God is in control?

I often hear people say this. Usually when something undesirable happens. How does God’s sovereignty and my free will interact? It’s one of the things I think about when I want to give myself a headache. It gets confusing pretty quickly when I start reading about divine foreknowledge, divine providence, divine aseity, compatibilism etc.

Is there anyone here who might be able to simplify this for me just a little? Or even an opinion on what is meant when it is said God is in control? Everything? Everything but me? Or just some things?

Hmm. If anyone can answer this they will win whatever the equivalent of a Nobel Prize is for theology!

I am partial to the first order solution provided by the some Calvinists (no surprise, since I’m one of 'em) who, contrary to the accusation they they deny the free will, actually have the most libertine view. To wit: you will always choose according to your strongest desire at that moment. They don’t deny free will, they deny self-denial. You don’t want to pay taxes, but you pay them, because at that moment your desire to pay taxes and avoid prison is stronger than your desire to risk prison.

They often put it in terms of moral ability or moral inability. So before God converts you, you have no desire for God; you have a moral inability to choose God. After he converts you, you have a desire, a moral ability, and you choose God. (Yes we Calvinists do actually claim that the elect choose God).

This view of free will is a form of determinism–but not God the puppet master, rather your will is self-determined. You are a slave, not to any external force, but to your desires.

Here is a crude example of moral inability. A mother, with no mental illness, and no extraordinary circumstances, is sitting in the kitchen with her infant. She has free will. There nothing stopping her from putting her child into the microwave. But she literally can’t do it (even though she has free will) because she is morally incapable.

So in this view sanctification is some sort of bootstrap wherein through prayer and grace your desires are changed, and then your actions follow along lockstep.

This view breaks down in 2nd order, in my opinion, and I don’t know how to fix it, but it is still the best I can grasp.

Now, here is a strong opinion that I’m guessing many will disagree with. There are three generic views of free will:

A) Deterministic (the universe’s differential equation is marching along time step by time step.)
B) Theistic (whatever free will is, it’s a supernatural gift.)
C) Compatibilism (The non-supernatural belief that free will and determinism are compatible.)

In my opinion, which ain’t worth much, one of these is dishonest. That would be C. (The answer is always C.) Take a look at what Dennett says:

The model of decision making I am proposing has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined, produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously). Those considerations that are selected by the agent as having a more than negligible bearing on the decision then figure in a reasoning process, and if the agent is in the main reasonable, those considerations ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent’s final decision.

This is, in my opinion, utter woo, as much woo as any religious woo, but it is given a free pass because it sounds a bit sciency. But there is no mechanism for how this magical consideration generator produces nondeterministic considerations.

Edited for typos.


Hey, @heddle, this a keeper post!!!.. right down to the quite from Dennett!

But I go just one step further! If we do have freewill, it is of a non-scientific in that it is specifically made possible by the Existence of God… for human awareness to be liberated from the shackles of Determinism!!

This flips entirely the idea that if God existed, we would not have freewill!

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Exactly. :dizzy_face:

I read For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (my favorite book cover I’ve seen in a while on a theology book, by the way) and these books taken together give a nice overview of how Christians throughout the centuries from different theological perspectives have wrestled with Scripture and the sovereignty/free will question.

Having read them, I get a headache thinking about the topic, so I’ve personally decided to spend most of my time focused on trying to do something about the love God, love your neighbor part of Christianity, which I usually find more straightforward.


Well where’s the fun in that??? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:



Let me try this. The only way to have true “free will” is to get rid of fear which is the opposite of one of the alternatives suggested above. If we reject a choice not because it is right, but it is we are afraid, then we do not have real free will.

The only way to overcome fear is through love and esp. love for God. This gives us free will to do what we want to do because it is right for us, others and God. The final Fruit of the Spirit is self control or free will. Jesus was free to go through the ordeal of the Crucifixion and Resurrection because of His Love.

1 John 4:18 (NIV2011)
18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear."

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@Relates I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you are saying, but I think you are using a fairly idiosyncratic definition of free will.

I was looking at Roger Olson’s book cover and was puzzled, until I saw the tulips on Horton’s book cover. Makes me smile also. Olson has some good thoughts, and enjoy his blog. I remember one blog he wrote about whether God can change the past, which has influenced how I look at things and pray.

