What does it actually mean when we say "God is in Control?" We take a close look at a series of terms that help us understand if we are experiencing natural consequences or the reward or punishment of someone who is exercising their control over us. We look at inherent law, consequences, imposed law, punishment, power, authority, abuse, control, our will or choice, will power and free choice or free will. We think this will bring clarity to these terms and what is meant by them, as well as clarity to how God functions and how much he is able to control, given that he loves us and is especially fond of us.
Free Choice and Control
A young Jewish woman is given the choice of having an ongoing sexual relationship with a guard so that her mother can have enough food in one of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. What sort of a choice shall we call this? Free choice? Forced choice? Abusive choice? Controlled choice?
Marry me and live happily ever afterwards. Refuse and I will have to shoot you. What sort of a choice situation is this?
Choice is an important part of our lives. When our choices are thwarted, we are frustrated. Some people are prepared to die for their choices. Our choices may result in order or chaos, happiness or sadness, prosperity or poverty, peace or war. There is a mix of punishment and consequences in our lives, and it is helpful to distinguished between the two.
Making this distinction also brings clarity to a common statement made, “God is in control.” We are all subject to control to differing levels. Can one have choice if one is controlled by circumstances or another person? There might be choice in the way we respond to control, but it is not free choice if there is punishment or reward.
In order to think about choice, it is helpful to define the following terms.
the requirements for the existence of systems in the cosmos.
Examples: the laws or descriptions of systems such as gravity, magnetism, light, life, including health and so on. Violating inherent laws have consequences, not punishments. Punishment is a man-made claimed deterrent.
a result inherent in the action or the choice.
Examples: Going splat on the pavement after jumping off a 10th floor building Getting lung cancer after smoking for 40 years Experiencing atherosclerosis after eating a high animal fat diet for decades Killing a pedestrian while running a red light
laws or systems created by man to order their world or community. To enforce these laws requires the use of force. These laws are often necessary but are also open to abuse.
Examples: Tax requirements Traffic rules Travel requirements
an arbitrarily result for an action or choice imposed by a powerful person or organization on an offender.
Examples: Traffic violation fines Expelling incorrigible students from school Imprisoning citizens
We have now defined the source of consequence and punishment as being two kinds of law, inherent and imposed law. There are a few associated concepts we need to think about.
the ability to achieve my desires
Examples: Able to drive at 100 kph between traffic lights Bench press 500 pounds Turn the head of every man in the room when I enter Go on any vacation that I desire
the ability to influence others because of power or earned admiration
Examples: Revenue Canada has the authority to claim taxes from citizens because of its power. Bono of U2 has the authority to get other music groups working with him to raise money for charitable purposes because of the admiration in which he is held.
the misuse of power or authority to achieve one’s own ends. Examples: Using children as slave labour. The exploitation of minorities. Using political power to enrich oneself
to have the power to manipulate the thinking and actions of another or an organization or a machine or an animal and so on.
Examples: A prison warder A parent A public speaker or actor
God is in Control
in its most literal meaning implies that our lives are planned and manipulated by God. This means that slavery, sexual abuse, persecution of minorities, economic unfairness is approved and empowered by God because these conditions are present on earth. The claim that God is in control implies God as an arbitrary tyrant who is unmoved by suffering. The best meaning possible of “God is in control,” is that in the end God will exonerate and compensate those who have suffered at the hands of evil.
Will or Choice:
the ability to choose between alternatives.
This is the basis of freedom. It is manifest by small children in their desire to have their own way. We have NO choice in our gender, race, language of origin, birth parents, siblings, race, ethnicity, home language.
We have choice in the attitude we bring to incidents in our lives, and the habits we develop in our thinking and feeling. We have a choice as to how we relate to the people we meet each day. The mechanism of choice is a mystery since some raised in a pigsty become princes and some princes end up being pigs. Nature and nurture do not predict the choices we will make. This is not to remove the responsibility for the choices we make but to emphasize that we need to be in awe of the consequences or our choices and not make too much of our part in choosing.
Examples: The brand of washing powder we use What we eat What we watch, read and think about. To lack any ability to choose means one is a slave.
The concept of choice has played a major role in Christianity since the 17th century. John Calvin postulated that God had chosen to save some and reject others. This was a matter of God’s choice and man’s choice did not influence his final destiny. Jacob Arminius believed that one’s final destiny was determined by man’s choice.
the ability to stick with the choice made by the will. (We all lack willpower in some areas of life.)
Examples: A smoker who is able to quit smoking at will has strong willpower. Eating less food or more healthy food is related to our willpower.
there is a choice but one or more of the options have arbitrary reward or punishment attached to them.
Examples: Voting in some countries where you might be imprisoned if you vote “wrong!” Parent to child: "Do you want to go to bed now?" There are few roads where you can drive at any speed. The choice is the speed limit or less.
Free Choice or Free Will:
the privilege of having a choice between alternatives with no punishment or reward imposed for making any one choice. There are always consequences for any choices made.
Examples: Choosing which brand of pizza to buy. Choosing a friend. Voting for a political party in Canada. Choosing for or against God.
At times it takes some effort to decide if an outcome is a consequence or a punishment. A helpful characteristic of inherent law and thus determining it is a consequence is consistency. Jumping out of a tenth-floor window consistently means splat on the pavement. The fines for running a red light differ from location to location. If one is not caught there is no fine. This clearly makes it a punishment.
However, the outcomes of running a red light can be confusing. If an accident occurs, shall we say this a punishment or a consequence? The answer depends on the definitions made. Accidents are inherent in chaos, they are not a punishment. Installing traffic lights has the inherent ability to create order in traffic flow. Violation of this order creates chaos which results in possible bad consequences such as accidents and death. To encourage compliance fines are imposed. Fines are not a consequence, but a punishment imposed by someone in power.
Driving under the influence of alcohol has the possible consequence of maiming or killing someone. It also has the possible punishment, if caught, of a fine and the suspension of one’s licence.
A Free Choice
is made when a person considers the consequences only in the decision-making process. If a punishment influences our decision, then it is a forced choice. Emotion also has an enormous influence in any choice made. Ice cream is not a healthy eating choice but it’s a wonderful choice from a tastebud’s point of view.
are such because they are made in the knowledge that the choice is going to have bad consequences or punishments. The hero makes a choice, at personal expense, for the good of others. Chosen martyrdom is an example of a heroic action.
The alternative destinies of heaven or hell are presented as a forced choice by many religions. This view of the consequence of our moral choice is reprehensible to thinking people. This is because no one chose to be born on this planet. To punish someone for the circumstance of birth is as wrong as racism, sexism or ageism.
There are different destinies for humans, but these are consequences, not rewards or punishments by a divine dictator. Some people die young. God did not decide how long they would live. Death is the consequence of deterioration on the planet and in our bodies. Death is also the consequence of accidents, bacteria, viruses and malicious people.
It is time to take responsibility for our choices because they all have consequences and sometimes a punishment or reward. It is time to cherish the free choice we have as a gift from a good God. We can admire this gift by giving the people around us free choice in our relationships with them. Coercion is not part of the love of God for people. Love means the opposite of coercion, this is why Jesus taught us not to resist evil people (Matthew 5:39).
Ian Hartley, September 2022