Is God in Control?

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 15, 2012

Habakkuk 3:1-15 When Life Doesn’t Make Sense: Is God in Control?

He’s Doing the Best He Can
When Rabbi Harold Kushner’s son Aaron was about three, his mom and dad started to realize something was wrong. Aaron just wasn’t thriving. He moved slowly. His hair was falling out. He was in a lot of pain.

They took Aaron to multiple doctors, they considered a number of causes. Finally, a specialist told them Aaron had one of the rarest diseases in the world. Progeria. The rapid aging syndrome. Essentially, Aaron was aging at 8 to 10 times the normal rate. This poor little 3-year-old body was dealing with the kind of wear-and-tear conditions that normally only affect us as we age: arthritis, heart disease, cataracts, and so on.

Progeria occurs in less than 1 out of every 8 million people. Children with progeria usually do not live past their teens. Aaron Kushner was no exception. He died at 14.

Rabbi Kushner is a well spoken leader in the progressive wing of Conservative Judaism. Following Aaron’s death, as he wrestled with all the pain and suffering Aaron had to endure, Rabbi Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. One article I looked at called it the most influential book of popular theology ever written in America.

Kushner wrestled with the problem of evil and suffering. He questioned his traditional Jewish faith. He came to believe that God could not have prevented Aaron’s death. He writes: “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die.” (quoted by D.A. Carson in How Long, O Lord?, p. 28)

This is a view that many people have taken toward reconciling the existence of suffering with belief in God. It’s a view that says the good and loving God would prevent suffering if He could. But there is suffering. So God must not be able to prevent it. As Kushner told Time magazine upon the 25th anniversary of his book: “Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around.” http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1545682,00.html#ixzz20LeTTXOs

The novelist Norman Mailer puts it like this: “If God is all good, then he is not all-powerful. If God is all-powerful then he is not all good. I am a disbeliever in the omnipotence of God because of the Holocaust. But for 35 years or so I’ve been believing that God is doing the best he can.” (quoted by David Bast, Why Doesn’t God Act More Like God?, p. 31)

False Steps
We are in the midst of a sermon series called When Life Doesn’t Make Sense where we are talking about the kinds of things that we just don’t have good explanations for.

And any time you dig into what theologians call the problem of evil there are two basic options to be explored. Mailer summarizes them pretty well in his quote. Either God is all-powerful and strong, He’s capable of preventing suffering, but He doesn’t love us enough to do so. Or He’s all-loving and good, He would like to prevent suffering, but He’s not strong enough to do so in every case.

Last week, we dealt with the question of whether or not God is loving. We concluded that, in light of the cross and the fact that God Himself endured unimaginable suffering, it’s pretty hard to say that God doesn’t care.

Now, today, we need to look at the other part of the equation. Is God in control? Is God truly sovereign over everything that happens? Or—maybe—are there just some things that are beyond His control? He doesn’t give people cancer, He doesn’t cause accidents, He doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe God would heal everyone if He could—it’s just that He can’t. If this is the case, then when people do hurt or suffer it’s not God’s fault. As Mailer says, He’s doing the best He can.

I hope that notion makes you feel uncomfortable. I hope you’re saying that doesn’t square with what we believe. It doesn’t. But I need to begin by pointing out that there are a lot of people—people of faith, people who believe in God and feel that they are defending Him—who take some variation on this view.

So the question is: Is God in control? And I’m going to start with what I’m going to call bad answers.

(And by the way, this sermon is going to have a couple of points and multiple subpoints. It might feel a little more like a lecture than a typical sermon. We’ll try to get the points up on the screen so you can follow along, and if you like to take notes, there is space provided on the front of the bulletin. I’m kind of neutral on the practice of taking notes during a sermon. For some people, it feels a little too much like school. And I’m fine with that, you don’t have to take notes. But other people find jotting notes helps them track, or can be a helpful reference later. And if that’s true, I’m fine with that as well. Apparently, a bunch of you have been taking notes on the front of the bulletins, but you’ve had to kind of scribble around the logo. Now we’re giving you a space just for that purpose. But, again, if note-taking isn’t your thing, that’s fine. You can use the space to write notes to me. Just make sure they’re nice.)

