Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Bible Doesn’t Say That: “God Is In Control”

Happy holidays! It is a great thing when the Fourth of July falls so close to a weekend. Over the next 24 hours or so, there will be quite a few fireworks going off in the vicinity to celebrate America’s birthday. When my kids were little, they hated fireworks. I mean, what could be more scary for a two-year-old than seeing the sky catch on fire? I read a story recently about a little six-year-old boy who also was not too excited about fireworks. He viewed fireworks from a theological perspective; he must have been a preacher’s kid! His family took him to see a great fireworks show. Everyone was amazed, everyone ooed and awed, but not this kid. As they drove away, here was his comment: “I bet God was mad at those people shooting at Him.” I love a good theological reflection! But I wonder if that kid had a point.

We may not shoot at God with fireworks, but sometimes we do take shots at God. And we may not even realize we are doing it. Recently the world became enamored by Brexit! Great Britain decided to exit the European Union, and the world went nuts. Stock markets crashed around the world. Politicians are at each other’s throats, even more than normal. Prognosticators are making their predictions: Some are saying “a world-wide depression,” others, “a European or maybe even a world war,” I even saw one that said “Great Britain will become America’s 51st state!” I waited several days before I heard it, but I knew I would. Finally, I heard it from a leading Christian voice here in America. He published a statement on Brexit. And the statement included this line:
Stay calm. Remember what the Bible says, God is in control.
I’ve read many sermons from the Civil War period. Both proponents of slavery and abolitionists were reading the situation through the lens of Scripture. Southern Christian leaders hammered Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6 that slaves should obey their masters. Northern abolitionist Christians were hammering Galatians 3:28, no Jew/Gentile, Slave/Free, Male/Female. But most curious were the words of many Christian slaves. Trying to make sense of why they had endured 250 years of slavery, trying to reconcile their pain, their beatings, their separated families, many slave preachers taught that American slavery was all part of God’s plan all along. God had them endure slavery so that they would eventually find Christianity in America. And in many of their sermons were the words: “Remember what the Bible says, God is in control.

I was visiting a Glenwood member in the hospital this past week. While I was in there, a nurse came in. She was a wonderful nurse. She was kind and compassionate. She asked about personal things, not just medicine. Some people are born with tremendous bedside manner, and she was! And because they were talking about personal things, she relayed to them her own story. She was the mother of two children and both of them had been born with serious, chronic diseases. In fact, one of them had to be given a shot every few hours of his life. If he missed those shots, he would die. She talked about the struggle of watching her children suffer. And, I don’t know, maybe it was because the preacher was in the room, she finally said, “But I don’t dwell on it. I am a Christian. I have faith, and I always remember what the Bible tells us, God is in control.

Well, brothers and sisters, here is the problem: The Bible doesn’t actually say that. I know we mean well when we say it. We have the best of intentions. We mean to suggest that God is all-powerful. We mean to suggest that nothing is too big or too difficult for God to defeat. But without realizing it, by saying “God is in control,” we are actually taking shots at God. Because to suggest that God is in control of everything, that means God causes everything! The much needed rain and the devastating drought. The beautiful wedding that takes place in a church full of flowers and the divorce proceedings that happen in a cold, hard courtroom. The miraculous birth of a new baby and the devastating effects of cancer. To say that God is in control of everything is to attribute some pretty awful things to God. And it is also to ignore the fact that there is another powerful, evil force at work in this world. Finally, to say that God is in control of everything is to put words in the mouth of Scripture that are not there.

So, what does the Bible say?

