Why Saying 'God Is in Control' Isn't Helpful

Ryan Patrick McLaughlin | November 9, 2016

Why Saying 'God Is in Control' Isn't Helpful

Leading up to the election and on election day, I repeatedly encountered people calming their fears by saying, “It’s OK. No matter what happens, God is still on the throne.” 

I identify as a Christian, but I find this sentiment unhelpful and troubling. 

“It’s OK. God is still on the throne.” 

What does that mean? That no harm will befall people? 

That’s ridiculous. Here are other times when God was on the throne:

  • When Nazi Germany was slaughtering Jews and other non-Aryans. 
  • When America engaged in the Tuskegee experiments. 
  • The Rwanda genocide. 
  • September 11, 2001. 
  • The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. 

God being on the throne is far from a guarantee that no harm will befall us. 

Providence. That’s the answer. God is on the throne. God directs the world as God sees fit, and we just have to trust that it’s all for the good. 

This answer is deeply imbedded in certain expressions of Christianity. But if it is true, then we can only look at the inexplicable atrocities of history and say, “God did/allowed it once. There’s no reason to think God won’t do it again.” In this view, we are all at the mercy of God’s plan, and so many in history appear as little more than expendable pawns in that plan. 

Free will. That’s the answer. God is on the throne. But God respects free will and therefore allows bad things to happen for our own good. 

Perhaps it’s comforting to believe that God respects freedom. But it offers little comfort to the one who suffers. “It’s OK that you’re being raped. The God who respects free will is still on the throne.” “It’s OK that your entire family has been slaughtered in the attempts of some hateful group to rid the earth of ‘your kind’. The God who respects free will is still on the throne.” That such a God is on the throne is of little comfort. Indeed, it may make matters seem worse. “God is on the throne. God could help you. But God has chosen not to do so.”

Rethinking omnipotence. That’s the answer. God is on the throne. But God cannot intervene to help the sufferer by any act of coercion. For whatever reason, whether it be the restrictions of metaphysical principles (as in some forms of process theology) or the restrictions of God’s own uncontrolling nature (as in Tom Oord’s recent book, The Uncontrolling Love of God), God is only able to persuade the world toward peace. But if such is the case, the claim that God is on the throne isn’t overly comforting. Yes, it’s more comforting than the claim that no one is there. It’s more comforting than the claim that a malicious being is there. But the track record of God’s ability to stop atrocities by non-coercive methods isn’t overly confidence-inducing. (For the record, people in these camps would be less inclined to say, “It’s OK. God is on the throne.”) 

Perhaps God being on the throne is meaningful in some eschatological sense. God will eventually bring the world to absolute peace in a new creation. Such post-mortem hopes are central to Christianity. And indeed, I think that Christianity would be rather empty without them.  But to say that whatever happens in this world is “OK” because of eschatological hope is, in my view, to violate the very point of that hope. Jesus didn’t embrace the status quo because of eschatological hope. That hope led Jesus to challenge the status quo. 

My main point: I think we should stop saying “It’s OK. God is on the throne.” If anything, we should say it is not OK. We should cry out for justice from God like the prophets and psalmists did in their lamentations. “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.  Rise up, come to our help.  Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.” (Psalm 44:23-26)

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Ryan Patrick McLaughlin, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Siena College. You can find his academic work at his academia.edu page.