Relax, God is in Control - Final Thoughts

December 3, 2014 Length: 35:53

Fr. Thomas Hopko takes one last look at the phrase "Relax, God is in Control" and provides information on additional material he has written and spoke about regarding this general topic. Here is the list:
Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West by Met. Kallistos Ware
And from his Speaking the Truth in Love series:
Pain and Suffering
The Wrath of God
The Wrath of God - Part 2
Anger and Wrath in Human Life
On Sadness and Grief in Christian Life
Theological Reflections on Calamity
Does God Play Favorites?
Predestination, Providence, and Prayer
Understanding Evil - 9/11 Remembered
God and the World
Sandy Hook
God and Death

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Dear friends and auditors of Ancient Faith Radio, especially those of you who have been listening to this very controversial podcast, which I never thought would be so controversial when I criticized the expression “Relax, God is in control”— when I criticized the “relax” part and the “God being in control” part. The word “control”—is that the word that we really want to have? Because too many people, I believe, as I’ve said already many times, when they think of God as in control, they think that he causes everything to happen exactly the way it happens, and he can change his mind on the way, and he can do what he wants, and this makes it very, very difficult to speak about God—especially the God of Christ who was crucified and dies the most horrible death and he is the Messiah of Israel and Son of God in human flesh—when you use such kind of language. So I would just like to make a couple more final attempts, and then maybe give some kind of suggestion to you, at least if you’re further interested in what I personally have written or think about this, I’m going to list it now, and you can find it for yourself very, very easily.

First of all, about the “relax” part, I got a few people who said, “Where are you getting that ‘relax’ part [from]? We didn’t see any ‘relax’ up there [or] anybody saying, ‘Relax,’ so what’s that all about?” Well, they obviously didn’t look at the first podcast or the advertisement for it on the list of podcasts when it first went up, because there was this image of a pillow or embroidery or whatever it was that clearly said, “Relax, God is in control.” Then when it says, “God is in control,” there are just too many people who think that every little detail of life God is controlling it in the sense that he’s making it to happen the way he wants it to be on any level of life, because he is God and we are… He’s the Potter, we’re the clay, and all that, and we just have to accept that, whatever it is, God is in control and in the end it’ll turn out all right, but for now…

However, however even true that may be, I pressed a lot, especially the last attempt, to say when tragedies really happen and you would say to people, “Smile: God is in control,” I don’t know why they won’t kill us if we would say such a thing to them. Their babies are dead, their family’s dispersed, they were all burned in prison camps and gulags and so on, but we’re going to say, “Smile” or “Relax”? Or “Smile, God loves you” or “Relax, God is in control”? That language is just irresponsible, in my opinion. It’s very bad language, and Gregory the Theologian said that the whole point of theology and preaching and teaching is to find theoprepsēs logoi, the words adequate to the reality that we experience. What kind of words would be adequate when we are confronted with a world full of tragedy?

Many people… I know people who will not believe in God because of a tragedy that took [place] in their family. I know a person who read, I got to read the New Testament, and when she read, “God does not tempt us more than we can bear,” she says, “That’s a pile of BS,” she quit the Church and never went back into it again. Too many people see Christianity like that, especially if the people are, excuse me, in the Calvinistic line, where God predestines everything. Now, what is basically our view?

Our view is that God, from before the foundation of the world, had a plan for creation, and in the part of creation that we call the solar system and the planet Earth, there emerged intelligent, moral beings called human beings. These human beings have choice, they have free will, or at least self-determination. Usually when they use what they call “free will,” they’re more enslaved than ever. But there is this issue of God doing these things, and we’re supposed to relax about it. I hope you saw that image of “Relax” there, so you know I didn’t dream that one up. That was there: “Relax, God is in control.”

But what I would want to say now is that, when it comes to “relax,” there is no relaxing in this world until the next world or until we die. We’re here to work. We’re here to struggle. We’re here to be God’s co-workers, God’s field, God’s building, God’s hands. Even the Lord’s prayer—if you interpreted the Lord’s prayer as I believe it was to be understood and not through English translations that come by way of Luther—that sentence, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us: when you read it in Greek, it says:

May your name be sanctified, may your kingdom come; may it come quickly, Lord. And may your will be done as in heavenhos en ouranōn, as in heaven: in Jesus, raised and glorified, the crucified One, and his holy mother and all the martyrs and all the saints and all the apostles and all the prophets—may that will, as it is completed in heaven, in the kingdom of God, may that same reality be in our life here on earth.

