-pilot to me.

What can we learn from these verses? Returning to our overall question and the options at hand, we can throw out the idea that God has no control over the events of our human history, along with Tupper’s ideas.

But is God simply intervening at this particular moment in human history? I don’t believe so. For if God is indeed the same yesterday, today, and forever, the God of the events in Isaiah 45 is the God of the events of January 2017.

As the late Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer rightly observes, “The Lord is the God of Cyrus, ordering history in its magnitude as much as in its minutiae for the welfare of his people.”

I love Motyer’s language there. “Magnitude…minutiae.” It brings me great comfort to know that not only did God care about the nation of Israel, but the people of Israel. He providentially moves to create and sustain our lives from conception to death. And just like He cares about the big world events of the day, so He directs my very steps. I don’t live without choice; I’m not merely the puppet of God. And yet, I rest in the fact that my circumstances, my environments, my comforts, my situations, are all in the hands of a compassionate and confident Father. “God is in control” is so much more than a mere religious platitude. It is truth by which we live and move and have our being. It is assurance for times of struggle, and an avenue for directing our worship in times of celebration.

I’ll leave you with something to meditate on. I imagine Dr. Tupper approaching me one day countering my argument with a pointed theological question: “Why do you bother with prayer if God is completely in control?” At first he thinks he has found the upper hand, exposing the needless act of prayer in a world sovereignly directed by God. But if asked this, I would return his question with another:

“Why bother praying if He’s not?”

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