He Is Here and He is Not Limited: Why God’s Total Control Matters, Especially in Suffering

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A favorite quote of mine came from the late pastor and apologist Francis Schaeffer. Summing two Christian truths he affirmed, “He is there and he is not silent.” God is real—just as real as the phone or computer you're reading this on; and he speaks—he communicates to us in his word. Whether we adhere to these makes or breaks our worldview, feeds or bleeds our faith.

The Priority of Trusting God

In the Bible we're told that God wants us to believe in his existence and to hear from him. But even more pivotal, he desires us to trust him. From Old Testament to New, the emphasis is on faith—knowing, looking to, and depending on God. Christian living is summarized by this one word, 'trust' (or 'faith'): “The righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17).

To trust like this, we must believe God is 1) there, and 2) speaking in his word; but this is not enough. (To be clear, Schaeffer would agree. I am not disagreeing with him in this post.) At least three more affirmations are required.

Two More Affirmations: With Us and Loves Us, But What Else?

To begin, along with believing his reality and speaking in the word, we must also embrace that he's with us and loves us.

  • He's with us. The current church rightly cherishes God’s presence. The fame of Psalm 23 shows us this. The Shepherd is with us, directing us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Jesus concludes his Great Commission, “Behold, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

  • He loves us. Our current church culture also loves emphasizing his love. This is one of the summit realities in the Christian faith (Romans 8:31-39). God loves his people. He loves you personally as a truster in Christ. This unspeakably wonderful truth is a massive biblical theme.

So, 1) God is real, 2) he speaks, 3) he is with us, 4) he loves us.

But as marvelous as these realities are, these are not sufficient alone. To trust him—to rely on him—there must be another fact we believe, one more crucial assertion: He is there and he is never limited.

He Is Not Limited

Without this confidence, daily trust in God can fall flat. We might believe that he exists, speaks in the word, is with us, and loves us. But to daily trust him we need to make this final assertion: He is never limited. We must marvel in the fact that he control us and everything in the world.

Think about how this is required alongside believing in his presence and love: We can believe he is real, speaks, is with us, and loves us, but what if he can't (or couldn't) do anything? Then we can't trust him.

We can subtly start to think that God just watches while everything goes crazy in our lives and the world and then lovingly directs us another way. But in doing so, we lose our ability to trust him. We must believe he's never limited, always acting. He’s either in control of everything, including us, or else he is not totally in control—or else ’s he’s just another player in the world. So, to trust him we acknowledge that God isn't just there and loving during all the hard times, with his hands tied. Rather, he’s always actively involved. He’s the Sovereign One, “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Because of this total control, we can trust.

Trusting Him vs. Trusting Facts About Him

Specifically, because he's always actively involved we can trust him. For without this, we can trust facts about God—that he's real, that he's with us, that he loves us—but we cannot trust him. There is quite a difference between the two. If we don't believe in his unlimited activity, we can find comfort in his loving presence, we can trust that he loves us. But if he isn't actively doing, if he isn't sovereignly in control over everything, we by definition lose the ability to trust him. Why? Because he is limited. We're left with only believing (and trusting) facts about his reality or how he feels about us.

So, in summary, trust involves not just knowing he's real, speaks, loves, is with us, but relying on him daily in our lives. And this means that we must believe that he’s in control and sovereign over every aspect of our lives (Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:17), including even us. Or else, we cannot trust him.

Two Current Streams Limiting God

With that said, it becomes apparent that for us to trust God daily we need to develop a robust trust in his total control. Yet unfortunately, two hurtful streams have fled into Christian culture that are (unwillingly, for the most part) besieging this trust by limiting God.

Stream #1: Limiting God in Moral Therapeutic Deism

The first influx is the increase of moral therapeutic deism, especially in America. Over seventy percent of Americans identify as “Christian,” but when questioned about their faith, they reveal to be moral therapeutic deists (not Christians). Moral—focusing is on being good versus bad; therapeutic—looking for God to make them feel loved and accepted; deism—believing God is the Creator but subtly thinking that God is not involved in every aspect of this world.

In this belief system we lose the ability to trust God. A distant, passive God is implied, and we can’t trust God since he isn’t involved. We might trust that he loves us, but we can't trust him.

In sum, moral therapeutic deism limits God by making him unimportant, distant, and uninvolved. Unfortunately, this belief system is affecting many professing 'Christians.'

Stream #2: Limiting God in the Philosophical Assumption of ‘Free Will’

The second stream which injures our trust in God is the prevalence of ‘free will’ philosophy. (To be clear, this is usually not connected with the first stream. Moral therapeutic deism is generally found in nominal ‘believers.’ Free will theology can subsist in all types—often very devout, genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. But the hurt to our trust can still be substantial.)

When we place onto the Bible the philosophy of human ‘free will’ we immediately limit God. The belief restricts God by necessity because it instantly makes him limited in instances involving 'free' human wills ('free' meaning uninfluenced, indifferent, and/or autonomous). By putting a perimeter around God in this way, we cut the root out of sovereign trust. For could he have done something, or was he limited because he created free wills?

Can we trust him (not just trust that he loves us or is with us) if he wasn't able to do anything?