So, here are some bad answers to the question: Is God in Control? And, again, these answers are coming from people who are trying to defend belief in God.

One bad answer is to adopt a form of dualism. That is, to hold to the idea that there are two powers operating in the universe. A power of good, and a power of evil. And these two powers or forces are in constant conflict, and neither has complete mastery over the other. If God is the power of good, then Satan is often named as the mastermind behind all evil. Sometimes these two forces are presented as almost equal in power. Other versions of this view hold that God is usually the winner, but sometimes Satan gets the upperhand. And it is in those cases that we suffer.

Rabbi Kushner adopted a form of dualism when he decided that God couldn’t possibly be in control of everything. But instead of naming Satan as the force of evil, he blames nature. In the same Time magazine interview I quoted earlier, he says this:

I believe that God is totally moral, but nature, one of God's creatures, is not moral. Nature is blind. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, germs, speeding bullets, they are all equal opportunity offenders. They have no way of knowing whether it's a good person or a bad person in their path. In fact, there's a passage in the Talmud [Jewish scripture] that says that God's justice would demand that certain things not happen, but nature is not just and those things happen.

Basically, if you believe there is any power or force or thing in the universe that can—at times—thwart God’s will, then you believe in a form of dualism.

There is another bad answer being proposed by serious Christians, and it’s a bit more complicated. It’s called Open Theism, and essentially it says that God cannot perfectly know the future. There is a sense, this view says, in which God Himself is bound by time and so the future is in some ways undetermined—or open--for Him just as it is for us. Since God has granted free will to us, His creatures, it is possible for us to make choices that surprise God and lead to suffering that God would not have chosen for us if He could have foreseen it or had He forced us to choose differently.

As I said, this view is complicated and involves a great deal of philosophical thinking. I’m not able to do it full justice today. But it is a view that is held by some serious Christians. In fact, last week I quoted Greg Boyd’s book Letters from a Skeptic. I agree with him in his understanding of God’s suffering and with his answers to most of his father’s questions. But on this issue—the question of whether or not God knows the future—I disagree with him. He believes the future is open for God. I do not.

Both dualism and open theism then are examples of what David Bast calls “the weak God theory.” Basically, it’s the belief that says that if God could prevent suffering He surely would, or it would make Him a monster. And since suffering still exists, and since it is impossible to believe God is a monster, we must conclude that He is not strong enough to stop it.

In Response
So what do we say in response to these attempts to solve the problem of evil? There are at least three problems with these answers.

First, there is no guarantee. If you believe that God is weak, then you really have no guarantee that things will ever get better. Now, remember, we’re talking about answers given by people who want to preserve faith in God. These are people that want to believe God exists, that He is doing the best He can, and that good is going to triumph in the end. That’s sort of the point of believing in God, right? If you’re an atheist, you don’t believe there is a God at all, so you just have to accept that nobody knows how things are going to turn out.

But these are people who want to believe that God is still at work, that He exists, and that He is moving us toward a better future. And yet, if you don’t believe that God is in control of everything, then you have to admit that there is at least a chance that evil will have the final say. At that point, you have to wonder, why believe in God at all?

Which leads to a second problem: there is no comfort. If you believe that God is weak, then there is really no comfort to be had from God. There’s little that God can do to help us. He may be able to give us some sympathy, He may even groan along with us: but there’s no certainty that He can help, either now or in the future. Maybe in your particular case of suffering, evil is stronger than God, and there is nothing God can do.

