Waiting in line for a presentation at the 911 museum at Ground Zero, I overheard the conversation behind me: “Why would God allow such suffering?” “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” They were two pastors from the group I was traveling with. “If God is all powerful …”
“I don’t believe that,” I interrupted. Yes, it surprised me, too. “I don’t believe that God has the ability to control everything.” My thoughts and questions have often been deemed sacrilegious or even blasphemous. But, here I was seemingly contradicting a tenet that the foundation of Christian belief … in the presence of newly ordained Presbyterian pastors who are much more recently schooled in theological thought … in a very public place. Heads turned. I could hear the swish of interest that was now leaning in to hear what I was going to say next. What was I thinking? Why was I saying this? But it was true. I didn’t believe in a God who controlled the universe (or multiverses). I don’t believe in a God who can control the decisions or hearts of radical thinkers or the pressure of lava within the inner spheres of the earth or the ways storms form in the Atlantic ocean. I do, however, give my full allegiance to a God who is sovereign, who is sovereign to the power of the universe.
In our American culture, we are obsessed with who’s to blame, who’s fault is it, who’s in control. We think that parents bear the responsibility for the actions of their children, like they should be able to control every decision their children make. We blame the leaders of government for the mistakes of those who serve under them. We hold teachers responsible for the teachability of their students.
In leadership training, there is a distinction between having power and having control. Good managers don’t control workers; workers have the ability to choose whether and how to work as they please. Managers may have the authority to hire or fire them, but the workers still have autonomy in the workplace. A good leader is one who develops a level of mutual respect with their workers, which creates a desire to do good work. A good leader is trusted and followed, because they are reasonable, caring, good listening skills, and know their workers well enough to know both their needs and their capabilities. Power and authority is gained when we have such a command of the office that the workers want to/choose to follow our lead or listen to our authority or learn from our influence.
As a dog owner I know that, generally, I have power over the actions of my beloved Harley … well, sometimes. I still have things to learn about dog handling. Well trained dogs have a great deal of trust in their handlers and want to please them. My brother, Mike, was a canine officer in the NYPD. His K-9 partner, Ben, seemed to be under the control of my brother at every moment … but he wasn’t. Ben was so well trained that he even refused treats or food from anyone except Mike. There was a bond of deep allegiance, a relationship of understanding, between Mike and Ben. Their mutual dependence in dangerous situations relied not so much on Mike’s ability to control Ben, but his ability to trust him, and vice versa. As we know from my Harley (however), dogs (yes, even police dogs) still have a will of their own. Control … of children in a classroom, of a police officer’s dog, of workers in an office, of a company’s or government’s employees … control is an illusion. Instead, in a good organization, the relationship is one of mutual respect, of trust, of empowerment.
In fact, the more I thought about my blurted pronouncement at the depths of the twin towers, I began to understand that our everyday interpretation of the omnipotence of God is … heretical … in that it leads to an assumption that God’s control should be focused on us … We expect God, if we love him enough, or believe in him enough, or pray enough … to keep us safe, to make us comfortable, to keep us from suffering, to keep us healthy, to find us the best parking spaces (ok … I know that’s cliché). It’s the American heresy. In our culture of litigation, and blaming, we are so concerned with “who’s fault it is” or “who’s in control here” that we lose hold of the transformative truth that God is constantly at work in and through our brokenness: restoring relationship, healing our hurts, meeting us in our darkness, forgiving our sins, and calling us into mutual respect, understanding, compassion, mercy, and love.
No, it’s not heretical to be angry with God when twin towers fall, when floods destroy homes after a near decade old drought, when earthquakes rip through villages, when trains derail, when planes crash or disappear, when companies go bankrupt, when jobs are lost, when loved ones get hurt or die. We can yell, scream, and argue with God; it’s what we do with all the people we love when things don’t go our way. It’s a sign of deep relationship, and that’s good. And like a good friend or parent, God will likely cry along with us, be angry with those whose actions hurt us, be a good listener … and … find ways to heal, forgive, make us stronger, reveal deep wisdom, show deep compassion, and offer a vision of hope.
Who’s in control here? That’s the wrong question when it comes to our faith. It’s a self-serving question. And it completely misses what I have come to know as the most important and strongest aspect of our Christian faith … that God is in such a deep relationship with us and all of creation that even in the midst of greatest darkness, fear, destruction and death … All things are made new.