‘Free Will’ Placed Onto the Bible

This ‘free will’ assertion is something the Bible never once surmises, especially the New Testament apostles. Instead, it is placed in by us because of our philosophical assumption that we must have an autonomous if we are to be responsible. That is the sum of the issue. We think it must exist if we are to be responsible for our choices.

But this is our philosophical assumption; the Bible never says this must be the case. Rather—even surprisingly—in the Bible God is totally, actively in control of a moment, and we as human beings are totally, truly responsible for our actions (e.g. Acts 4:27-28; Genesis 50:20; Philippians 2:12-13). It’s only our philosophical presupposition that supposes we must have an autonomous, uninfluenced 'free will' in order to be held responsible.

Why This Isn't Mainly a Theological Debate, but a Practical Issue

Yet here's the point: Many assume this discussion about 'free will' is just a theological debate. But as we discover how it relates to our trust, we see that it’s certainly not. Our ability to truly trust God is at stake. Daily faith often hangs in the balance over this issue. When difficulty knocks on our door, do we see some part of it coming from ‘free will’ (and thereby outside of God's total, active control)? Or do we assert that he doesn't just use evil, but that he is simultaneously and actively involved in everything (see Genesis 50:20)?

Do we try to rescue the Bible by placing our philosophical assumption of 'free will' on the Bible? Or do we agree with (difficult) Bible statements such as, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6), “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:38), “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7)?

To be sure, the latter option does cause some puzzlement. And for our clarity and good, these confusions have been taken up by many brilliant, godly theologians—see for example Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards. But believing in the totally sovereign God alone is biblical; it alone maintains our ability to trust him in all circumstances. For once again, with 'free will' theology, we can trust precious facts—such as that God loves us, or that he's with us—but we cannot trust him in that moment. We cannot rely on him acting (only 'using') because he's limited due to human 'free will.' 

To trust him daily, we acknowledge ‘free will’ wasn’t tying his hands behind his back when the suffering happened—or that he merely 'foresaw' it and can 'use' it. We instead confidently affirm that he was totally in control and let the situation occur because of his own, good, wise, sovereign purposes. "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28). To work all things for our good, he isn't foreseeing and using our billions of 'free wills'; he instead is the sovereign one over each of the billion of wills (Proverbs 21:1). This is why we can trust him. This is why free will can subtly be a devastating doctrine. Our trust—true, daily trust in God’s activity—is affected.

So in sum, it is good news is that there is no such thing as autonomous, uninfluenced, and/or outside-of-God’s-control ‘free will.’ Acknowledging this is for the good of our trust in him—because he's never limited. He's involved in all things, including our very choices and lives. "From him and to him are all things" (Romans 11:36)—including our decisions. This matters and is no mere theological debate because it affects our lives and daily trust, and “the righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

Lovingly Counteracting These Two Streams

God is there, he is not silent, he's with us, he loves us. But God also cares much about our trust in him. We trust him for our salvation in the gospel, and we also seek to trust him day in and day out, situation by situation. Therefore, for the good of our faith—not for the titillation of theological debate—we'd do well to (lovingly) counteract these two unbiblical streams. We must do so graciously and gently (of which, admittedly, Reformed Christians often fall short), but the repair should still be sought. My trust, your trust, the church’s trust—especially the trust of those in suffering—are all heavily influenced by these belief systems.

When Beliefs Rear their Ugly or Beautiful Heads

What we believe matters, especially when sufferings come. Our beliefs about who God is rear their ugly or beautiful heads when trials arrive.

  • Moral therapeutic deism is ugly. It’s a Watch Maker God who created the world but now is just watching passively, uninvolved in your and my suffering. He doesn’t care.

  • A philosophy of 'free will' is detrimental as well, more than most realize. It assumes a world where the ultimately sovereign players are autonomous (and crooked) people like you and me—not a good, totally in-control-of-wills, sovereign God. God might love and be present, but he is never in (good) unlimited control. He cares, but he can’t always do something about it.

The beautiful and biblical belief is in the God of total, loving control—in the real, communicating, present, loving, and unlimited God. He cares and is in unlimited control of all.

This belief alone rears its beautiful head, especially in the midst of suffering. We’d do well to imitate Job, who heart-wrenchingly yet beautifully declared, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord…Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive disaster?"" (Job 1:21; 2:10). And in case we think Job was wrong in affirming such total control to God, the biblical author twice makes it clear: “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong…In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10).

God is totally good, wise, and in control—even over disaster and our wills. He cares and is always in total control. His total control of course causes some theological puzzlement, but it alone is biblical; it maintains our ability to robustly trust him.

"He Is..." - A Fivefold Affirmation

So, for the sake of our joy and trust, may we uphold all five of these precious truths about our God:

  1. Let’s believe in God’s reality—he is there.

  2. Let’s cling to God's communication—as Schaeffer declared, he is there and he is not silent.

  3. Let’s we adore God's presence—he is there and he is here.

  4. Let’s cherish God's personal love—he is here and he loves me.

  5. Let’s acknowledge he is totally active and in control over all things, even us. For the sake of our robust trust in him, let's confidently assert that he is lovingly unlimited over you, me, and our choices—he is here and he is never limited.