Thank Goodness, God is Not in Control!

It’s common for people who believe in God to respond to suffering, confusion, or evil by saying, “All I know is that God is in control!”

To the ears of survivors, victims, hurting people, this phrase is rarely reassuring. It leads many to wonder if God is punishing them, has abandoned them, or just doesn’t care about their pain.

In this essay, I explore what it means for God to act, to be powerful, and to love. I’ll introduce a new phrase “essential kenosis” as a way to point to how God always acts, is powerful, always loves, but is unable to prevent evil single-handedly.

Those Who Start with Power

To make sense of how God acts, the majority of people – both trained theologians and novices – begin with God’s power. This is understandable: action requires power of some kind.

The majority of believers have a particular view of divine power in mind, however. They use various words to describe it, including “sovereignty,” “omnipotence,” or “almightiness.” No matter the preferred word, most believe God can control others should God decide to do so. God can be controlling.

By “control,” most think God can single-handedly determine outcomes in the world. Divine control means that God’s actions in relation to someone or something allows no creaturely cooperation or resistance.  God alone determines what happens in a situation.

A small group of believers in God think God always controls others all the time. This is what theologians call “theological determinism.” God is the omnicause. [1] Those who affirm this position typically appeal to mystery or the inscrutable divine will when questions about evil and creaturely freedom arise.

The majority of people I meet believe God gives creatures and creation some freedom, agency, and indeterminacy. Some think God controls everything except humans.[2]

Most who say God gives freedom, agency, or existence to creatures say doing so is a free choice on God’s part. They believe God voluntarily chooses not to control others. In their view, the God who could control usually gives freedom.

Beginning with Love

I think there’s a better way to think about how God acts. It begins with love. The alternative view of divine action I propose starts with God’s loving relations to creation rather than God’s power.

Most people believe God loves. Most wholeheartedly affirm the biblical phrase “God is love,” although theologians interpret that statement in various ways. Most say God’s love is steadfast, as biblical writers repeatedly say. I’ve never met a Christian who explicitly denies that God loves.

When I say that my view begins with God’s love, I mean, first, that God’s love is relational. God gives and receives from creatures. Rather than being unaffected by what creatures do, God suffers with and rejoices alongside creatures.

I also believe God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. “Love does not insist on its own way,” to quote the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:5). To put it more clearly, love never single-handedly decides outcomes. God’s love does not control.

When I put this idea in a scholarly way, I say love is logically prior to power in God’s nature. Because God’s nature is first and foremost uncontrolling love, God never controls creatures, situations, or worlds. God can’t control.

Essential Kenosis

I call the view I’m proposing “essential kenosis.” I suspect this phrase is new to most, so let me explain it.

In a letter written to people in Philippi, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word kenosis. He says, “each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” He then says Christ Jesus “emptied himself (kenosis), taking the form of a slave.” This included Jesus humbling himself and dying on a cross. We therefore ought to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:3-13).

Scholars translate kenosis in various ways. But many believe this passage says Jesus reveals something important about God’s nature. Jesus’ kenosis tells us something crucial about who God is and how God acts.

The meaning of kenosis is partly given in phrases such as Jesus “taking the form of a slave,” “humbled himself,” and his “death on a cross.” Kenosis refers to action that looks “to the interest of others” and enables “us to will and to work.” Taken in light of Jesus, these phrases suggest that God’s power is essentially self-giving not overpowering. Instead of controlling us, God enables us to act.[3]

Essential Kenosis vs. Voluntary Self-Limitation

Is God’s uncontrolling love a choice? Could God sometimes decide to control?

Some who embrace kenosis theology say God voluntarily self-limits. God could control other creatures or creation but usually choose not to do so.

The voluntary self-limitation view has big problems, however. It says to survivors, victims, and those who have been harmed that God could have prevented their pain. God could momentarily un-self-limit to prevent evil. Notice that Polkinghorne says God “allows” the act of the murderer and the destructive force of an earthquake. The God who freely allows evil, however, is not perfectly loving.

Love does not permit genuine evil that could be stopped.

Essential Kenosis

In opposition to the idea God voluntarily self-limits, essential kenosis says God cannot control anyone or anything. It says God is present throughout all creation, to every creature and entity, no matter how small or large. And God always acts to influence creation. From the big bang, in the emergence of life, through evolutionary history, and ongoing today, God acts with uncontrolling love.

Essential kenosis stands between two related views of God’s love and power. We’ve already looked at one: God voluntarily self-limits. The other view says external forces, factors, agents, or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed from without.

The “external forces limit God” view unfortunately portrays God as a helpless victim to external realities. God seems caught in the clutches of exterior principalities and powers.

Essential kenosis rejects both voluntary divine self-limitation and the idea external powers limit God. It says limits to God’s power derive from within: God’s nature of love. God’s eternal nature is to love others in an uncontrolling way.

Conclusion

In this essay, I sketched out my view and why it matters to start with love when pondering divine action. As I see it, the essential kenosis view of divine action, with its emphasis up God’s self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love of God offers the best overall model of divine action.

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Notes:

[1] Paul Kjoss Helseth advocates this view (“God Causes All Things,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011], 52).

[2] Jack Cottrell advocates an interventionist God (“The nature of Divine Sovereignty,” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, Clark H. Pinnock, ed. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989], 112).

 [3] I note biblical scholarship supporting this position in my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2015

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