That’s not much comfort. I quote John Piper quite often. He’s a pastor up in Minneapolis. I read this week a story I didn’t know. Piper’s mother died in a freak accident while on tour of the Holy Land. A lumber truck lost its load just as it was passing the tour bus, and a board smashed through the bus window, killing Piper’s mother instantly. Did God permit the accident to occur? Was He in control in that place, at that moment? In the midst of grief and desolation, Piper nevertheless concluded that yes, God was ruling then and there. “I take little comfort,” he said, “in a God who cannot control a two-by-four.” (story related in Bast, p. 32)

Belief in an omnipotent God brings with it all sorts of questions about why drunk drivers take innocent lives and why 3-year-olds get exceptionally rare and fatal diseases and why freak accidents occur—questions that we cannot always satisfactorily answer—but with Piper I take little comfort in a God who cannot control such things.

And then, third, and probably the most significant problem with the weak God theory: it’s not Biblical. This view of God simply does not square with the way the Bible describes God.

I Have Heard
Which brings us at last to our scripture passage. We’ve been looking at the little book of Habakkuk for this series. Habakkuk was a prophet at a period of time when Judah was straying from God. So Habakkuk asked God how long He was going to let the wickedness go on. God answered by saying He was sending in the Babylonians, who were basically going to annihilate the country. Habakkuk wasn’t sure he liked that solution, so he asked God how that was fair. God answered by calling Habakkuk to live by faith.

And then, skipping over the second half of chapter 2, which promises future woes for the Babylonians, God gives Habakkuk a picture of Himself. It’s what theologians call a theophany—a physical description of God. Theophany. God appearing. And the point of this showing up in Habakkuk—it seems to me—is to assure us that God is in control.

Let’s read it:

3 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.
2 LORD, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD.
Renew them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.
3 God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
4 His splendor was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden.
5 Plague went before him;
pestilence followed his steps.
6 He stood, and shook the earth;
he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled
and the age-old hills collapsed.
His ways are eternal.
7 I saw the tents of Cushan in distress,
the dwellings of Midian in anguish.
8 Were you angry with the rivers, O LORD?
Was your wrath against the streams?
Did you rage against the sea
when you rode with your horses
and your victorious chariots?
9 You uncovered your bow,
you called for many arrows.
You split the earth with rivers;
10 the mountains saw you and writhed.
Torrents of water swept by;
the deep roared
and lifted its waves on high.
11 Sun and moon stood still in the heavens
at the glint of your flying arrows,
at the lightning of your flashing spear.
12 In wrath you strode through the earth
and in anger you threshed the nations.
13 You came out to deliver your people,
to save your anointed one.
You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness,
you stripped him from head to foot.
14 With his own spear you pierced his head
when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,
gloating as though about to devour
the wretched who were in hiding.
15 You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the great waters.

Now, there’s a lot of poetic imagery in there, and a lot of obscure place name references. It might not all make sense on your first reading. But let me ask you this: does that sound like a description of a weak God? No. No, I don’t think it does.

I’m not going to be able to go through this verse by verse, but let me point out a couple of things here:

For one thing, this is a picture of God working in history. A God of facts. Much of the imagery here is drawn from the story of the Exodus. So when verse 3, for example, talks about Teman and Mount Paran, those are actually old, stylized names for Mt. Sinai—where God spoke to Moses from a thundering cloud and gave the 10 commandments. When verse 5 talks about plague and pestilence, that’s a reminder of the 10 mighty plagues that God used to humble Pharaoh and demonstrate that He is LORD. And when verse 8 talks about God being angry with the rivers or raging against the sea, it’s a reference to the way the Israelites left Egypt through the Red Sea and entered the Promised Land through the flooded Jordan.

The point is: God has demonstrated His sovereign control over creation and history decisively and demonstrably in the past. God’s omnipotence isn’t just a nice theological concept to be debated over hot coffee—it’s based on facts. God has done awesome things. They have literally happened.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says about this:

The God in whom I believe is the God who could and did divide the Red Sea and the river Jordan. In reminding himself and us of these things, Habakkuk is not just comforting himself by playing with ideas; he is speaking of the things that God has actually done. The Christian faith is solidly based upon facts, not ideas. And if the facts recorded in the Bible are not true, then I have no hope and no comfort. For we are not saved by ideas; but by facts, by events. (quoted by Walter Kaiser, Mastering the Old Testament, p. 186).

