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A church is looking for a new pastor…

A regional church meeting is praying for God’s direction and guidance…

A son speaks a eulogy at the funeral for his father…

The words get launched into the world as a prayer, a declaration, an assertion:

“God, you are totally in control.”

I’m a 90’s kid, who grew up with a video game controller nestled between my hands. Whatever my hands could do on the controller, the video game character would emulate. I say run, you run.  I say jump, you jump. I accidentally jump too late and you fall into a lava pit—well, I guess there is no-one to blame but myself because I was in control.

Is this what it means for God to be in control?

There is something comforting about the idea. If God is totally in control, then the child-like part of my heart can sit back and relax. God’s got this, after all. I don’t have to be responsible, I don’t have to face consequences, and I can avoid the painful feelings of grief and sadness. If God is in control, then there was nothing I could have done or said to change the outcome anyway. Father God was going to have it his way or no way.

As I wrote this, a fellow pastor walked by me in the coffee shop. “How are you today?” I asked. “Oh, can’t complain. Nobody would listen to me if I did,” came his reply.

Is that what it means for God to be in control?

The death of Jesus on the cross is central to the Christian story. But what does it mean? One pastor prayed, “Jesus, you were totally in control on the cross.”

Naked, abused, shamed, rejected, violated, tortured, murdered—yes.

In control— ?

As I understand it, the cross was Rome’s way of asserting control. Crucifixion was the Roman way of dealing with insurrectionists. Anyone who attempted to question Roman control and lead a revolt would be publicly, violently, and shamefully killed at the gates of the city. Crucifixion didn’t happen “on a hill far away” from the gates of the city—the crucifixion happened at the gates of Jerusalem. Like a “Welcome to Our Town” sign, crucified bodies hung on crosses to greet anyone who would enter or exit the city. Not only was crucifixion the cruelest way to kill a victim, but it was also sent a powerful message—Mamma’s, don’t let your sons grow up to be insurrectionists. Rome is in control. Caesar is in control. And don’t you forget it.

Why, then, would we who are Christians adopt this Roman worldview of power and control and apply it to the God revealed in Jesus Christ?

Consider this: it is comforting to think of God in control when an outcome is beyond your influence—when you aren’t in control, at least someone is! It is comforting to think of God in control when death is quick and unexpected; the heart attack or aneurism, when there is nothing we could do, at least God was in control.

Yet life is rarely so simple. Reader be warned, the next portion of this piece involves language depicting rape, suicide, and a car accident.

Imagine with me that you are the pastor. What is God like to these saints in the following (very real) circumstances?

When a husband is beating his wife, “knocking her around a little bit,” into submission for sex. The wife feels she is obeying God’s will by submitting, but she is being used and abused, worried for her life and the wellbeing of her children. Is God in control? Is this abuse all a part of God’s plan?

When a father finds his daughter hanging in her closet one morning before school; bullied and teased for having a crush on another girl. He is a veteran from Afghanistan, but now has PTSD from finding his beloved daughter dead. Is God in control? Is this tragedy all a part of God’s plan?

A family travels on a long-awaited trip to Disney World. While driving through Florida, it begins pouring rain. A semi-truck starts to hydroplane, crosses the median, hits their minivan, and kills the father, and two of the children. The mother and middle daughter survive, and after days in the hospital return home with half their family gone. Is God in control? Is this tragedy all a part of God’s plan?

If your understanding of power and control are in alignment with the ways of the Roman Empire, then yes. If God is abusive, violent, and controlling, then our interpretation of tragedy is that God orchestrates these tragedies to teach a lesson, to get your attention, to put you in your place, or for some mysterious “his ways are higher than our ways.” In the end, it is all for your good—in spite of the horror and tragedy of life. But why would we use Roman notions of power and control to describe Jesus, the true Prince of Peace?

Friends, we need words that can describe God’s presence with us in the midst of horror and tragedy— words that point to the one who is the good shepherd.

One of the most profound images in scripture about the heart and character of God is found in Isaiah 46:4:

Even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.

And again in Isaiah 53:11:

Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.”

In both instances, God is described as one who will bear His people. Isn’t that curious? This very feminine image of a pregnant woman, carrying a child in her womb, bearing—this is the image Isaiah uses to describe God (the Father) and the righteous one (Jesus)? Rather than the Roman paterfamilias “rule of the fathers” through violence and control, the prophet describes God with imagery of the tenderness and care of a pregnant woman.