So we say:

Your kingdom come, your will be done, your name be kept holy as in Christ, risen and glorified, so also in us, Christ’s hands, Christ’s eyes, Christ’s ears, Christ’s presence in this world until he comes…

...because he gave us this task: to bear witness to this marvelous truth of the Gospel—in some sense, get him off the hook in many, many ways, because he never should be on that hook in the first place. C.S. Lewis has a collection of essays called, “God in the Dock.” Well, people are judging God all over the place. But the 50th/51st Psalm says, “You are justified in your judgments, and you overcome when you are judged,” so if we judge God, he wins. But what does that mean? It means he has a plan that includes evil.

Yes, from the very beginning it was evil. There is no record in Scripture of Adam and Eve living in paradise or what they were doing or however long it was. Nothing. Adam and Eve are created in both the creation stories, and immediately they rebel against the God who made them, and they don’t keep his commandments, which means they don’t really love him and trust him. That’s from the beginning, and we can’t say, “Oh we’re suffering everything because of some Adam and some apple,” or something. No! We are the human beings, but we have been born into the world already fallen, already corrupted. It says in Scripture (Genesis 5:1) that Adam and Eve gave birth to a son named Seth, in Adam’s image, according to Adam’s likeness.

God’s image in us and our ability to grow in God-likeness is never completely erased; it’s never just destroyed. It’s always there, but it could be buried under such complexity and mystery of evil and suffering and family life and people being victimized by everybody and their brother, beginning with their parents and their grandparents and their next-door neighbor and even their priest. God knew all that, and he did it anyway. As I said already, why did he do it? Because he loves us and wanted us, to give us a chance with a New Adam, a second Adam, the real Adam, Jesus Christ, and to give us another chance of repenting and entering into his glory and participating in all of his marvelous gifts. But he knew there would be this tremendous evil.

What I think a better verb than “control” would be—God orchestrates it. God has guided it. From all eternity, this really is according to his will. The holy Fathers make a distinction, as the Bible does, between the ontological will of God and the providential will of God. The ontological will of God is that there be no evil at all, no sickness, no sorrow, no sighing, but life everlasting, and we be created in God’s image and likeness and grow and deepen and develop forever and ever with no tragedy. But that’s an impossibility, because sometimes people say, “Well, if I were Adam and Eve, I wouldn’t have sinned.” Baloney. We all sin. There is no one who is really righteous, not one.

St. Symeon [the] New Theologian, I already mentioned how we have nothing to boast about, we Christians, because we behave worse than others, even people of the Old Testament or even pagans, in many respects, especially since we’re supposed to be God’s presence, his face, his mouth, his ears, his hands, his workmanship, his co-workers. That’s what we’re supposed to be and do, but it’s a synergia; it’s seeing into God’s plan and playing that particular, unique calling that each one of us has, and every person has it. It means the kingdom of God, the Gospel is, the good news, the kingdom of God is open again; the kingdom of God is available to us through Jesus, risen and glorified.

But that means he’s not just controlling everything. He’s wheeling and dealing with evil. One of the best definitions of providence I ever heard was: God doing the best he can with what he’s got, and what he’s got is us. Poor God! But he doesn’t give up on us. No matter how often we fall, we can get up again, but we are told in Scripture—in Proverbs, in Psalms, in Prophets, in the New Testament, in the letter to the Romans, in the Book of Revelation—that we will answer for our works: kata ta erga; we will answer for what we have done, what is written in the books. It’s not just you say, “Oh, I believe in God; therefore I can relax and heaven is mine, because Jesus saved me.” That’s an abomination. It’s just an abomination.

