Theology and Control

A friend, struggling with making a wise decision about a career move, told me recently, “The other day I prayed that I wish God had made me a robot so He could just tell me what to do and I could obey. Then I’d feel secure.” This made me reflect on the issue of control, and God’s dealings with it.

Historically, control in the sense my friend was talking about has not been a good thing. I’m not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, but it seems that God did not make us to be controlled beings and therefore we don’t flourish under a controlling system. When governments have been controlling–systems like communism, the radical Popes, or the Caesars have been in place–man has been tyrannized. Communist Russia under Stalin is perhaps the most extreme example, where the goal really was a robotic-like and supreme control of man, and a death toll of 15 million was the result. For more on this psychology, read Orwell’s “1984.”

Even control in the looser sense, when coupled with government, has caused revolution. The popes implicitly caused Luther’s Reformation, the English monarchs caused the Americans’, and Napoleon caused the string of wars which ravaged the 1800s. While Catholocism historically preserved empires, Reformation Christianity fostered republicanism. And while philosophical conservatism preserves authority structures, liberalism has always aimed at them. So it is worth reflecting on the principles of freedom, control, and Christianity.

When God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He gave them free will to obey or disobey. Calvinists and Arminians disagree over the issue of foreordination, but a plain reading of the Scriptures indicates that Adam and Eve did have liberty to decide to obey God or not: God did not create a controlling structure where Adam and Eve were commanded or manipulated to behave each moment; He simply laid out one restriction and let them go. God even walked with Adam in the cool of the day, and there is a general atmosphere of peace and freedom as we read the early accounts.

Then, after the Fall, we see subsequent generations continuing to use their freedom for evil. Cain had the freedom to murder Abel, the men before Noah had the freedom to fill the earth with violence, Canaan had the freedom to lead a race astray, Nimrod had the freedom to build the tower of Babel, and on and on. Finally God stepped in the picture and “took control” starting with Abraham, where He called someone to Himself and began consecrating a whole race of people who would follow Him by law, circumstances, and whatever other external or governing means it took. But, as we note carefully, even Abraham and the Jews had ultimate freedom to decide to obey God or not (that is why Hebrews 11 called all the OT figures it names as doing their works “by faith”.) While God revealed Himself more fully to the Jews and literally commanded them what to do–He instituted a more controlling form of relationships–He never physically controlled or manipulated them to obey but allowed them to suffer the punishments of disobedience (i.e. the same basic relationship He had with Adam and Eve).

In the NT, God lessens His control even more. He sends Jesus, who preaches firmly, but never makes anyone accept Him. He shows the way but gives His disciples, Nicodemus, Cornelius, Zaccheus, the rich young ruler, and even Pilate a chance to make their own choice. He sends us the Holy Spirit to operate from within believers, and allows Paul to teach and administrate with a restored atmosphere of freedom because He knows the Holy Spirit is in him. Paul doesn’t wait for clouds and pillars of fire but simply goes and says the Lord hindered him three times from entering a particular city when it wasn’t His will. The original “walking with Adam in the cool of the day” atmosphere returns.

And so we conclude that today, God has still chosen to guide us from within rather from without. It is not that He never sends circumstances or voices to guide us–because He surely does–but we are not to be robots, as I sadly reminded my friend. God is a God of self-government, responsibility, and accountability. He gives us principles and firmly endorses them, and then lets us go, even as He did with Adam. And so the danger of living in a system without control–whether on a personal level with our God or an institutional level with our government–is that we still choose whether to obey or disobey… and others do too. This means that evil can happen. Rape, murder, theft, and sin can abound. Or peace and liberty can. The blessings of owning a business, having the freedom to shop, enjoying a picnic on the commons, choosing to pursue a degree (or not), and many other things are the product of a government which allows liberty. We must weigh these things carefully when we say we’d rather have more control so we could feel more secure.

Some controls seem good: welfare, Social Security, pensions, and other institutional provisions seem like a safety net should something bad happen to us. And there are valid arguments in these areas as well as others that should be carefully considered. But the principles of God’s nature and Word show us even more clearly that no system which robs man of his essentially responsibility and accountability for his own life can be godly. Any system or philosophy which allows someone else to be responsible for our decision-making (even one that looks to God or worse, blames Him, for circumstances) is moving away from the direction God intends His children to have/enjoy. Certainly having responsibility is more difficult, but in the end it only leads to more blessing. Let us keep the original vision of Adam and Eve, freely with their God in the Garden, as our model and not allow cheap substitutes which play on our fears or lusts to sneak a place in our hearts.

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