Much of this discussion centers on a word that appears often in the Bible, the word “sovereignty.” The word “sovereign” is not used in the King James Version of the Bible. But, it appears 303 times in New International Version of the Old Testament. And in each of those occasions the word is always attached to the word “LORD.” When this phrase appears in the KJV, it is translated “LORD God”. Not a single one of those times is the word “sovereign” used in the manner it has come to be understood in our time. In our time, we assume that to say that God is “sovereign” means “God is in control of everything.” Nothing in this world happens outside of God’s will or God’s desire. But if you look at the definition of “sovereign”, even outside of a religious context, you will see that is not what the word means. The dictionary defines “sovereign” as:
Paramount, supreme
Having supreme rank or power
A monarchy
So, the word itself does not mean what we think it means. Scripture itself bears witness to a different meaning for sovereign. If sovereign means that God is in control of everything, what do we do with passages like II Peter 3:9?
The Lord isn’t slow to keep His promise, as some think of slowness, but He is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. (II Peter 3:9 CEB)
It is not God’s desire for us to die in our sins, but some will. Or, what about Matthew 7:13? This is that passage that was quoted to us by many of our parents during our teenage years. Broad is the gate that leads to destruction and many will find it. But narrow is the way that leads to life and few will find it. What does this mean? It means many of us will not choose to follow God. It means God is not in control of our will. To say that God is sovereign is to say that He is the supreme ruler of the universe. But that does not mean God controls the universe like a puppet master. There are many things that happen in this world that are not part of God’s will. And that fact does not make God any less powerful. In fact, that makes God more gracious. Because from the earliest pages of the Bible, we learn that God has gifted us with free will. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve one command. Do you remember? “Do not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden.” Let me ask you this? If God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from that tree? Why did God put it in the garden in the first place? Because God has given us the gift of choice. And in the end, God wanted us to choose to love Him. God didn’t force Adam and Eve to love Him. Instead, God’s greatest desire is for all of us to choose to love Him. What we see in the Garden of Eden is that God created the world, and then He gave it to Adam and Eve to manage.
The LORD God took the human and settled him in the Garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. (Genesis 2:15 CEB)
We see this same truth echoed in Psalm 115:
May you be blessed by the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth!
The highest heaven belongs to the LORD, but He gave the earth to all people. (Psalm 115:15–16 CEB)
God gave the earth to us. It is our domain. We are caretakers of creation. We can choose good or bad. That is why Jesus said in the LORD’s prayer:
Bring in your kingdom [Father] so that Your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10 CEB)
God’s will always happens in heaven. The heavens are the domain of God. But God has entrusted this world to us. And on earth, God’s will does not always happen. God is sovereign over all the earth. That means God is the owner; God is the king! But in His great love for us, our King has given us the ability to choose, to make our own decisions.

To use another analogy, God is the owner of all of this, but the owner of all of this had made us managers. And managers can do at least two bad things: Managers can sometimes ignore the will of the owner. We can run the store in a way that would anger the owner. We can run the store in a way the owner never intended. Managers can also pass the blame back on the owner when things go wrong. And I think that is what happens when we incorrectly use that phrase “God is in control.” We pass blame to the owner that really belongs to the manager.

Church, sometimes bad things happen in this world, and we are to blame. Bad politicians are elected because we elect them. Families file for bankruptcy because they make poor financial decisions. Poverty happens, not because God wants people to starve. Poverty happens sometimes because we make poor life choices. And sometimes we have built systems that enslave people. Sometimes we have made laws that make it extremely difficult for people to stand up again. And let’s never forget this truth: We live in a fallen world. Going all the way back to the Garden, when sin entered the world, sin held the door open for death to come in too. And now death reigns in our world. Now there is cancer and AIDS and diabetes and Alzheimers. God did not cause your mother or father or child to die. The fact is: They died because death has free reign in this world, and Death is here because we invited him.

Brothers and sisters, we live in a broken world. But that doesn’t mean God broke it. In fact, God, through Jesus, came to fix it. I think this is important to say as well. I think God can do whatever God wants to do. Just as the owner of a store can come in and take charge without a moment’s notice. Sometimes God does enter our world to fix things. And maybe sometimes God enters this world to bring justice. But in the normal flow of things, God gives us the freedom to live our lives, to make decisions, and to choose good or bad. And sometimes we choose unwisely. And in those moments, we need to be careful where we lay the blame for our bad choices. This weekend, we celebrate our freedom as Americans. Lest we forget, we are also free as human beings. And with that freedom comes responsibility.

In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, fell to the Union army. Abraham Lincoln insisted on visiting the city. Even though no one knew he was coming, slaves recognized him immediately and gathered around him. He had liberated them by the “Emancipation Proclamation,” and now Lincoln's army had set them free. According to Admiral David Porter, an eyewitness, Lincoln spoke to the crowd around him:
My poor friends, you are free, free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it, Liberty is your birthright. (Abraham Lincoln)
But Lincoln also warned them not to abuse their freedom.
Let the world see that you merit [your freedom]. Don't let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them.
That is very much like the message Jesus gives to us. Jesus gives us our true birthright, spiritual freedom. But that freedom isn't an excuse for disobedience. It forms the basis for learning and obeying God's laws. Because far from weighing us down with unnecessary burdens, these laws were meant to protect us in this fallen world. We are free to love and heal and forgive and show compassion. We are free to graciously help this fallen world stand up again. Because when we do that, then, in those moments, we allow God’s love to control this world!

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