Many of you may be familiar with the new movie titled The Shack, which is based upon William Paul Young’s novel of the same name. Depending on what circles you run in, you may have heard this described as a great Christian film, or alternatively as a terrible piece of heresy. The extreme popularity of Young’s novel (20 million copies and counting) has caused many Christian leaders to address the theology contained therein, and they have found several topics of concern. However, those who defend the novel typically fall back on the fact that it is, after all, a piece of fiction and not a theological textbook. Some have even argued that Young’s true beliefs are rather ambiguous.
Well, with the release of the film now upon us, Mr. Young has done us all a favor and released a non-fiction book (though given its contents, some may still wish to classify it as fiction). This one is called Lies We Believe About God, and it has rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. Within its pages, the author gives us a series of statements that are often made by people in the Church and tells us why he believes each one of them is wrong. Tim Challies has already written an excellent article looking at several of the more troublesome claims made in the book, but for my purposes I wanted to examine just one of the statements that Young says is a lie: “God is in control.”
Now, if you hold to anything like orthodox Christianity, the fact that this is described as a “lie” ought to set off alarm bells in your head. However, you might be thinking, “We need to actually hear his explanation before we make a judgment one way or the other.” I fully agree with you, which is why I got my hands on a copy of the book and read the chapter in question.
When Young uses the phrase “God is in control”, he is thinking in terms of the suffering that takes place in the universe. The problem of why “bad” things happen to “good” people is as old as dirt itself, so I don’t fault the author for wrestling with this. Let’s see what he has to say on the issue.
Do we actually believe we honor God by declaring God the author of all this mess in the name of Sovereignty and Omnipotent Control? Some religious people – and Christians are often among their ranks – believe in grim determinism, which is fatalism with personality. Whatever will be, will be. It happened. And since God is in charge, it must be part of God’s plan. There is an impassable chasm (except perhaps in our darkened imaginations) between a God who takes ownership for the Creation along with the havoc we have produced, and One who authors the evil itself. The first you might learn to trust, the latter…twisted lip service at best.
Already, I am seeing a greater degree of ambiguity in Young’s use of terms than I would prefer. His meaning seems to be this: if you say that everything is part of God’s plan, then that makes Him the author of evil. However, it must be stated that even those who hold a high view of God’s sovereignty typically note a difference between what God purposes by sovereign decree and what he allows human beings to do according to our own sinful lusts. There is a more sophisticated argument to be made questioning whether God’s very choice to allow mankind to fall into sin was in effect creating evil, because He conceivably could have stopped it. Young is making no effort to engage on that level, and simply classes it all as “grim determinism”. As we go on, we see that Young is less concerned with the question of who God chooses to save and who He chooses not to save. He is focused on events that take place in our earthly lives.
How often have we heard the well-intentioned words, ‘It must be part of God’s plan’? Really? Might it be that many things are simply wrong? There is no justification for much of what we have brought to the table, what has been done to us, and what we participate in ourselves. It is wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! [emphasis in original]
At this point, I am tempted to make some comment to the effect that repeating the same word five times in a row is more appropriate for an e-mail or Twitter post than a thoughtful piece of theological literature, but perhaps I should really be asking why Young feels the need to use that word “wrong” so many times, place it in italics, and follow it with exclamation points. There is something very wrong, Young argues, with things that are wrong. However, the word “wrong” is actually rather subjective. What seems wrong to one person may seem entirely right to another. It is unclear if Young uses the word “wrong” to mean what Christians typically mean by “sin”. Rather, he might simply be referring to things that he doesn’t like, and which he assumes we would not like. Well, let’s continue…
Does God have a wonderful plan for our lives? Does God sit and draw up a perfect will for you and me on some cosmic drafting table, a perfect plan that requires a perfect response? Is God then left to react to our stupidity or deafness or blindness or inability, as we constantly violate perfection through our own presumption? What if this is about a God who has a greater respect for you than for ‘the plan’? What if there is no ‘plan’ for your life but rather a relationship in which God constantly invites us to co-create, respectfully submitting to the choices we bring to the table? And what if this God, who is Love, will never be satisfied until only that which is of Love’s kind remains in us?
