I would like to answer “yes,” emphatically, except, as my favorite Arminian Baptist theologian, Roger Olson, points out over on his blog, the statement “God is in control” gets easily misinterpreted or misunderstood—at least as far as we Arminians are concerned. (Methodists, please remember, are Arminians.)
If you’re a Calvinist, you have no such reservations about saying that God is in control. You mean “control” in the most literal and extreme way possible: everything that happens—down to the movement of the smallest subatomic particle—is foreordained by God for his glory. The Calvinist would say that while God opposes evil and holds human beings accountable for their sin, even sin and evil must play a necessary role, however inscrutable, in bringing about God’s ultimate purposes. Everything that happens, therefore, serves God’s good purposes.
Think of any ghastly, horrifying event in history. As ghastly and horrifying as it seems, God needed it to happen exactly like that in order for history to work out the way God wanted it to. It could be no other way. What you see is what you get, and what you get is good, even if you can’t comprehend how it’s good.
As cacophonous as this extreme view of God’s sovereignty may be to my Wesleyan ears, I can imagine its bringing comfort to people, especially as they go through a personal crisis. In his book, Questions to All Your Answers, Olson shares an encounter he had with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a conservative Presbyterian. Koop spoke spoke for 40 minutes at a college chapel service on the topic “God Killed My Son.”
He related how his college-age son was killed in a mountain climbing accident a few years earlier and said that only his belief that God took his son’s life gave him any comfort. If God took his son’s life, it wasn’t really an accident but an event filled with meaning and purpose even if those are hidden for now.[†]
Notice how different this “meticulous providence” (as Olson calls it) is from saying, along with St. Paul in Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for good. Paul doesn’t (and wouldn’t!) say that everything that happens is really good, if only we could see things the way God sees them. In so many words—unless I’m badly misinterpreting Calvinism—this is what the Calvinist believes. (They would probably quibble over my use of the word “good,” but if everything that happens serves God’s glory and purpose, how could it not be good? After all, God ordained it to happen exactly this way.)
Regardless, there is a vast difference between believing in God’s sovereignty, as we Wesleyans do, and believing that God dictates human history down to the smallest subatomic particle. God is in control in the sense that God has everything “under control.” Nothing that happens in history—no matter how evil, no matter how contrary to God’s will—will thwart God’s ultimate purposes for his good Creation. This doesn’t imply that senseless, absurd, and evil things don’t happen in the meantime. Of course they do! And when they do, we can be confident that God is at work, even in the midst of them, and that God is caring for us.
One more thought: The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.
Nevertheless, Jesus makes clear, in Luke 13 and John 9, that there is no necessary link between suffering and God’s punishment. As Jonah reluctantly confessed, God is “gracious and compassionate… slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” God is always tending toward mercy, as James and John discovered when they asked Jesus about calling fire down upon some inhospitable Samaritans in Luke 9:51-56. We should therefore be very cautious and humble about ascribing disasters, natural or otherwise, to God’s hand.
By the way, if you’re a Calvinist, and I’ve misrepresented Calvinism, please enlighten me. Good heavens, we barely learn Wesleyan theology at a United Methodist seminary!
† Roger Olson, Questions to All Your Answers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 46.