For a control freak like me, I take “God is in control” as a reminder that I shouldn’t try to fix everything (or compulsively avoid all the things I can’t fix/control). It’s not always comforting in the sense that I know God can and does allow terrible things to happen, but it reminds me that my ability to affect things is limited compared to him, and that his ultimate good and purpose is being worked out through us… and that the “here and now” is not all there is.


idiosyncratic- of or relating to idiosyncrasy; peculiar or individual:
"she emerged as one of the great idiosyncratic talents of the Nineties"
synonyms: distinctive · individual · individualistic · characteristic · peculiar · typical · special · specific · unique · one-of-a-kind · personal · eccentric ·

John 8:31-32 (NIV2011)
31 To the Jews who had believed Him, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples.
32 Then you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you Free.”

Granted that my approach is different from most others, I do not think that it is fair to call it idiosyncratic in terms that it is way out in left field. I direct your attention to the above passage where Jesus talks about freedom or freewill.

He addresses those believe in Him and says that if they follow His teaching, they will be His followers and know the Truth and become free. What He is saying is that freedom is not just the ability to make choices, but it is the ability to make effective, informed choices.

Marxists believe that Marxism makes one free to make effective choices. Buddhism believe that enlightenment makes people free to make good choices. Many people believe that science makes people free to make the right choices.

Does an opioid addict have the freedom to walk away from his/her addiction? Hypothetically, Yes, but realistically, No. It is at this level that we need to do our thinking to get back the practical Christianity that you are seeking.

I don’t see how you get that. I think he is saying that discipleship involves a relationship with truth personified, Christ. Freedom is found in Christ (v. 36), not knowledge, and the freedom offered is from sin, not fear. The reason Jesus gives for their unwillingness to listen is not fear, but their love for evil and their belief in lies.

Again, it’s not that I necessarily disagree with what you are saying, I just disagree that the passage you cited teaches those things.


Thank you for your response.

Clearly love is not referred to in the passage I quoted. However we know that Love is a most important aspect of the Christian gospel (See 1Cor 13:13 and 1John.) Therefore there must be a way to reconcile this passage with the concept of love.

Jesus is not only Truth personified, but also Love personified. Freedom is found in Love, not knowledge as Paul indicated in 1Cor 8. Freedom is from both sin (guilt) and fear. We are afraid because we fell guilty and lack faith. Love solves both of these.

The reason why people rejected Jesus as the Messiah was because they were afraid to change. The Jewish leaders believed that the Mosaic Covenant was the way to salvation and rejected His challenge to it. They loved the old way and invented lies to protect it and reject Jesus out of fear.

I always considered the Templeton Prize was equivalent to the Nobel. Not so? Dave, I have never been able to rationalize what I have read about Calvaist beliefs, but I suspect much of what I’ve read was prejudiced. I hoped your post would clarify things for me, but I am still confused.[quote=“heddle, post:2, topic:36451”]
They don’t deny free will, they deny self-denial.

strong text

I have that effect, according to my students!

I don’t know if you are interested in something on Calvinismat the primer stage, but if so I’d recommend Chosen By God by R C Sproul.

Thanks for responding to my previous truncated post. (I tried to edit it but failed.) I am interested in learning more of Calvanism and have ordered Sproul’s book.

In trying to reconcile evolution with Christian Faith, I have spent some effort in trying to determine which branch of Christian Faith does the most reasonable job. Being raised as a ‘Cradle Catholic’, it was not until I reached college age that I realized that Catholic theology fell far short of a smooth reconciliation. But, in my opinion, so did most Protestant theology, especially Calvanism. But in learning more of evolutionary science, I found that I agreed with Alfred Wallace–that evolutionary theory, as Darwin proposed it, could NOT explain the extraordinary differences in the behavior of humans when compared to the rest of the animal world. And that difference remained with all the advances in biological science since Darwin’s time. For me, the situation became more ‘palatable’ when Pope John Paul II proclaimed that it was OK for Catholics to believe that all other life on earth was created through a process now called evolution–BUT humankind was different. That fit in with all the archeological evidence that supported the fact that modern humans appeared in a Great Leap Forward from amongst a large population of Homo sapiens which HAD appeared through the scientifically-approved process of neo-Darwinian evolution. I have not seen much theological support for this view from Protestant sources, but I could easily have missed it.

