When God is Not in Control
(This blog is taken from my notes for the 24 Hour Facebook Live event based on the essays in the book Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Uncontrolling Love of God with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord. It is my extended response to my essay, When God is not in Control, which was written in response to my reading of the original book by the same author, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence.)
My video addressed three major areas. The first was background to my story and essay. Then I discussed the importance of understanding God as uncontrolling and how that helped me worked through the problem of good and evil in the world. Finally, I talked about how I came to understand that God is not diminished by being uncontrolling—but instead incredibly powerful as we become the agents of love in our world.
I probably need to start with a bit of background as to how my essay ended up in the book. My connection to the author, Thomas J. Oord is that my son was his student at Northwest Nazarene University. We had communicated about another matter and after reading the book, I wrote him and shared some of my story and how his thoughts had helped me to understand God’s role in my journey. The essay is a very condensed version of what I sent him and includes my personal story. (I tell a great story about this in the video! Available on Facebook at Janyne McConnaughey and other videos at Conversations on the Uncontrolling Love of God.)
A year before I retired from 40 years in education, after teaching all ages from preschool to graduate school and preparing hundreds of teachers for the classroom, God prompted me to begin therapy. I had taken care of so many and it was time for me to heal. Now, three years later I have unraveled and healed my repressed story of sexual abuse, which began at three in a home day care setting and resulted in a cycle of multiple abuses until I was 23.
The part of the story I discuss in the essay involved my desire to end my life at 23. The original book by Thomas J. Oord, found its way into my life right at the point where I had unearthed the repressed memory of the day I almost died—a memory I did not allow myself to remember until two years into therapy.
Reading the book was a turning point in my healing. It was really the first time I had been willing or able to wrestle with the question of God’s role in my story. The understanding of God as uncontrolling in the lives of all humans was crucial to making sense of what happened to me. God gives every human freewill, but some use it for evil.
Tied into this was the sense that I didn’t have choices. My essay describes this. I had slipped off the edge of a cliff and was pulled back up by a man who saw my car skid to a stop and watched me run to the edge.
As I lay on the dirt, I believed God had stopped me from ending my life. I believed the choice was taken from me. I had been taught God was always in control and the only way I could make sense of my life was to believe God allowed the abuse and stopped me from stepping off the cliff. Why would he stop me but not all the others who succeeded in ending their lives? Did he love me more? Was he trying to build character through the trauma I had experienced? Did he have some great purpose I had not yet fulfilled?
The day I realized I had choices was the day I understood God was not a controlling God. He did not control me on the cliff; I chose to turn and live. I chose, but so did all those who hurt me. We all had freewill. I didn’t need to say nonsensical things such as, “God allowed my abuse to build character.” He felt sorrow, he comforted me, and he prompted me to seek help, but I made the choices.
God as the Uncontrolling God of Love
The key to understanding God’s uncontrolling nature is knowing that it is not just that God loves, but God is love—through and through from the beginning and foremost. Everything God does emanates from the essence of Love. God is love. If it isn’t love it isn’t God. It isn’t just a part of God; it is God.
The moment this sank in, I realized all the things that caused me to be angry with God had no part in the God of love. So much of what I had been taught God did, didn’t do, allowed, caused, no longer fit and when I looked at the life Jesus lived among us, it didn’t fit him either. If Jesus could say, “If you have seen me you have seen the father” then why do we insist on so much that wasn’t Jesus?
This God of love was allowing me to make choices every single day. I made a lot of decisions based on what others expected of me and God honored me. It didn’t mean that God forced me to those choices. God also did not allow or cause any of the trauma in my life.
I concluded my essay with the following:
Outside of an understanding of an uncontrolling God there is no potential for truly transcending the human experience of trauma, living life abundantly, and worshipping freely. The God who controls could not be my anchor. But the God who loves me, comforts me, brings me support by prompting the actions of others, and guides my choices most certainly can!
I am not going to delve deeply into the theological implications, but the following quote explains the view on what Thomas J. Oord calls, essential kenosis.
God cannot override, withdraw, or fail to provide the power of freedom, agency, or existence to creation. Consequently, God cannot control creatures or creation. That’s right; I’m saying God can’t control others, not just won’t control. To put it another way, God’s love is essentially uncontrolling.
When I allowed myself to think that I made a choice on that cliff, all the pieces in my head reshuffled. I made a choice to live? God didn’t make me live? The idea that I didn’t die because I chose not to die turned my head inside out. God would have let me die? Yes. Just like God couldn’t stop my abusers. We all had free will.
An Uncontrolling God is not Diminished
When I came to the slightly disturbing realization that God wasn’t in control, it took some time to rethink my conception of God’s role in our lives and world. These are some of my questions I wrestled with:
What does it mean in my life if God isn’t in control?
Have I attributed some things to God that God didn’t cause?
What about miracles? Doesn’t God intervene and heal?
Random awful things can happen in my life simply because it is part of how our world works?
God will never stop human choice?
Is there hope if God is not in control?
What use is God? If God doesn’t intervene, then there is no power?
I can’t address all of these questions and my answers are at on a more personal level, but trust me, the many writers in the book have wrestled with and address these questions. I can only explain my own understanding as I continued to heal.
One of the most profound realizations of my journey was that I wanted God to act like a perfect human who would have protected me by stopping my abusers—maybe tied a millstone around their necks and threw them into the depths. I had to understand God didn’t just love me only, but also loved my abusers. In love, God gave them the same freedom of choice that I was given. Their decision to abuse the choice didn’t change the gift of choice given out of love. God doesn’t stop any choice, be it for good or for evil.
This quote from the introduction to the book of essays is extremely important to understanding the implications: (you will need to read the book to understand the meaning of essential kenosis!)
The God who must love and cannot control others is not morally responsible for failing to prevent evil. The God of essential kenosis can’t prevent evil by acting alone. So God is not to blame. This solution to the problem of evil is not just big for the scholarly community and theology nerds. It’s a big deal for everyday people who wonder why a loving and powerful God doesn’t prevent suffering. According to essential kenosis, God doesn’t even “allow” suffering, because God can’t stop it acting alone. Therefore, God’s not culpable for the genuine evil in our lives.
No, I cannot hold God responsible for the evil that was done to me. When I stopped looking for the humanly powerful ways I wanted God to work, I began to see the true wonder of God. My path to healing was intricately woven through circumstances and human promptings. Even as a child, God prompted me to save things that would eventually help me understand my story. I kept these items with the diligence of one chosen to save the king’s treasures. During my healing God spoke into my pain through nature—with twigs and sticks and ducks in the creek. God’s love, care, and wisdom surrounded my therapist and I in every session—even when I was angry. The evil in the world is not because God isn’t ever present and working for our good, it is because so many are not willing to listen to the God who is always speaking, always prompting.
What could be anymore powerful than a God who has no need to coerce in order to fulfill the purpose of loving each of us? My greatest sadness is not about the pain inflicted on me, but the fact that in those moments my abusers did not hear God imploring them to not hurt me. Whatever the pain that brought them to that choice could have been healed. God’s voice was mingled with my cries as mercy was granted to me through the power of dissociation and repression. God’s care for me was ever evident until everything was finally in place for me to heal—including a book that helped my understand God as uncontrolling.