Here we see what is really troubling Young. He views God’s plan not as a source of comfort but as a negative imposition of authority in violation of human rights. This doctrine of God is not about God at all, but about man. We are not required to respect God’s plan: rather, He respects our wishes. We are not required to submit to God’s authority: rather, He submits to us. Gone is the Creator/creature distinction. Gone is God’s foreknowledge, for it is hard to see how Young could make such claims if He believed that God knew what was going to happen in advance. The point of history is no longer the glory of God. It is all about the glory and comfort of man. But Young has more to say…
I don’t believe that the word control, in the sense of deterministic power, is part of God’s vocabulary. We invented the idea as part of our need to dominate and maintain the myth of certainty. There is no sense of control in the relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God chose to create humans – a high order of being who could say ‘no’ – we were created inside the same love and relationship that has always existed. Control does not originate in God, but submission does. Domination does not find its source in God, but other-centered, self-giving love does.
I realize now that I must look back with fondness on that debate that occurred last year within certain circles about the exact nature of the Trinity and whether or not the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father. At least in that case, everyone agreed that God does not submit to us! There is no real difference in Young’s description between the divine and the human, except that the divine presumably came first. No one is exercising control over anyone. Control, in Young’s opinion, is completely antithetical to love.
Young is viewing the issue of God’s sovereignty as so many of us do: through the lens of human suffering. He is hoping to spare God the blame for any of the bad things that happen to us. He wants to portray God as completely loving in the sense of not being at all controlling or wrathful. He finds greater comfort in believing that God is not in control than that He is in control. I think that is a fair assessment of Young’s argument. I must note at this point that not once in the entire chapter did Young appeal to any authority to back up his claims: not the Bible, not a theologian, and not even some kind of pop culture philosopher. We are left to conclude that he simply believes this because he feels it is right, right, right, right, right!
Now, let’s consider what another bestselling book has to say about this issue…one that was published way back in 1682.
The Tale of Mary Rowlandson
In 1675, the town of Lancaster in the Massachusetts Bay Colony came under attack by Native Americans during the conflict known as King Philip’s War. Mary Rowlandson was a resident of that town, the wife of a Puritan minister. She was taken captive along with her three children, while many other settlers were killed. She spent a total of 11 weeks and 5 days moving from place to place with her captors. After she was eventually freed for the sum of twenty pounds, she ended up writing down her story, which belongs to the genre known as a “captivity narrative”. The book was very popular in colonial New England.
How Rowlandson’s assessment of suffering differs from that of Mr. Young will become apparent merely from reading the title of her book: The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Throughout her story, Rowlandson attributes absolutely everything to God’s providence, either in terms of his active working or simply allowing something to happen. This extends even to things that we might consider mundane.
“We had six stout dogs belonging to our garrison,” she writes of the day of the attack, “But none of them would stir, though another time, if any Indian had come to the door, they were ready to fly upon him and tear him down. The Lord hereby would make us the more acknowledge His hand, and to see that our help is always in Him.”
When she sees so many lying dead and wounded as she is dragged away into captivity, she quotes a line from Psalm 46:8: “Come, behold the work of the Lord, what desolations he has made in the earth.” (King James Version) Elsewhere, she quotes from Amos 3:6, which reads, “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (KJV) Yet, for the most part, Rowlandson focuses not on those who were allowed to die, but rather the goodness shown by the Lord in preserving those who survived.
It is a solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; yet the Lord by His almighty power preserved a number of us from death, for there were twenty-four of us taken alive and carried captive.
Rowlandson states that, “The Lord renewed my strength still, and carried me along, that I might see more of His power; yea, so much that I could never have thought of, had I not experienced it.” She portrays God as sovereign over life and death – happiness and despair. When we read of her youngest child passing away, the pain is clearly intense. “I cannot but take notice how at another time I could not bear to be in the room where any dead person was, but now the case is changed,” she writes. “I must and could lie down by my dead babe, side by side all the night after.” Yet, even in this anguish she submits herself to the will of the Lord. “There I left my child in the wilderness, and must commit it, and myself also in this wilderness condition, to Him who is above all. God having taken away this dear child…”
For Rowlandson, there is no question that God is in control over both what she believes to be “wrong” and “right”. While her captors are the active agents of her misery, being responsible among other things for the injury that killed her daughter, she does believe that God allowed that to happen and that it was part of His plan. Yes, He has a plan, and that plan is a source of comfort to Rowlandson throughout her ordeal.
