by Alexis Waggoner
The Orlando shooting. The Brexit. The refugee crisis. This election season’s heated, painful political debate. These events all inspired fear and panic — and in many cases illicited an assurance from Christians that “God is in control.”
For a world plagued by suffering and questions, I don’t find this response to be very helpful — and I don’t find it to be true.
The classic problem of evil and free will presents two traditional options: 1). God has in some sense orchestrated the events of history; thus our actions, our existence, and our story are already determined, or 2). God has given us free will to chart our own course and make our own decisions, though God already knows how the story will turn out. In their own way, each of these options relies on the idea that God is in control.
Neither of these belief systems provides an adequate representation of our experience in the world, and neither provides a framework robust enough for understanding what God is up to.
God is not great, but God is good.
Combined with other elements of God’s character, I think most Christians would agree God is inherently good. There is an issue, however, with linking goodness and omnipotence (God’s ability to exert ultimate power and control). If God is the definition of goodness then God’s behavior has to be deemed good, regardless of how we feel about it or the pain it causes us. When subscribing to a view that God ordains, or controls, or fore-knows all … some of this behavior is certainly questionable.
The alternative belief is that suffering is pointless, and we are made miserable at the hands of a God who claims to be goodness and love but has a crazy way of showing it. If God really “is in control” in the traditional sense, then we have to pick one of these options.
I have watched friends walk through life’s darkest moments praising God because, although they believed God allowed or even caused these events, they trusted God as inherently good. If God is good, and if these bleak ordeals were ordained by God, then it follows there is goodness in our suffering.
What if suffering is abhorrent and God is love?
Omnipotence as we typically understand it is not reflective of God’s essential nature of goodness and love. If being all-powerful and all-controlling means God ordains all events in the world — even those of extreme pain and suffering — then how can we trust that God is seeking the good of the world (which we’re told God is also doing)? Said differently, if omnipotence means God knows humanity will cause pain and suffering, yet we are free to do it anyway, how can we worship a God who lets evil continue?
The belief that God’s essential nature is goodness and love provides a way to understand the workings of the world – the randomness, suffering, and evil. It doesn’t explain these things away, but it also doesn’t make God culpable. It creates room for a God who joins us in our suffering, who is with us in God-forsakenness, whose heart breaks at our pain because it runs counter to God’s essential nature. It’s also the model I think we see Jesus demonstrate through his life, death, and resurrection as fully human, suffering servant, and victor over death.
It might be disturbing for some to think of a world where God isn’t ultimate power, foreseeing every twist and turn, or at least having some general foreknowledge of events. But what if we viewed God’s essential nature of love as God’s ultimate power? Love is not controlling, therefore God is not “in control” in the traditional sense; rather, God is working on and in creation with perfect love, asking us to join in the project of renewal that continues to be set in motion.
I believe this is the story scripture is telling, the story the world is longing for, and the story we’re being called into.
Alexis James Waggoner is a theologian, writer, teacher, and founder of The Acropolis Project (http://theacropolisproject.com/), an organization dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 12 years, and a baby named Junia.