Is God in control?

John E. Phelan Jr. is senior professor of theological studies at North Park Seminary.

By the time you read this, the ugly, contentious presidential election in the United States will be over. We will know the outcome—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and will have begun picking up the pieces.

Whatever the result, someone is likely to say, “Whatever happens, Jesus is still in control.” This kind of pious commonplace is at one level true enough—and at another dangerously naïve and irresponsible. So far as Christians are concerned, Jesus has been on the throne since his ascension. But that has not prevented grim horrors perpetrated by humans. Jesus was on the throne during the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. Jesus was on the throne during the First World War when millions of young men died, including roughly half of the men in France between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Jesus was on the throne during the Russian Revolution and the bloody purges of Stalin. Jesus was on the throne during the rise of Hitler and the subsequent slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews and untold millions of others.

The language of “Jesus on the throne” seems to imply that as long as Jesus is ruling, nothing bad can really happen to us. Again, at one level this is true. But at another level this is a dangerous falsehood and an evasion of the human responsibility to confront evil, demagoguery, and oppression. It also demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the providence of God. That God is sovereign does not mean that everything that happens is God’s will. It does not mean that God is the direct cause of every evil and horror we confront. This would make God the author of sin and evil. “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone,” James wrote (1:13, NIV).

The language of “Jesus on the throne” seems to imply that as long as Jesus is ruling, nothing bad can really happen to us.

Nor does it mean that God can force humans to do good. The prophets thundered against the failure of the people of Israel to obey God. Israel was like a faithless wife taking up with a lover. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cried, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37, NIV).

The point is that our actions matter. By doing the will of God we have an impact on the world. If we live out of God’s mercy and justice, if we pursue peace and refuse violence, if we resist all forms of cruelty, greed, arrogance, and oppression we live toward the kingdom of God. We have the capacity to make God’s world a place of justice and love. We also may, by both action and inaction, contribute to a world congenial to a Stalin or a Hitler.

I was raised in a tradition that was fatalistic. Its eschatology taught that the world was moving swiftly and inexorably toward war, famine, and chaos. All we could do was prepare for the onslaught and be quietly faithful to God before we were snatched away before things really got bad. This can be a comforting fiction. But it is dangerously irresponsible. “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples. “You are here to make a difference. Through loving the alien and stranger; through sustaining the widows and orphans; through protecting the weak and vulnerable; through speaking truth to power; you are the salt, the light. I am the salt, the light.”

Jesus is on the throne. But for whatever reason, he exercises his reign through his church. Perhaps that is why our world is in such a mess. The church is failing in its stewardship of God’s creation, in its ministry of reconciliation. We imagine that if we sell our collective souls to this candidate or that party we can assure the world will be just and safe—or at least our interests protected. In this we are deceived—and dangerously so.


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  • Dr. Phelan, you have again hit the mark! Thank you for your clarity in a time of darkness! We need to be a people of grace and light lifting others up as well as calling to account those who are acting out of fear, greed, avarice and power to protect and/or build up their kingdom. A recent reading reminded me that in Aramaic, the common language of the people of Israel in Jesus’ time, the word for kingdom of heaven has both a future and a present meaning. For me this means moving beyond our limited view and embracing the call to be stewards of the earth, our time, and our ability to care for our neighbor, regardless of differences in race, religion, etc.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • Thank you Dr. Phelan. Your words of truth and exhortation to action h3lp heal my currently broken heart in light of the Evangelical response to the presidential campaign and election results.

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