Also of great comfort to Rowlandson was something that is not apparently so beloved to Mr. Young: God’s inspired Word. After she had been in captivity for a few days, she notes that one of the Native Americans came into possession of a Bible as a result of another raid and ended up offering it to her. From that point on, Rowlandson reads the scriptures at every possible opportunity, seeking out divine comfort within those pages. Here we are able to gain an appreciation for her degree of scriptural literacy, for she goes not only to those tried and true tidbits that pop up in greeting cards and Instagram photos, but rather she soaks up the full counsel of scripture, treasuring the words of God as found in the Pentateuch, the wisdom literature, and the prophets in addition to the New Testament.
It is telling that during this intense trial, Rowlandson was never searching for a miraculous sign from above, but always looking in her Bible, which she called “my guide by day, and my pillow by night”. This was true even when the scriptures did not immediately provide her with the kind of comfort that she sought.
I asked them to let me go out and pick up some sticks, that I might get alone, and pour out my heart unto the Lord. Then also I took my Bible to read, but I found no comfort here neither, which many times I was wont to find. So easy a thing it is with God to dry up the streams of Scripture comfort from us. Yet I can say, that in all my sorrows and afflictions, God did not leave me to have my impatience work towards Himself, as if His ways were unrighteous. But I knew that He laid upon me less than I deserved. Afterward, before this doleful time ended with me, I was turning the leaves of my Bible, and the Lord brought to me some Scriptures, which did a little revive me…
This passage is notable for two reasons. First, it shows Rowlandson’s absolute persistence in reading scripture, even when it did not give her the kind of quick fix for which she longed. When comfort was not immediately forthcoming, she did not simply say, “Forget this. I’ll go elsewhere.” She kept on reading, and eventually she did receive the comfort that she desired as the Spirit led her further into what the Bible had to say.
The second thing to note in this paragraph is Rowlandson’s assessment that despite all her “sorrows and afflictions”, God’s ways were by no means “unrighteous”. “I knew that He laid upon me less than I deserved,” she writes. Here we have a complete reversal of Young’s point of view. Rowlandson does not believe that God owes her anything, but that she owes God everything. Therefore, when bad things happen, it is because of the sin that human beings bring into the world and perpetuate day by day. When good things happen, it is because of God’s mercy and grace. The Creator/creature distinction is central to Rowlandson’s view of the world.
“Blessed be the Lord for it,” Rowlandson concludes, “For great is His power, and He can do whatsoever seemeth Him good.”
A Question of Comfort
The differing accounts of William Paul Young and Mary Rowlandson, separated by nearly three and a half centuries, formed an interesting contrast in my mind when I came across them both in quick succession. The more I see of the world, the more I become convinced that when people complain about God’s “fairness”, they either do not understand the concept of sin, or in all likelihood what they are really getting at is their own personal comfort level. God is extremely fair when it comes to punishing sin. Because He is also loving and gracious, He does not wipe out every sinner immediately, and He became incarnate in human flesh to take upon Himself the penalty for the sins of all who would believe. But there is no sin in the history of the world that simply gets written off, and I would submit that this is actually quite fair.
However, human beings are notoriously self-obsessed. We want God to protect us from all the effects of sin in this world. We hate suffering and pain, and as a result, we want Him to orchestrate events in a way that does not include any such thing…at least not for the “good” people. This is a human-centric view of history rather than one that seeks the ultimate glory of God. Therefore, what God offends is not so much our sense of fairness, but our sense of comfort.
Young wants nothing to do with a God who is in control but doesn’t ensure our continual comfort. I would suggest that this is because he has a very skewed notion of what true “comfort” really is: one that is based entirely on this life and not the one to come. Consider the famous words of the Heidelberg Catechism.