If we look, for example, at the words of the Lord in John’s gospel, we see that there’s that person [who] comes up to Jesus and said, “What does it mean to be doing the work of God? What does it mean to be doing God’s work?” And Jesus answers and he said to him, “We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day. Night can come when we can’t work,” he said. And this is our work: to believe in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he has sent, and to prove our faith by our actions. But the actions are always a combination, you might say, of four or five things. There’s always a combination of God and his grace on one hand, the devil and the demons and the darkness and the antichrists and the marks of the servants of the beast and all that on the other hand. Then there is modern culture, then there is human failure, then there is greed and all kinds of sin and abomination.

But the Lord does say, when he is asked, “What does it mean to be doing the work of God?” There’s a CD that’s available from St. Vladimir’s which I made more than a couple years ago called, “The Work of God’s People,” to show what it is we are really called to do, and how work relates to our faith, and how work is the product of our faith, and if we say we believe but we don’t have any works, but forget it—the devil does that.

So we never relax. We never relax. The sabbath rest is coming in the age to come. Here, we’re here to work. We’re here to work: work on ourselves, first of all, become, as Dr. Rossi would say, “a healing presence,” and sometimes we fail at that, so we’ve got to admit it and pick up and start over, practically every day. Some of the Desert Fathers say, “When is the time for me to get up and start over?” He says, “Right now.” Right now. But we hear him when they say to him, “What must we do to be doing the works of God”; Jesus answers them: “This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Then they ask for a sign, and then he goes into the bread of life discourse.

So it’s a synergia, but it’s not just a control on the side of God himself. It’s God inter-acting with us. In some of these podcasts, some people asked: “If God is not in control, what’s the point of praying? We only pray because we believe God is in control.” Well, I think that’s not accurate. We pray because our mind and our heart and our desires are free. God could give me—I don’t know—what he has, as a matter of fact: amyloidosis in my body, and he could heal that if he wanted it, too.

I recently read in a book that on September 11, God could have stopped those boys from flying those airplanes into those buildings, but he didn’t want to do it. Some people say, “Oh, how awful! No, it wasn’t God who did it; it was human beings who chose to do it.” Yeah, but if God wanted to, he could have disabled the airplane. He could have blown it up in space before it even got to the United States shores or wherever. When it has to do with physical things, natural things, then, with our cooperation still, God can make it good; he could make it work. We can control the universe if we’re with God and empowered with grace and know the truth. We can. The Holy Spirit is given to us for this purpose. We can do this. It’s not a case of who’s controlling, but it certainly is the case that the cooperation and the synergia with God is not, as Fr. Meyendorff used to say, symmetrical. It’s not between two equal partners; it’s between God Almighty and us miserable sinners.

But when it comes to the spiritual element in life, God could not change the minds of those boys by whatever he did. It was impossible. He gave them freedom. So if they wanted to drive those planes into those buildings, they were free to do it. God could have stopped them in some way. Sure, he could have, but providentially he decided not to. Maybe it was a lesson to us Americans. Not every day 3,000 perish because of the airplanes; more than 3,000 babies were killed in our hospitals. We’re a terribly greedy, immoral society. Just look at any sitcom. It’s sickening; it’s revolting. Watch the football games, and you have to know about erectile dysfunction—it’s such madness, such insanity.

But it’s equally insane simply to say glibly, “Relax, God is in control.” No, we work together with God, and we can accomplish things on the spiritual level for sure, but even on the physical level as well. God can help us in our physical desires in many ways. I don’t know. Our nuns up the road here just put on an addition to their monastery with a new chapel and bigger sacristy rooms and redone… Yeah, that’s work, and those guys came to work for three years in a row, and the nuns were out there trying to collect money so that they could pay their three workers who practically volunteered to put this together themselves. They’re working! We’re working. God is working, and we are working.

Christ said, “God is working, and I am working with him.” They said, “Oh, you’re making yourself God!” Well, he could say that, but we would say, “God is working, and I’m doing my best to work with him, and when I fail, I’ll get up, but I cannot count on him simply saving me and controlling me by some type of robotic or magical way.” There is no way.

