Beyond the Puppet and Puppeteer

By Paul E. Boatman

God is omnipotent. As a little child, I knew God could just say a word, and anything would change: “Let there be light!” and there it was. “I will send a flood,” and the whole earth was flooded. He parted the Red Sea and knocked down the walls of Jericho. Add the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, and we have a powerful God!

However, as I grew older, that confidence in a powerful God faced tests: I remember praying that George, a nasty kid from “the project,” would quit picking on me, but his meanness continued. A good friend, Eddy, was killed by a weaving drunk driver. I prayed the drunk would go to prison for the rest of his life, but he just got fined for illegal lane usage.

Incidents like these pushed me toward a view common among Christians: I believe God is all-powerful, but he does not show his power in the way I think he should.

Eleven years ago it became very personal. When my grandson, Zachary, was born I immediately became a doting grandpa. But something was not right. Within two months I held a dying baby whose malformed heart was failing quickly. Open-heart surgery corrected the heart problem, but over the following weeks we received distressing news on Zachary’s development.

Today, at age 11, Zachary has never spoken a word, walked a step, thrown a ball, or done any of the hundreds of simple things children do. I spent nights soaking my pillow in tears, praying that Zachary might do the things other little boys do. I have wondered, “Where is that powerful God in whom I believe?”

At some point in the past I began to seriously encounter Romans 8:28. The King James Version had a poor translation, “All things work together for good to those who love God.” Note the sentence structure: The subject is “all things.” If I love God, then I can expect that everything will work for good.

However, the New International Version is more accurate in expressing Paul’s message, “In all things, God works for good for those who love him.” The promise is not that “all things work for good,” but that in the midst of all situations, God is still at work.

Yet, accepting this still leaves us with questions about how God works. Christians are especially vulnerable to two mistaken views: God is a puppet, and God is a puppeteer.

Two Errors

Those who see God as a puppet affirm, “God can do anything, anything we tell him to do.” While claiming a strong belief in prayer, this view actually puts all the power in the hands of the one praying. Scripture calls us never to stop praying—praying for the coming of God’s kingdom, for daily needs, for spiritual maturity, for forgiveness, for deliverance from temptation, for our Christian brothers and sisters, for our enemies. But never are we to put ourselves in the position of demanding of God the exact nature of his answer. Those who see God as a puppet expect God to act at their whim.

I once observed this demonstrated at a tent revival. As a crippled man hobbled in with a cane, the evangelist led him to the front and prayed for healing. Then, dramatically tossing the man’s cane, he declared, “God has performed a miracle!” As the man stumbled back to his seat, leaning on other people all the way, the evangelist explained, “He only limps because he is in the habit of limping.”

The only power demonstrated was the dubious power of an evangelist who claimed to order God around. Whenever the power is centered in a person, God is treated like a puppet.

Many other Christians see God as though he were a cosmic puppeteer, pulling all strings in every situation. In this view, every instance is the result of the direct will of God. Whether a child is born whole or deformed is credited to the direct will of God. Whether I survive a plane flight or die by terrorist attack is deemed God’s direct action. If I want to buy a new “gadget” and I find it available, I can claim, “God wants me to have that toy.” No event is too small to be ruled by God’s direct will and no desire of my heart is too selfish, if I can assign it to God’s will.

This mode projects onto God a busy-ness that has him majoring in minutia, claiming that God controls everything, but giving him a will that seems surprisingly similar to my own personal will. It is a comfortable position for many, because it frees us of responsibility for our own decisions and grants self-righteousness to those who seem to be blessed. The Pharisees would have loved this mode.

A friend, who suffered a mild case of juvenile polio in her back muscles, experienced a deteriorating spinal condition in young adulthood. By middle-age she was immobilized by her constant pain. A relative with a puppeteer God issued this challenge: “You need to confess your secret sin so that God will quit punishing you.”

A similar insensitivity spews from pulpits around the world as Christians hear that God wants them to be healthy and wealthy; their experience of such conditions will show God’s work in their lives. This distortion is alien to both Scripture and life experience. Who would argue that the wealth of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, or any of a host of ostentatious celebrities is evidence of living within God’s will?

One Option

Rejecting both the puppet and puppeteer image for God leaves but one option: God is . . . God. The real problem is not with the power of God, but with our desire to control or catalog his power. God exerts his power within the boundaries of his divine nature.

God never promised an easy life in which I always get my way. He never promised freedom from tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, death, deception, and rebellion. He only promised that in the midst of every situation, no matter how bad or how painful, God will be present, working for the good for those who love him.

If he manipulated all things like a cosmic puppeteer, we would have no free will, and those who are not already faithful would have no hope. If he acted in subservient response to our every wish, like our great puppet, our world would be subject to human caprice.

God has chosen to exercise his power in ways that have eternal significance. God’s love, forgiveness, incarnation, atonement, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit are actions of his power that change eternity.

Where Is God?

Where was God when that bully was picking on me? He was there, not bulking me up on steroids so I could beat up my tormentor, but helping me to cope with unfair situations.

Where was God when Zachary was born? He was there, and he is here. He has provided a security of Heaven for a little boy who has never even developed the ability to sin. He has enabled a developmentally disabled child to become a teacher of teachers. Like the apostle who found God’s power made perfect in his own weakness, Zachary has been God’s means to teach me about some really important things: love, tears, giving, prayer. And through it all, Zachary is blessed, and so am I.

Where is God in your most difficult moments? He is not running roughshod over your will, nor doing stunts to show off his power. Rather, his Spirit actively works inside you and in the lives of the people you love, providing the necessary resources to cope, endure, thrive, and achieve victory.

The timing is rarely our preferred timing, but the God of all power will exercise his power to grant ultimate victory to those who remain faithful to him. By God’s powerful grace, that victory is ours.

Paul Boatman is associate dean of ministries and head of the department of pastoral care and counseling at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.

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