God’s in control?

120415 Haleakala and Koyama

Advent. The season where we wait expectantly for Jesus to come. It’s a season of hope bubbling up in the darkness. We trust God is bigger than the things going bump in the night.

And here’s where the message of Advent and God’s sovereignty gives me pause.

For some, “God’s in control” is a sparkles and glitter concept. God is in control implies God’s going to work things out for you or me. Sunbeams. Kittens. Daisies. Easy-peasy.

Not me. I get twitchy when people toss out the phrase, “God’s in control.” When I encounter it, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. My back teeth clench. I fight the instinctive urge to groan.

I’m instantly geared up to rant. I don’t actually do it. At least not out loud. My mama drilled me on the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” mantra. (Can I mention I wish internet trolls had a mama or papa drill that into them, too? The world would be a better place if we lived by that.)

So, I bite my tongue. Well, unless somebody asks me. Then, bluntness takes over.

Why do I hate it?

Saying “God is in control” is patronizing. Due to my life experiences, it gives me more problems than helps with God’s character. “God is in control” can become a ticket to opt out of personal responsibility.

It’s patronizing.

To be honest, I hear it most often from people who are unnerved by the pain someone else is feeling. It’s a way to wash our hands of messy emotions disturbing our comfort. I hear it as an attempt to manage other people’s emotions, and trying to fix other people’s feelings is a major no-no.

Or people use it to force someone into a faith mold that looks like theirs. “Your frustration makes me feel like you don’t believe God is good or powerful or whatever. So, let me remind you, God’s in control. God is sovereign. Chill with the anxiety.”

In either case, “God’s in control” feels patronizing. It is a shaming accusation, as though pain means I don’t trust God is bigger than a situation. God is bigger. That’s not my hang-up. The problem is not a lack of faith, but the reality that pain hurts. I’d prefer to not hurt. And the only way through pain is to keep feeling it ’til it stops. Faith and pain are not mutually exclusive.

“God’s in control” causes me more problems than it solves, especially when it comes from the mouth of a privileged person.

“God’s in control” is all well and good while you’re comfortable and God seems to be making everything come up rosy.  It’s harder to wrangle when you’re struggling.

After years of infertility (and other life struggles), “God’s in control” is not a source of comfortable hope. And “God’s in control” or “Everything happened for a reason” coming from a fertile person to talk about my infertility story costs me significant energy to choke back snark or retorts.

God keeps struggle from being (ultimately) meaningless, so the experience isn’t wasted. But, that doesn’t mean guaranteed safety or easy sailing or fairy godmother magic. Hang on for the bumpy ride. After all, God didn’t even spare his own self, so why do I think I should get off easy?

God didn’t fix the struggles. In the murky middle of awful things, “God’s in control” feels like God doesn’t care. Or God is okay with whatever bad thing just happened. Shallow thoughts of “God’s in control” make it seem like God caused my miscarriages or ectopic pregnancy. Or worse, that God is okay with children starving, racism, human trafficking or corporate greed.

God is not okay with evil. Justice matters to God. God still cares about us when we’re struggling. God is working, even if I don’t see it yet.

God has shown up with me in painful seasons, but God didn’t always change the outcomes. And I learned that God’s goodness is about something bigger than my immediate happiness. Some days I have an easier time with that than others.

“God is bigger” is the defiant charge I make in the midst of awfulness, but it’s not something I welcome from someone else. Particularly not from the already comfortable looking at my story from the outside. My charge “God is bigger” is bold hope that the struggle wasn’t meaningless. And somehow, for me, that has to well up within me rather than be thrust upon me from the outside. Someone else trying to tell me that makes me infuriated.

“God’s in control” can become a ticket to opt out of personal responsibility.

If God is in control, then I don’t have a responsibility to act. God will fix it with some fairy dust. It’s all in God hands, and humans are powerless to do anything but twiddle their thumbs ’til Jesus comes back. And there’s a term for that: fatalism.

I like the “Fix it, Jesus” prayer. I drop my prayer coin in the bank like my work here is done. I said the prayer, and it’s God’s job now. And there are times and places for that.

But, it also ignores the way God moves throughout history. God works through people. God used Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. God called Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. God used Deborah, Peter, Mary and Paul. Jesus called the church to act as his hands and feet in the world. God so often works through people — through the willing who say, “Here I am. Send me.”

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When we pray “Fix it, Jesus” are we open to the possibility that God’s solution might be to send us to our communities? Perhaps God wants to send you to work on that issue nagging your heart? Instead of looking back and forth wishing God would send somebody else to do the risky stuff, what if you asked Jesus how to join in the work he’s doing? What if God is looking for you (Yes, you. Right there. You.) to do something with the passion and talents you’ve been given?

I hate that part. It’s work. It’s messy. And it means I might have a lot to learn, and I might not be the expert. It’s vulnerable and terrifying.

But, I think this is also the place where real life is found.

Despite my misgivings, I need the reminder “God’s in control.”

Every time I arrogantly think I can write off a perspective, thinking I know it all, I find something that humbles me. And the same is true for the “God is bigger” or “God is in control”ideology. There is a context where these concepts help me be healthy.

“God is bigger” overrides my fear impulses.

Fear is a terrible driver. Fear makes us destroy things while we self-protect; fear doesn’t even care about the legitimacy of threat — perception is all that matters.

“God is bigger” reminds me yet again that outcomes aren’t all on me. I don’t have to work so hard to defend myself or to try to gain everyone’s approval. God is bigger reminds to me to check my motivations; am I operating out of faith and love or driven by fear?

“God is sovereign” helps me rest.

I’m a participant in the work God calls me to do, not the owner. My call is to faithfulness, to showing up with integrity. I don’t control the outcomes.

Recognizing God’s power gives me space to rest and renew. I can pause to breathe and examine my motivations, knowing the world does not require my frantic activity in order to keep spinning.

Jesus took space for rest and solitude apart from the crowds, and Luke’s Gospel uses the rhythm of intentional solitude to mark when Jesus is about to embark on something new and bigger. Spaces of solitude and rest are not a hindrance to the work. They may be the very things which propel us further into our purpose.

“God is in control” keeps me humble.

Stepping into the realm of action reminds me that I might need the reminder “God’s in control” after all. “God is bigger” keeps me from getting a big head and thinking I’m somebody’s savior. Because I’m nobody’s savior. Jesus is Savior enough.

The mission isn’t mine. The glory isn’t mine. And I don’t serve Jesus alone. God is bigger than my situation, and God uses all kinds of people to do His work. If the ragtag bunch God used throughout the Bible are any indication, the people God chooses may not be the ones I’d initially choose to work with. And that means I have to check my arrogance at the door and listen first.

We’re all different.

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So, how about you? I recognize we’re all wired a bit differently. For some, the thought that “God is in control” is the only thing holding you together. For others, that same idea brings you so much head pounding frustration.

I’m baffled by the way one concept is heard differently based on our life experiences and personality. But, more importantly, if we’re unaware of that reality, we sling words recklessly and cause more harm than help.

How has language about God’s sovereignty frustrated you? Where has it helped you? What made it helpful?

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