A number of weeks ago I went to a prayer meeting that began, as almost all such gatherings do, with a time of praise and adoration of God. How we pray spontaneously – the language and the ‘personal liturgy’ that we use – tells us a great deal about who we are, as both individual followers of Jesus, and the collective people of God.

That particular evening, one of the first prayers was particularly replete with a phrase that I have become convinced is among the foremost motifs of Reformed Christian belief in today’s church: ‘God is in control.’ And God, that night, wasn’t just ‘in control’, but was ‘in complete control’, in control ‘even in circumstances where we have no idea how that could be the case.’ As I listened, and the prayer flowed on, it seemed to me that God was in control in triplicate.

The prayer was prayed during the same week that a young English nurse was convicted of the murder and attempted murder of 13 babies, her acts including – among assorted techniques – injecting air into premature infants. The most vulnerable of human beings have their lives snuffed out by the cruel posing as the kind, but in the prayer meeting, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is – apparently – in complete control of all things. I personally sat silent. I couldn’t pray that night.

How can we understand all this? How can it be that a controlling personality is something that we run from in human beings but we should glorify in a deity? Can the God who is perfectly shown in Jesus, really, behind the picture Jesus gives us of him, have such a dark personality as to control such things as Lucy Letby’s crimes?

The unpacking of these issues clearly requires a greater word count than this blog permits, and a greater mind than mine to unravel the theological knots. The circumstances of our lives and the world around us surely flow from a complex interplay of God’s will in competition with the will of the devil, alongside our own free will as human beings, with the faith and prayers of God’s followers, and battles between angelic and demonic beings, also in play. CS Lewis wrote that ‘at every moment, every square inch of the cosmos is claimed by Satan and counterclaimed by God.’ Such matters demand both great humility and even greater trust on our part.

And yet, it concerns me greatly – and for this statement I admit I have no more evidence than my listening ear, the prayers and the sermons that I hear, some conversations that I have, and pronouncements in blogs and on social media – that one of the greatest challenges the Reformed church has today is that it has, consciously or otherwise, elevated God’s sovereignty, over and above his love, to be his most praiseworthy attribute.

And when sovereignty trumps love, what does that do to our understanding of God, our practice of faith, the lens through which we see the world, and the way we project ourselves to those outside the church?

I appreciate that we live in a world where ‘change and decay, in all around I see’, and that is discomforting and disorientating for many of us. I recognise that in that context ‘God is in control’ is a statement of certainty over complexity, something that for a moment pushes evil and suffering and hard questions away, a shout of assurance that silences doubt. But given what we observe, day and daily in the world around us, the sovereign actions of a loving God are surely more nuanced and subtle than we make them out to be.

In 1 John 5:19, we read these words, that seem to me to stand in contrast to many of our sermons and prayer meetings:

‘We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.’

Interestingly, the New Living Translation expresses verse 19 as ‘the world around us is under the control of the evil one’, as if to say – crucially – that the world ‘out there’ is in battle, but as for us, God’s children, we are safe and secure, for no one and nothing can snatch us from the Good Shepherd’s grip. Is the answer to a world where the evil one runs amok to say that that is simply not the case, or is it rather to rest and remain in our status as beloved children of God? As John had already told his readers (1 John 3:1a):

‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ 

Similarly, in Romans 8, Paul doesn’t talk of death nor life, angels nor demons, the present nor the future, height nor depth, and follow that up by saying ‘nothing can separate us from the sovereignty or control of God’, but rather it is love that is preeminent as his source of hope in a hostile empire and a contested cosmos.

God’s sovereignty is a wonderful and mysterious attribute, that should inspire humility and worship in equal measure, but as twenty first century followers of Jesus in an adverse world, can we order sovereignty in our thinking and recover an understanding that God is – above all – love? Each time we reach for the phrase ‘God is in control’, can we say that only after uttering the phrase ‘God is love’? In the world in which we live in, we might find it hard at times to run the phrases together, but God may stretch and form us in the contemplation that leads us to.

If we do this, believing and praying more than anything that God is love, how might this change and soften us as the people of God, and change our interactions with the people among whom we live and witness?

Colin Neill works in local economic development, and in his spare time is a lay preacher, spiritual director and writer. His latest book can be found at www.ihhandh.net.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.