A man came into my office to speak with me about difficulties he was having with concentration. He was also struggling with anxiety and suffering from insomnia. After a brief conversation, I asked him if he took any solace in faith or spirituality.
His demeanor changed instantly. His face started to flush. With an angry voice, he said, “Screw God! God allowed my wife to die in a car accident. I am left with three kids, barely having enough money to pay my bills, and I am at my wits’ end. I am tired of people telling me, ‘God has a plan. God allowed your suffering to happen for a reason.’ As far as I am concerned, I want nothing to do with God.”
As a pastor and therapist, my heart sank. I felt sad. This precious man, who was broken and grieving, could not turn to a loving, compassionate God for comfort. One of the main reasons for his inability to find comfort in God was because of his view of God, especially as it related to his wife’s passing.
Two words stuck out to me in this man’s view of God. I heard them all the time from people who experienced trauma and who were angry at God. They were the words: “God allowed.”
The way we talk about God matters. I have recently concluded that saying “God allowed,” in regard to evil and suffering, is a terrible theological phrase. While it has the potential to ease some anxious Christian hearts, for others, it often erodes trust in a profoundly loving and trustworthy God.
Deconstructing “God Allowed”
Saying “God allowed,” in reference to evil or tragic events, such as the man’s wife dying in a car accident, is a poisonous phrase to the sensitive, God-seeking, and traumatized soul. It distorts the beautiful and loving character of God by making God out to be the One who is responsible for evil and tragedy.
The phrase also presents God as One who shows favorites and is cold and monstrous. It makes Him out to be a voyeur who occasionally jumps into time, willfully intervening in some people’s lives to save them from harm, and choosing not to intervene in others. Where God doesn’t intervene, the phrase suggests He is intentionally consenting to and permitting each individual horrific or tragic event to occur.
Imagine, for example, what it must be like for God to watch a psychopath begin to rape a helpless woman. The God most people believe in must say, “I planned this before the foundation of the world. I know I could stop this, but I am going to allow it to happen.” Although all-powerful, this God just watches and does nothing to stop the rape.
In another moment, God watches another psychopath begin to rape another helpless woman. But this time, God says, “I also planned this before the foundation of the world. But in this case, I will intervene and stop this man.” Perhaps God intervened by causing a neighbor to stop by the victim’s house. The perpetrator heard the neighbor, became startled, and darted out the door.
I am among many people who are aghast at the God who allows some instances of evil but prevents others. The God most people believe in, which is illustrated in the rape event, is 1) in control of everything that happens in the world, 2) powerful enough to stop any evil act from happening but often doesn’t (which is unthinkable), and 3) preordains these evils as part of some master plan.
Is this the kind of God and God-story we want to tell people when they are suffering? Is the kind of God who has the power to stop evil from occurring, but chooses not to, really a loving, gracious, compassionate God?
Let’s return to the rape example. If God “allowed” the rape, He must have also been able to take His big metaphysical index finger and flick the rapist away. Or God could have acted like Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past by manipulating objects or people at the speed of light to keep the rape victim from harm. God could have but chose not to.
But God doesn’t flex his metaphysical muscles in this way often enough. It is not because He has the power to do so but intentionally permits and consents to the traumatic or evil act to occur. It is not as if He could have done otherwise but willfully decided not to. God doesn’t unilaterally intervene, stopping every evil or traumatic event from occurring, because He is uncontrolling love.
God Is Not In Control
Contrary to popular belief, God cannot do some things. God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18); He cannot be tempted (James 1:13); He can’t be prejudiced (Acts 10:34-35); He cannot sin (Deuteronomy 32:4); He cannot get tired (Isaiah 40:28), and He cannot unilaterally control people and events.
In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord offers this comparison: “Mermaids cannot run marathons because a mermaid’s nature includes leglessness. [Analogously], God cannot create controllable creatures because God’s nature is uncontrolling love” (p.148).
While it is true that mermaids do not exist, the idea here is that God cannot unilaterally control events, because His loving nature is uncontrolling. God cannot control people and events in the world, and His agency competes with other variables, such as randomness, creaturely agency, and law-like regularities.
In regard to the man’s wife sudden passing due to a car accident, it is not that God did not want to stop the accident from occurring. I believe God did would have wanted the woman to live and be in good health. But God simply could not unilaterally control the people and lawlike regularities involved in that horrific event, thus being unable to stop it from occurring.
The point is this: If God’s love is uncontrolling, we should not say God allows evil or horrific events to occur. Instead, we should say it is impossible for God to control people and events. And this uncontrolling influence enables free creatures, randomness, and law-like regularities (e.g. gravity, weather systems, etc.) that sometimes run amok.
Simply, evil and traumatic events occur precisely because a loving and uncontrolling God does not control all things.
God Is Controlling (Just Not Like We Think)
Just because God is not in unilateral control does not mean He is passive. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “control” can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”
I suggest that God can lovingly influence us by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us, toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom. God exerts this kind of “control.”
God is a Spirit, and God is love. He always does the most loving acts possible in every moment, in every nook and cranny of existence. Furthermore, God can be one-hundred percent trusted, because He would never purposely or maliciously harm any person, especially for some grand Machiavellian purpose.
What I’m suggesting may seem a grand revelation. But it becomes believable without the cognitive dissonance-producing phrase “God allowed” so typical of Christian responses to evil.
A Few Words for Moving Forward
Permit me to make a request to my fellow Christians.
Would you please stop saying things like, “God allowed your husband to die in that car accident”? Could you stop attempting to cheer up traumatized parents by saying, “God allowed your baby to die as part of a plan?”
I propose that we stop using the phrase “God allowed.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused, or worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allowed” could remove an unnecessary obstacle that prevents many from having a loving connection with their Creator. Sit with them, listen to them, weep with them, but get rid of that distancing and dusty old phrase.
Permit me also to say a word to spiritual seekers.
I get it. I also wouldn’t want to love a God who allows some evils and prevents others. But I hope my comments in this essay will prompt you to rethink what God does.
When you think about the abuse, pain, suffering, or flat out evil in your life, you don’t have to believe God allowed or caused it. Often, other people with free will cause evil. Sometimes, evil occurs as an unfortunate random event. Other times, we suffer because of our own unwise choices.
After some reflection, I hope you will come to believe in a freedom-giving, uncontrolling God. God would never will evil and trauma in your life. This loving God seeks only what is good for you to grow, flourish, and live to your fullest potential.
Karris, Mark. (2017). “Rethinking the Phrase “God Allowed,”” In Uncontrolling Love: Exploring the Uncontrolling Love of God , Baker, C., Coffin, G., Durey, Craig., Kirksey, G., Michaels, L., Ward, D. F. (Eds.), (SacraSage Press).