01 May What we Mean when we Say God is in Control during a Pandemic
God is in control.
It’s a phrase we often hear in a crisis such as this. We tend to use it as a comforting slogan whenever something goes wrong. “God is in control” we say, when someone dies; when we lose our job; when our health fails.
But what exactly do we mean by this? Do we mean that God controls every decision, every event; every single thing that happens? The state of my finances, the actions of my landlord, the pathway of a virus?
No. That is Muslim theology. Inshallah. Nothing happens without the direct, intervening hand of Allah willing it so.
Christians don’t believe this. We believe in the idea of free-will. We are free to decide how we spend our money, who we marry and what career path we want to follow.
So, what if I refuse to wash my hands or abide by quarantine restrictions? Is God still in control when I fall sick with coronavirus as a result?
Herein lies the thorny theological question. How do divine sovereignty and human free interact? This is a debate that is older than time. Theologians throughout history have tried to reconcile it without too much luck. Paul in his all-over-the-place discussion of the question as it applied to the Jews and Gentiles, declares it a mystery. You can hear the lack of resolution in his writings, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!!” (Romans 11:33)
It may be self-defeating to try to answer the question fully, but here are three things we can be sure of:
1. God is not controlling
God is not a control freak. He does not give us free will then take it away. He offers us the choice of blessing and cursing; life and death. He gives us options. He says; “Stay faithful to the covenant life,” but he doesn’t hit us over the head with a sledgehammer when we don’t.
2. Not everything that happens on earth is God’s will
If everything that ever happened on earth was God’s will, there would be no reason to pray; “Your will be done on earth as it heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Much of what we see here is not God’s will. That’s what we know as Heaven. Jesus himself referred to Satan as “ruler of this world” (John 14:30, see also Eph 2:2; 2 Cor 4:4). It is the Enemy who works to bring evil through sin, disease and death on earth – not God. Even though Satan’s defeat was accomplished by the cross, the kingdom of God will not be fully realised until Jesus returns. Until then, Satan and his agents have a level of influence and dominion that is manifested in suffering and pain in our everyday lives. It is our job as Christ’s representatives to continually push back the powers of darkness and to claim the victory of Jesus on earth through our prayers, righteous living and acts of love in Jesus’ name.
3. A Better Slogan
Finally, there is a real problem with the phrase “God is in control.” It is misleading because it can cause us to blame God for everything that happens in our lives – including things that are evil. It can also divert us from taking responsibility for our actions. God is not the cause of a deadly pandemic that brings death and destruction to the world. Neither does his power and triumph on the cross mean that we can flout the restrictions of governments and health experts without any consequences. Faith in a powerful God does not become a free pass for presumption.
A better slogan to use in the midst of a pandemic is that God is sovereign. This is the truth of Romans 8:28: In all things, God works together for his good purposes. This means that God does not carry the blame for a pandemic, yet he works within it to bring about his good intentions. In other words, he uses evil to bring about good.
This is the joy of knowing God even as we are surrounded by death, disappointment and loss. God’s awe-inspiring, miraculous and mysterious, all-knowing sovereignty means that even while the world is under siege by a deadly virus, we can live knowing that God can use even this for his glory. No matter what happens that is outside God’s perfect will, God is sovereign. If I lose my job, if I suffer with loneliness, if I fall sick, God is still able make these things work together for good.