The reason I think this approach is important is that we can now look for the components in neo-Darwinian evolution that might lead to what Christians see as ideal human behavior and which components might get in the way. Dawkin’s concept of the Selfish Gene is an oversimplification, but it is, nonetheless, explanatory of much animal behavior. There are hints in animal behavior of empathy, love of non-kin, self-sacrifice, and postponement of gratification–all the result of some fortuitous brain wiring brought on by evolution. But to meet the requirements Jesus set for us–to love your God with your whole mind, body & soul, and your neighbor as yourself–we need to rise above our evolved animal instincts and be guided by the Spirit.

I wish I had the time and the mind to closely examine how well various religions support this view. It certainly would be a mistake not to pay full attention to what conclusions better minds than mine have reached in the past. Calvin was surely one them.
Al Leo

I hope you find Sproul’s book to be of interest. (As an aside, I don’t think he finds theistic evolution an acceptable position. But that particular book, of course, has nothing to do with evolution. Just soteriology.)

Hi David.

Thank you for this bit. When I first became a believer at age 21 it seemed so easy. So natural. In the last two years since I started really grieving the death of my dad and my childhood pet(17 years) I’ve found keeping faith to be more like keeping an exercise routine. I think that before, it was easy since my life was so (relatively) painless. Now, with that pain and grappling with “Why, God, why?”, the pain makes it harder to keep faith. It kind needs maintenance. Granted, about four years ago my church fell apart and I’ve basically been “unchurched” since then… so that can’t help, either.

The thing is, when you lose someone you dearly love … in a sense it doesn’t get better. You just get “used” to it. At least, that has been my experience. The pain comes back more manifestly from time to time, and I have to go through the routines: “This is why I believe X. And this is why I believe Y. And Christ suffered like I have suffered. And even though that was so long ago, He’s our God. And so He knows how I feel. Someday… maybe some day, it will all make sense”


When faced with difficult (and especially unexpectedly difficult) circumstances, I might tell someone, “God isn’t caught by surprise by this.” Maybe a bit of a copout, but I think it allows for free will without going all the way to “God is in control” (implying that God makes everything happen). I’ve also said, “this is not out of God’s control.” So…when I had toddlers, they had free will, they didn’t do everything I wanted all the time, but they weren’t out of my control.

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I empathize with your loss, but it seems to me that you might not really understand faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ make Him, makes God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the center of our lives. We die to our old natural self and are raised again in close relationship to the Father through the Son and the Spirit.

When we lose some one we love, even a pet, a hole or emptiness is left in our lives. This is painful, but it is helpful to remember the love we received from the deceased, not so we might feel sorry for ourselves, which is the worst thing we can do, but we might be grateful for what God has given us. We need to remember that all love comes from God, and the love our beloved relative, friend, or pet has given us enables us to love others, even those who are not very lovely.

Death reminds us that we are limited mortal beings. We are powerless to save ourselves from death. We are powerless to save ourselves from sin. For some this is enough to turn us to God. For most we probably need our nose rubbed in the dirt a lot before we dome to the realization that we cannot do it on our own, or even with the help of others, but only Jesus Christ can save us from our sin and the Holy Spirit can give us the love we need to love the Father and others.

Humans cannot earn salvation, no matter how hard we try. In fact the harder we try, the more lost we become. “All other ground is quick sand.” God made a Way, Jesus is the Way when we trust in Him. God does not take away death but enables us to see beyond death and work our way through loss of love by accepting the love of others and loving others.

Sometimes loss is heightened because of unresolved issues with the deceased, but God through the Holy Spirit allows us to resolve these also. Just because your church is no longer active that you are alone. God works through many churches and many people. You need the left the Spirit lead you to one.

It is not all about you. It is not all about us. It is all about Jesus Christ.


Agree with Roger, would encourage you to look for a fellowship to join. Our church and many others have bereavement programs, ours is called Grief Share which I think is part of a big nationwide program, but I have had friends attend the program and find healing.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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