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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is God Really in Control?

If God is truly in control, why are there so many ungodly things happening?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, “the overwhelming misery which oppressed humans and their inclination toward evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connections with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of the soul’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 102). The suffering of the ungodly things happening is the result of original sin.

God did not create evil but allowed it in the world. God may allow evil to be redemptive. The question is, how do human beings respond to the ungodly things in the world? The Church teaches the answer to this question is the “Christian belief that ‘the world has been established and kept in being by the Creator’s love; has fallen into slavery to sin but has been set free by Christ, crucified and risen to break the power of the evil one” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 105).

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

God is in control but He has given to each of us something called "free will." If we oppose His will His plans will still be carried out but we will miss a blessing and may be separated from God. God will hold each of us accountable for the way we use the gift of free will which he freely gave us. The day will come when we will have to answer for the choices that we made. Yet, the fact remains that one way or another God's will will still be carried out. Proof of that is the story of redemption. The devil thought that by tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God and go against His instructions, he would plunge everyone else who came after them into sin--which would disqualify everyone from Heaven. Think about this: God did not stop the devil from deceiving Adam and Eve and he did not stop Adam and Eve from taking from the forbidden fruit. But he did provide a Savior to reverse the curse from the Garden of Eden and His redemptive plan was  perfectly carried in Jesus Christ.            

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I imagine that if one has an image of God as some sort of puppet master or celestial traffic cop one could ask that question in good faith. But perhaps what we need to do is to reimagine God. The Hindu scriptures state that this material world is actually an aspect of God. All that we see which we determine is evil is temporary, no matter how heinous. Ultimately, there is a cosmic justice. That said, please know that I grieve as much as anyone about the state of the world today. But I do have faith in the concept of a fair and loving power, even in the midst of all that would belie it. 

Linda Knieriemen, a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA), responds:

Bad things happen, ungodly things, because God created humankind with free will. And humans often make ungodly choices. The first Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden predicts this future reality. 

God is not truly in control, but God wills for good. 

God has provided creation with all it needs to be healthy at peace and flourishing and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology existing as part of that creation mean that an apple will fall from a tree and a plane from the sky. They mean that bacteria, when it appears outside it’s normal habitat will cause disease. Those laws mean that when a bullet hits someone’s skull it will puncture that skull and create havoc if not death. 

We choose to start wars because we want power, or want to have our own way without consideration to others. We choose to drive while under the influence of drugs, we cause automobile accidents and innocent people die. We choose to consume a fatty diet of processed foods and diabetes, heart disease and stoke cause early death and disability.  The world is warming because governments  have ignored the science which has been warning us of the dangers of burning fossil fuels. 

God is not the culprit, it is not that God is not in control. We are!

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Presbyterianism teaches that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of creatures” (Westminster Confession, Ch. III, Sec. I). In the exercise of His providence and government of the world, “the almighty power, unsearchable wisdom and infinite goodness of God … extendeth even to the first fall and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them … to His own holy ends“ (WC, Ch. V, Sec. IV).

In simpler terms, God is in control of all His creatures and all their actions. He permits them to do evil, but only to the extent He allows, and only to serve His own purposes. Psalm 76 is a great celebration of God’s control over hostile men and nations, particularly as their actions bear on the safety of His church and people. Asaph, who elsewhere confesses that it often can may appear otherwise from our point of view (see Psalms 73 & 77), underscores God’s bounding or limiting of human sin, and ordering it to His own ends: “Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee, O  God; the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain” (Psalm 76:10).

My response:

Either God controls all things or God gives human being the free will to choose to behave in beautiful, godly ways, or ugly, ungodly ways. Some claim that God both controls the destiny of everything and also extends free will. Such a theology crashes and burns when a child catches a stray bullet while sleeping in her bed. In order for our existence to be possible, Jewish mysticism argues, God must have removed Godself from a portion of space, and then emanated limited qualities of God’s Divinity back into the multiverse. Simply put, God self-limited God’s control in order to give humanity a chance at existence.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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