A pregnant woman is a miracle to behold. Inside her womb, a secret and unknown life is developing and being formed. The mother provides all the nutrients needed, she provides a safe environment in which to grow. She provides care, tenderness, and delight. She always carries this young life with her; she is near, connected, one with this life as day in and day out she carries and bears this hidden mystery of humanity.

Is that mother in control of the life growing within her? Is she in total control? The question is laughable because it is the wrong question. Control has nothing to do with it. She provides the environment, nourishment, the boundaries, connection, love, and union—until that day when the new life is born and seen fully, beheld, face to face. Make no mistake, she is sovereign over this young life, her choices and actions will directly affect the life growing in her womb but she is not in control.

Here is our God. To the woman abused by her husband, the father whose daughter died to suicide, the family cleaved in two in a terrible accident—we worship a God who bears all of humanity and the sin of the whole world. A God who has little interest in asserting control or dominance, but abides with us always. A God who provides a good world in which we can live and grow, providing boundaries to evil, a God who nourishes all of creation, a God who loves and delights in all his children, a God who is so united with us that he would even be found naked, shamed, mocked, violated, and tortured on a Roman cross.

When human wickedness asserted their control through the cross, even there, God carried humanity near to his heart and bore their sin.

The cross of Jesus shows us that there is no place of darkness and brokenness where we can be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our lord. It’s not about control, it’s about connection. God is inextricably connected to us, in love with us, and desires our thriving.

When we seek to explain tragedies through the language of “control,” we risk making God into an abusive and controlling authoritarian. But even more importantly, we miss the point, that God is with us always, in even the darkest and most horrific moments of our lives. Not as one pushing the buttons and pulling the strings, but as a loving mother/father, who bears the entire world in the womb of God.

I wonder if living in this reality is what Jesus was talking about all along, what he mentioned to Nicodemus as our need “to be born from above.”

What about you?

How has language of control been comforting to you in the past? When has language of control been harmful?

How does it feel to imagine God carrying all of humanity like a pregnant mother?

How has God been present with you in the darkest moments of your life?

A Prayer for the Day: “O God who has made all things, you have revealed yourself fully through the person of Jesus Christ. Thank you for uniting yourself so fully with humanity that you would suffer even the horror and tragedy of life by dying on the cross. May I reject the violence and control of the empires of my day, and instead may I cling to your loving kindness and presence, trusting that you are with me always. Amen.”

Brett Vander Berg

Brett Vander Berg is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, a spiritual director, and a spiritual formation retreat leader; in his spare time he enjoys exploring national parks, reading books about psychology, and adventures with his wife and three sons.


  • Joshua Vis says:

    Great work, Brett! I don’t blame people for emphasizing power and control. The Bible does often paint God as desiring power and control. But we must pick and choose where the Bible leads us to life and where it leads us to death and destruction. The good stuff demonstrates that God is love, and this truth is simply incompatible with the statement “God is in control.”

  • Rosalyn De Koster says:

    God abides with us always. Thank you, Brett.

  • Marie says:

    Thanks for this essay. When the moments come when we realize that God’s ability to “control” is rather irrelevant, since God isn’t using control to prevent bad things from happening, the question changes from “Is God in control?” to “What must matter more to God than control?” And it’s that nearness that you talk about — that’s what matters more to God than being “in control.”

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    I liked these sentences; “It’s not about control, it’s about connection. God is inextricably connected to us, in love with us, and desires our thriving.” We are connected to God and to each other and will eventually thrive.

  • Travis West says:

    Brett, thank you for this beautiful, powerful, and poignant reflection. As I was reading I couldn’t help thinking about the Hebrew word for “compassion,” (רָחוּם “rachum”), which is derived from the word “rechem” which means “womb.” From beginning to end the Old Testament claims that God is compassionate. This assertion appears over and over in a phrase that is the equivalent of an ancient creed: “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” I find it remarkable that the ancient Hebrews declared the essential character of God by drawing on the connection between a mother and the child in her womb. The word “rachum” is also related to the word for “warmth” (“cham”). Compassion is like the warmth generated by an infant growing inside the mother’s love, which permeates the mother’s being and forges a bond between them. God’s heart is likewise “strangely warmed” toward us humans and all of creation. And if the foundation of our relationship with God is love expressed through compassion, then it cannot be about control.

    • Brett J Vander Berg says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Travis! And thanks for adding so much with these hebrew words… beautiful!

  • Ruth Ann Kuhn says:

    Thank you for this beautiful writing!