The question was also on the issue of intercessory prayer: God hears our prayers before we even make them, and he designs his whole divine providence, including Auschwitz and Osama bin Laden and Hitler and Stalin… God does allow that to happen. The Greco-Latin tradition of Christianity uses the term “permit” or “allow”: God allows it. He doesn’t want it, but he allows it. If you read the holy Scripture which is in a Semitic idiom, they’ll say God caused it. They’re not afraid to say that. In the prophets—I believe that it’s in Isaiah, Jeremiah; I’m not going to look now; you can find it—where God calls Nebuchadnezzar, the most wicked king who ever lived, not only “my servant” but “my christ, anointed”!

He says that about Darius with the temple. God uses those who are ready to cooperate with him, and he uses even their evil behaviors. Nothing is more evil in history than the murder of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. But he not only allowed it and permitted it—he sent his Son in order to die because that was his will, because it was the only way for the world to be saved, period. And we have to cooperate with Jesus Christ in doing his work. We are his presence until he comes at the end of the age, where we hope to receive from him a crown of glory.

But in the meantime, we don’t sit back and relax and just glibly say to people, “God is in control.” We say, even with tsunamis… Some people said that if those people in that place where that big tsunami killed so many people had actually done their duty, went to sound the alert four minutes earlier (and they were fifteen minutes late), it’s possible that not one person would have died, because they would have controlled the elements. St. Herman just goes up to a tidal wave and says, “Stop it,” and it does. He goes to a forest [fire] and says, “Stop it,” and it does. Why? Because he’s God’s servant. But Herman knows that he ain’t God, and without God there’s no Herman. Herman is god to us because he brings the presence of God, and that’s what we have to do, too, and it’s not a matter of control, and it’s not a matter of relaxing.

This is [the point that] I wanted to make, and I keep trying. But what I’m going to do now is just to give you some things if you’re really interested in this and particularly in more about what I personally, Tom Hopko, might think about these things. I would like to give you some pointers. One is that there is a book dedicated to the work of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. It was published at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2003. The title of the book is Abba:—which means “father,” of course, in Aramaic—The Tradition of Orthodox in the West, and I contributed to that collection of essays in honor of our wonderful Metr. Kallistos, without whom I can’t even imagine my life for all the gifts he gave me through his translations and especially liturgical services and his teaching. But in that book, I wrote a kind of an essay, a group of statements, called “On God and Evil.” I made 27 statements on God and evil. It’s from page 179 to 192, and the book is called Abba, and I would suggest that you might want to read that, “On God and Evil.”

Since 2006, that I’ve been talking on this radio, if you don’t count these last three podcasts about the “Relax, God is in control” business, but if there are related topics that illumine what I’m trying to say there, I can give you a list of podcasts that you can just go on Speaking the Truth in Love, click that particular—I can’t stand to call them “icons”—images or whatever you call it. Get on there and take a look at the—if you’re interested; I know it’s quite a thing to say—these things can help you, at least to understand what I understand, and even to point out where I’m wrong. That’s very important, and that fellow who helped me last time, oh, he was great. The people who kept on writing also really are very, very helpful, and very kind to me, trying to be very polite in their disagreements.

First of all, the first one that I ever put up on this, relative to this topic was on September 11, which as you know is the day of the terrorism attack. September 11, 2008. It’s under the podcasts: September 11, 2008, and the title is “Pain and Suffering: A Christian Response to Terrorism.”

Another one, a next one, would be on October 25, 2009. There’s a podcast that I gave called “The Wrath of God.” On November 4 of that same year, 2009, I had a podcast called “Anger and Wrath in Human Life.” On the 15th of that same November, in 2009, I had a podcast called “On Sadness and Grief in [Human] Life.”

On February 4, 2010, moving into the next year now, I had a podcast; it was one of those tsunami times, and it’s called “Theological Reflections on Calamity.” That’s February 4, 2010. Also in February [of] 2010, the 26th of February, [...] there was a podcast that was called “Does God Play Favorites?” It was a response to a woman who felt that God was not controlling her or helping her in any way, and she’s really in big trouble. But in that same year, in that same month, [March 14, 2010,] I also have what may be the most important—if people are interested in further listening—that’s a podcast called “Predestination, Providence, and Prayer.” That’s in March of 2010.

