“God is in control.”
The statement comforts many people because deep down we know that we are not in control. We can do everything we can to protect ourselves and our families, but we know that despite our best efforts, tragedy can strike at any moment. And so it’s comforting to believe that if we aren’t in control, Someone else is.
But something inside of me recoils whenever I hear the phrase, “God is in control.” Many believe that God’s sovereignty means that God is behind everything that happens. But I find no comfort in that view of God. In fact, a God who micromanages and controls every event isn’t a God worthy of belief.
How to Respond to Tragedy
My community was struck by tragedy last week. A mother and her three children were walking to the grocery store. They waited for the crosswalk sign to signal that it was safe to cross the street. But it wasn’t safe. A driver ran the red light, severely injuring the mother, and killing her three children.
How does one respond to such tragedies? First, by mourning. The community held a vigil at the site to support the mother and father. People held candles, prayed, and sang hymns like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Mourners turned the crosswalk into a memorial site with teddy bears, balloons, and other toys.
As the local paper reports, “There were children at the vigil, and parents held onto children tightly or kept a close eye on them. ‘Do not run!’ said one woman to a child near the street.”
Second, by empathizing. Every young parent knows that this tragedy could have happened to any of us. It could have happened to me or to you. I can do everything I can to keep my children safe and yet tragedy can still strike in an instant. Empathizing opens our hearts and minds to compassionately suffer with others as they go through their pain.
How Not to Respond to Tragedy
But there is a theological response that I find extremely pernicious. In the face of such tragedies, many people claim God’s sovereignty in an attempt to provide comfort, but it’s actually quite harmful. They say things like, “God is in control,” or “It’s part of God’s plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” But after experiencing tragedies like the one that struck my community, I can no longer believe in that notion of God’s sovereignty.
Please, don’t tell me that God is in control of such events.
Don’t tell me that they are part of God’s plan.
Don’t tell me that these things happen for a reason.
While these statements are usually delivered in an attempt to provide comfort in the midst of suffering, they aren’t comforting. They’re harmful because they actually minimize suffering. The statements imply that, since God is in control and tragedies are part of God’s plan, people should “just get over” their feelings of grief, suffering, and loss. But people don’t “just get over” these kinds of tragedies. The best way to manage the feelings that emerge from tragedy is not to repress them or get over them, but to go through them. The way to go through those feelings is to talk about them. Unfortunately, phrases like, “God is in control,” serve to stifle honest conversation about those painful emotions. Thus, it stifles the healing process.
Tragedy and Sin
But if God isn’t in control of those tragedies, why do they happen? The best answer I’ve found is summed up in one ugly word: Sin. The concept of sin has become taboo in many progressive circles, but I think progressives need to reclaim it. Sin says that there is something wrong with the world, that the world isn’t how it’s supposed to be, that a man running over three children is not part of God’s plan.
In his book, The Wounded Heart of God, Andrew Sung Park states that, “Sin is a conscious offense committed against God or neighbors.” To sin is to go against the desire of God for us to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Sin rightly puts the responsibility for such tragedies on humanity; it refuses to allow us to project our own responsibility for violence upon God.
Unfortunately, some Christians don’t intend to comfort so much as to blame when they say that “God is in control.” They claim that if something bad happens in your life, you deserve it because you must have sinned. In other words, God causes bad things to happen to bad people. Well, let me be as clear as possible – that’s theological bullshit. It’s an abuse of the concept of sin. This mother did nothing wrong to deserve such horror and neither did her children. Any religion that blames victims of violence by piling on guilt and shame is a religion that should be thrown into the garbage dump of history.
This tragedy happened because a man decided he was in a hurry and so he ran a red light. My community is now turning against this man, but part of me empathizes with him, too. Who among us hasn’t been in a hurry? Who among us hasn’t ran a red light?
By all accounts, he’s not an evil monster. And so, along with the legal consequences of his actions, he will have to face the fact that he destroyed the lives of three children and their parents. He knows as much as anyone else that this was the result of sin. He knows that he should not have been driving recklessly. He knows that this tragedy should not have happened.
Sin names events that shouldn’t happen. The theological concept of sin is a protest that claims the world isn’t right. It claims that these tragic events are not part of God’s plan. Sin claims that God is not all-powerful and in control of these tragic events.
Of course, I want to believe that God is like an all-powerful superhero in the sky, keeping me and my family safe from tragedy. That might provide me comfort, but where was that god on the night those children were killed?
The fact is that God doesn’t promise to keep us safe from what’s wrong in the world – not from reckless drivers, not from cancer, and not from violence. But I do believe that God is sovereign in two ways.
Reinterpreting God’s Sovereignty
First, God is sovereign in God’s promise to be present in our suffering. As Park claims, in the face of suffering caused by sin, God’s heart is wounded. God suffers with us. In Jesus we discover that God empathizes with our suffering. God enters into the violence and despair of human sin and by doing so, God seeks to heal us in mind, body, and soul. It takes a certain amount of control to be present in the midst of suffering. The Atonement is God’s ultimate way of entering into the tragedy, violence, and absurdity of suffering caused by human sin. As Lindsey Paris-Lopez puts it, in Jesus God exposes “himself not as the commander of our violence, but as the victim of it.” The cross tells us that we are not alone in our suffering. It tells us that Jesus, God in flesh and bones, doesn’t orchestrate suffering, but rather goes through suffering with us.
But that’s not enough. God calls the church to be the Body of Christ on earth. The church is to receive its identity from Christ. As the Body of Christ, the church’s mission is to enter into suffering with our fellow human beings. The world needs the church to do its mission because sometimes the absurd happens. Sometimes tragedy strikes. In the blink of an eye, our children can be taken from us. And our best response is to walk with mothers and fathers and all who hurt through the immense suffering caused by sin.
Second, God is sovereign in God’s ability to heal, reconcile, and restore the world to himself. As the Book of Revelation claims, in the end God will wipe away every tear. Until then, God is working for the “time of universal reconciliation.” And, until that universal reconciliation happens, we have work to do. God is calling us to participate in God’s sovereign reconciliation of the universe because, as Second Corinthians claims, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
God’s sovereignty has nothing to do with causing violence, pain, and suffering in the world. Rather, God’s sovereignty means that in the end, sin doesn’t have the last word. In the end, everything that’s wrong will be put to right, every tear will be wiped away, and every life will be restored to God’s loving embrace. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for that day. We can participate in God’s universal, loving embrace of the world right now. Indeed, that is our mission. In the face of absurd suffering and sin, that is what God is calling us to do.