And another thing I want to point out from the text is the sheer power in the description of God here. This is not a tame picture of God. So, for example, verse 6 describes the nations trembling like little dogs before Him and mountains and hills collapsing at his approach like wax before a flame. The picture I get is sort of like when a helicopter lands and everything just gets flattened in the wash of its rotors, only on a much bigger scale.

Or, again, verses 9 and 10. Mountains are writhing in terror and the oceans are roaring. This like when you walk into the bird sanctuary at the zoo, and all these birds start squawking and flying to get away from you. Only here, it’s not birds running away from humans, but some of the biggest features in creation squirming to get away from God.

Or, look at verses 12-13. This is a picture of God as a warrior—think Russell Crowe in Gladiator or Mel Gibson in Braveheart—this is God with bulging biceps and a giant bow and spear and sword striding across the battlefield and simply obliterating anyone who gets in His way. This is a picture of God who cannot be challenged, who is defeated by no one, and always sees His will done.

As I said, this is not a picture of a tame God. Too often, it seems to me, people like Rabbi Kushner and others want a soft and cuddly God, a teddy bear God, that will hug us and hold us and tell us that we are good people—a God that we can understand and explain. A God that makes sense to us.

But the Bible does not present us with a God like that. God in the Bible is big and wild and powerful and mysterious. He is not easy to explain, not easy to contain. But He is definitely a God who is in control.

Time for Silence
One more verse. It’s the last verse of chapter 2, one of the most famous verses in Habakkuk, and the most profound statement about God’s control. Habakkuk 2:20:

20 But the LORD is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.

Essentially, Habakkuk is using the temple as a metaphor for creation, and he’s saying that God is here. God is present. Like in Isaiah’s theophany in Isaiah 6, God is seated on the throne and He is high and lifted up.

And the only proper response to this vision of God is reverent silence before Him. At some point, all of our questions and complaints, all of our attempts to make sense of the universe and suggest how God could do a better job of running things, all of our explanations of God, need to be silenced in favor of humble submission to the One who runs the universe.

David Bast writes:

Believing in God does not answer all the questions raised by the tragedies of life or end all of our struggles with doubt and fear. But it can cause us finally, at some point, to put an end to our cries and complaints and fall silent before God in trusting faith. “Let us learn,” said Calvin, “to glorify God by our silence.” (p. 102)

It’s interesting to me that the book of Habakkuk ends in much the same way as the book of Job. Job, you probably know, is a much longer and more complicated look at the problem of suffering. After Job’s crops and livestock and property are destroyed, and after his children are killed in a freak storm, and after his own body is wracked by disease and sores, Job does a lot of questioning of God.

His situation is made worse by a wife who tells him to just curse God and die and comforters who provide little comfort. His friends essentially tell him that all his suffering is his own fault. When he insists it is not, there is a whole lot of back and forth, and more questioning of God.

Finally, at the end, not unlike in Habakkuk, God shows up. And when He shows up, it’s not to answer Job’s questions, but to talk about Himself. He presents a picture of Himself as the God who created the universe: the God who is there when mountain goats give birth and when the hailstones are formed; the God who created the leviathan of the deep and the crocodile of the swamp; the God who put the stars in the sky and calls them by name.

God’s answer to all of Job’s questioning, just as it is to Habakkuk (and just as it is to us) is to say: I am in control. I am sovereign. I am seated on the throne.

And Job’s response to all this is to say:

I know that you can do all things;
No plan of yours can be thwarted…
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me know. (Job 42:2-3)

As Habakkuk 2:20 says, sometimes the only proper response to God is silence.

God is in control. He is definitely in control. That may not answer all our questions. It might not help everything to make sense to us.

But as Habakkuk and Job both demonstrate, knowing that God reigns should be enough.