It occurred to me as I finished my last post, that I still have some things to say about this business of seeing God’s engagement with the world in terms of control. As I wrote, God’s power in the world is expressed as love. Not love as a sentiment or feeling, but love as a stance toward the other–a commitment to the well-being of the other. It intends to do something, though what is produced is not predictable and can’t always be seen through a cause and effect logic. But God’s power as love has a huge advantage over God’s power as control in terms of being a fit for the way we actually experience the world.
Seeing God in terms of control, however, has other, associated problems. Our understandings of the church are seldom too far from our understandings of God. If we think of God in terms of control, we are likely to think of the church in those same terms. William Placher, in his excellent book, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, observes that most people come, in a sense, with a category or inclination about what is meant by the word God, and for many that word is associated with power expressed as control.
This picture of God works well enough when people sense control of their lives or the sources of cultural production. But what happens to people who understand God as control, when they feel like they’re losing control? To put it more to the point, what happens to the church when they feel like they’re losing control of their once dominant role in American culture?
They fight to regain control. Losing control is more than just a political reality. It becomes tied to understandings of God, making the response, in my opinion, all the more desperate and intemperate. God is implicated in our sense of powerlessness, and necessarily a character or sponsor of our attempts to regain control. I think this ties God to a myth of violence, where the gains we feel we have made have to be protected from intruders or taken back from interlopers. This kind of boundary patrolling is inherently violent, whether that violence appears in the form of social scapegoating, overheated or hate-filled rhetoric, or actual physical violence. We fight to maintain or regain our sense of control. (Can you think of any group interested in control that is not implicated in some sort of violence? It is an inherently violent way of viewing the world).
I frankly wonder what story we believe about God when we are hell-bent on regaining control. It’s not the story of the cross. It’s not the story Paul tells in Philippians 2. I say, let the Romans use the power of control, the reign of God comes through the power of enduring love which always expresses itself in giving up privilege. And the irony in this for me is that I think we will end up having more influence and authority with our neighbors than if we or they think of God as our muscle who is interested in our regaining control.
And I think that if we are not desperate about out loss of control, we’ll say fewer troubling things about how God is involved in shootings, hurricanes, and elections.
Well said, Mark. The early church did not grow by fighting or arguing for control, but by giving and self-sacrificing in love. The idea that America is somehow God’s Millennial kingdom has surely been proven false. God’s Kingdom is not a kingdom like Rome, Christendom, England, America, or Russia. It is a kingdom where God is proclaimed holy, where God’s will is done by His people, where people have daily bread, where people forgive, as they have been forgiven, where people do not lead others into temptation, but deliver each other from evil, for in this Kingdom, power and glory are God’s, and God is love.
Excellent stuff. As I was reading your words thoughts like “feeling the desire or need to control is grounded in fear” and “fear drives our attempts to control and our responses to being out of control” were running through my mind. Fear seems foundational to the desire to control – or to know that there is something or someone that is controlling – as a typical response to our circumstances. And, of course, then the words, “Perfect love drives out fear” scrolled by.
One thing I wrestle with is the legitimacy of trying to control circumstances when those circumstances challenge not my own lack of control or prompt fear in me for myself, but prompt in me fear for others. Is it not the case that in some circumstances love will prompt our attempts to control conditions that are harmful of others, so as to prevent or lessen the impact of evil and pain? God’s love for humankind countless times has driven Him to control circumstances on our behalf, and even the cross brings with it control over sin, control over death, control over evil. Clearly divine love is not separate from divine control. Maybe this is a bit of an aside because your point is concerned with the ways in which we are quick to apply God to “shootings, hurricanes, and elections,” as if bringing Him into such conversations will help to eleviate our fears and our sense that things are out of control. We want to identify God as the “controller” rather than as the “lover” because in control there is security and consistency, while love is much more unpredictable, filled even with mystery when it is God’s love. If trust is not in abundance even God’s love may appear to us capricious; and such thoughts of God prompt in us fear and a sense that things are out of control.
Kelly, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right about fear. And I think the point you make about love wanting to limit the harm and therefore impose certain kinds of control is valid. I think that we’re always bringing influence. Again, I am defining love as a power. It does something and does more than control sin, but conquers it.There are moments from time to time when control might be the right word to use for certain actions motivated by love. But, what I have more in mind in this piece is a myth of control, and by that I mean an account of life where control is at the center, including an understanding of God’s sovereignty as “control over,” which you note in the bottom of your comment. Thanks, Dr. Carter for your friendship.
Mark, how might you add an Old Testament theological understanding to this when we see God can at times seem terrifying and lament is made to God for not “taking control”? Loved the posts–very helpful.