Moving into 2011, on September 10, I posted a podcast called “Understanding Evil.” That was all that was put up on that topic in 2011. The year is 2011: September 10, 2011, “Understanding Evil.” Then you go to October 6, 2011, that same year, and there’s a podcast called “God and the World”: How does God interact with the world, and how do Christians understand that, especially since the main action of God in our world and the main intervention is the birth of Christ and the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh?

Then [from] 2011, we move to 2012, and on December 29, in 2012, I have a reflection on the Sandy Hook murders and our response to that horrible event that took place in Connecticut, the Sandy Hook [Elementary], where those children were just slaughtered.

Then in July 5 of [2013], I have a podcast that is called “God and Death,” and you might also want to look at other podcasts that I have about death, especially the death of Jesus Christ and our death in him and how that works together, because a great part of our synergia with Christ is to die with him, to be hated the way he was hated because of our goodness, not because of how awful we are. So “God and Death,” and anything that you’ll go through, you’ll probably find something there.

We are told, still, to choose life, from the very beginning. In this fallen world, we’re told to choose life. The Mosaic law: “I present before you two ways: the way of life, the way of death; the blessing and the curse. Choose life, choose a blessing.” But you’re going to have live that out in a very, very evil world, that God is trying to penetrate and to save of it as much as he possibly can. That same imagery is used in the Didache, an early Christian doctrinal catechism. Two ways: way of life, way of death. St. Paul says, then, in the letter to the Romans: “We either live by the law of the Holy Spirit and life, or we live by the law of sin and death.” And there is a choice for us there, which we choose.

For a real Christian, there’s no real choice, because if there’s God and I’m a creature, I should just do what he tells me—but I’ve got to make sure he’s the real God, the God of Jesus and the Holy Trinity, and not the god of the idols or the god that someone makes up somewhere in the Middle East and uses it out of justification to kill all kinds of people. Christians are those who get killed; they’re not the people who kill. But remember, he’s going to render to every one of us according to our works. What’s written in the Book of Life is what we have done. That’s very, very, very important.

Even many of the people who did so much good in the Old Testament, they weren’t without sin. Look at the end of the life of Solomon, where he had like 300 wives and 400 concubines and was worshiping every false god in Canaan. Noah was saved on the ark, and he came out and his nakedness was uncovered by his son, which may mean that they did something with him that they shouldn’t do. Lot, who was saved in Sodom, went to Zoar and the committed incest with his daughters, who wanted to have babies, and they are the founders of the tribe of the Moabites and the Edomites. So someone wrote me: “God writes not in straight lines,” but God has his own line, and it’s really straight and consistent, once you have an insight into it. You could say, “Oh, yeah, that’s what he had to do; it’s not surprising at all.” This is, I think, what we see.

Basically, that’s what I wanted to say today, and not go on forever and ever on this theme. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t do it any more, but I hope that… I used to tell a student once who said to me after class, “Fr. Tom, I’m more confused now than ever,” and I would say to him, “Peter, better to be in honest, real confusion than to be in false knowledge and understanding.” As Walter Hilton, the English mystic, said, “Real darkness is to be preferred to fantasized light.” God is the God both of darkness and light. There’s no darkness in him at all, but he still is the darkness. He says to Job, “Have you considered my servant Job”—God says to Satan. We’ve got to read what’s written there and try to understand that and not come up with our own idea of how we think God ought to be and then act in that way and then even claim that’s what God wants us to do. We must, must must read the Scripture. As St. Anthony the Great, one of my favorites of all time, said:

If you want to be saved, there’s three things you’ve got to do: Always have God before your mind. Whatever you do, do according to the Scriptures. And wherever you are, don’t leave that place easily.

Stay where you are and blossom where you’re planted. But Anthony also said, “A day will come when people will be completely insane, and they’ll say to those who are sane, ‘You’re insane; you’re not like us.’ ” And I believe that time is here for the Western world. Who in America right now is really insane? Frankly, it’s not a party division. It’s ideological and personal and self-seeking among all the parties, in one way or another. But that’s not our business. Our business is to do and to try to understand our faith as well as we can and to put it into practice, and admit it when we’re put up against a wall and we’ve got to come through.