- Q. What is your only comfort in life and death? A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
This is a very different version of comfort than what Young offers to us. He portrays God’s control as something that can only be negative, but here we see how it is actually very positive. It is because of God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge that we have assurance of salvation, that we know there is a redemptive purpose to history, and that we may have confidence in the face of evil. We “belong with body and soul” not to a harsh taskmaster, but to a “faithful Savior”.
Yes, it is true, this vision of God’s sovereignty does not put human beings in the driver’s seat. It requires us to acknowledge divine authority, but it does so for our own good. If God is the best that there is and the only truly good thing out there, then is He really being kind to us if He gives us less of Himself by ceding control? If He is the only one with perfect knowledge, is He really loving if He lets our flawed human knowledge determine His plan, or if He simply allows the universe to operate in a haphazard manner? It is not a bad thing to be under authority when that authority is perfect beyond compare and more capable of bringing about our good than we could ever be. It is the perfection of God’s character that makes His authority so much different than the authority of any human being.
Writing all of this, I think back to the time in my life when I was experiencing my deepest despair. I was not dying, but I was very much in the valley of the shadow of death. I remember praying to God in a way I had not prayed to Him before, and declaring rather boldly from that dark place, “If you are not here, then you are not God!” My very mind was chaos. I didn’t want more chaos! I didn’t want a wimpy God! I wanted a God so big, so powerful, so utterly sovereign that not a hair would fall from my head without his say-so, and every bit of my suffering was ordained for some purpose, even as every bit of my suffering had already been redeemed through the finished work of Jesus Christ.
At that time, I’m not sure I could have even put into words all the theological ramifications of this need for a sovereign God. As I grew older, I have come to see more and more the depths of God’s providence. What I knew in the midst of that trial was simply that I needed a God who was in control: an unmoved Mover, an omnipotent Lord, an omnipresent Savior. I needed a rock to cling to, not an evolving relationship where nothing was certain. If I wanted uncertainty, I could find it within myself or my fellow humans, but God must be something more, or He is not God.
Whatever qualms we might have about the “fairness” of God’s sovereignty, there is really no getting around it without denying that God exists or making Him into such a flimsy character that He bears no resemblance to the God of the Bible. I honestly believe that the alternative of an impotent God is far more terrifying and more likely to lead to “unfairness”, for there must be someone in control if we are to be called to account.
Young is not wrong to suggest that God comforts us when we suffer, but that comfort is of a rather different kind than he envisions. The Apostle Paul tells us that there is a “fellowship of His sufferings” (that is, Christ’s sufferings) in which we partake as Christians, and that by His death, we may “attain to the resurrection from the dead”. (Philippians 3:10-11) But these blessings are predicated on the historical facts of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death, which only take on their full significance when we realize the true sovereignty of God. For Paul also tells us a few verses earlier that although Christ “existed in the form of God”, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant”, and that He became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”. (Philippians 2:6-8)
If we fail to realize the height of Christ’s divine glory, we fail to appreciate the measure of His sacrifice. If we fail to grasp the depths of our own depravity or question God’s control over the universe, then His sovereign decision to save us for no merit of our own is cheapened. It is the sovereignty of God that makes salvation possible and provides our only true comfort in life and death. That is what Young gets wrong and Rowlandson gets right. If only the bestsellers of today were so clear sighted!
Alas, I fear the false gospel put forward by Young will not even ultimately succeed in its goal to make hurting people feel better. I truly hope that, in time, he will come to realize that the solution he offers is no solution, and that the biggest lies about God are the ones he tells to himself…and his readers.
One Final Note…
You may be wondering how I can accuse Mr. Young of not referring to scripture when I myself provide few such references. This is simply due to the fact that were I to start quoting all the Bible verses that say God is in control, this post would be a hundred times longer than it is already. The whole book makes the case for God’s deterministic capability, from “‘Let there be light’; and there was light,” (Genesis 1:3) to “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12) So I will not quote the entire Bible at Mr. Young, but if anyone is looking for a really great passage that delves into these issues of divine control and comfort, I would recommend Lamentations chapter 3.
Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
 Young, William Paul. Lies We Believe About God. (New York: Atria Books, 2017) All quotes taken from pages 37-42.
 Rowlandson, Mary. Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. All quotes taken from this electronic version.