But as the Three Boys in the fiery furnace said, “You are just, O God, in all that you have done for us. And if we come before you with humility, with a broken and contrite heart, then you will accept it every single time.” Thérèse of Lisieux, who said that God’s plan was fulfilled on the Cross when the Bridegroom is consummated in love for his creaturely Bride—that’s us—but she also said, Thérèse of Lisieux told a friend of hers who said, “Why doesn’t God help me more?” She said, “Why don’t you help God more?” Why don’t you try to make God smile? Why are you always asking something? He’s got enough people who hate him and who ask him stupid questions than nuns. Nuns are here to glorify him and to trust him in what he’s doing and that he knows what he’s doing.

But you really wouldn’t want to use “control” to—I wouldn’t, anyway—to describe what he’s doing and to try to understand it. God’s thoughts are not ours, his ways are not ours. St. Paul says they’re unsearchable and inscrutable, and they really are.

But when you surrender to that, you get insight into divine providence and justice. St. Maximus the Confessor said it. What looks just like a plethora of contradictions—all of a sudden we see a pattern. We see how God is acting, how the hands of God are in everything, and then we are able to say, “I believe; help my unbelief, but I believe. And I don’t want to be insane.”

Yesterday was St. Andrew’s day. (I’m recording on the day after.) It’s one of my favorite lives of all time, St. Andrew’s life, because when he was arrested by this prosecutor in Greece, and they were going to put him to death, the prosecutor said to him—I’ve probably said this story other places on the radio—the prosecutor said to him, “You look intelligent,” and so on, “but you’ve completely lost your mind by believing in a crucified Jew. I mean, come on!”

And Andrew answers, “Your Excellency, I didn’t lose my mind. I finally found my mind. I finally now can see things clearly that I never could see before, and that others cannot see because they’re not surrendered and believing in Christ.” And then he said, “I have a power over you, to do with you what I will,” and [Andrew] said, “Yeah, you do. You do.” “And even to crucify you,” the guy said. “Yes, you do.” “Well, doesn’t that frighten you?” He said, “No. I wouldn’t preach Christ Jesus crucified and take up my own cross and want to suffer with him. I wouldn’t worship God who was otherwise than what he was revealed to us in Christ. So I have found my mind, and I have found the truth.”

Then the prosecutor continues on, asking him all these questions: “How can you believe that? That’s ridiculous,” whatever. Then finally when he says to Andrew, “Okay, okay. Suppose I want to know that that is true. How can I do it?” And Andrew says to him the most wonderful sentence. He said, “Become his disciple, and you will know, and you will be able to decide for yourself by the grace of God and by faith.” Become his disciple, and you will know. It’s like the guy in the Soviet museum, who said he didn’t see anything in the icons, and the nice young lady said to him, “Oh, if you want to see something in the icons, you have to look at them when standing on your knees, not when you’re standing in front of them, waving your arms around.”

So how do we come to know? Well, St. Paul says if we say we know, we don’t yet know as we ought to know, but if God loves us and we come to see that, then we understand many things. It’s our challenge. So God bless us all. Thank you for your patience with me, but then if you want to follow up with anything, email. I can’t go on the phone and talk with people any more; it’s just beyond my strength. I have to use every ounce of energy I have to do my podcast properly and on time and to finish a little book that I’m trying to write about Orthodox Christians in North America.

In any case, God be with us all, especially during holy times and during the time of the final tribulation, which is pretty clear that we’re in right now. May God help us to understand and to fulfill, and may our names be written already in the Book of Life, as far as God is concerned. So with great, great gratitude to Ancient Faith Radio—please support the radio—and thank all of you for being kind enough to email with your concerns. I’m truly, truly grateful. God be with us all. May your future be filled with peace and joy and light and wisdom and understanding. No more about “Relax, God is in control”! No more! But there are related topics which will be related to this issue for certain. Okay. I wish you every good thing from the Lord that he can possibly give you in the actual situation in the life in which you found yourself. I beg that God would give you the grace to trust him in everything, and then you’ll come to see, maybe, why things had to be. Horrible as they were, they had to be for the sake of the salvation of all mankind and the law of the universe. May God help us.