A “crisis” is any situation, expected or otherwise, which disrupts the normal flow of life and family. Whether a death, divorce, job loss, move, or mental health emergency, everyone eventually experiences a crisis, and everyone responds differently. Unfortunately, for those providing support, someone else’s crisis can be highly uncomfortable, and there are a number of cliches which escape our lips to occupy the uncomfortable space. From what I’ve studied and seen in nearly a decade of ministry, saying nothing at all and just being present is almost always the best option, but if you feel like you have to say something, I have a suggestion:
What not to say:
“God is in control.”
Why it’s bad:
There’s a lot of debate surrounding this one. The exact phrase “God is in control” appears nowhere in the Bible, and the closest equivalents describe God as “sovereign.” This is where things get thorny, so let’s take a quick detour:
Some readers interpret “sovereign” to mean a ruler beyond question who decides on every outcome (similar to the micromanager God from the “God has a plan” post a few weeks ago). By this understanding, absolutely everything that occurs in our world is dictated by God, and that includes our decisions and any misfortunes which befall us. Other readers think of sovereignty as a rulership which can still be resisted, much like the laws of a “sovereign nation” can still be broken. By this understanding, while God maintains ultimate authority, all the various forces of the earth (including us) are actively rebelling and doing their own things. Corruption, violence, disease— yeah, that’s all a revolt against God’s sovereignty, but we’re promised God will ultimately wipe our pain away and put earthly authorities in their proper place. Personally, I favor this second option, but there are even better reasons not to say “God is in control.”
Much like “God has a plan,” saying “God is in control” takes away a person’s agency and encourages inaction where it may not be appropriate. Additionally, the expression makes God feel more distant and authoritarian, and regardless of your personal beliefs about sovereignty, the image of a distant impassible God is not helpful to a person in pain.
“The Holy Spirit mourns with us.”
Why it’s better:
Romans 8 contains the famous verse that often gets misconstrued as “God is in control”: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) This verse doesn’t say God engineers every crisis we encounter; rather, it shows God working in our crises to bring about some type of good. God is present, and God is active, but “God is in control” is a logical leap we can’t quite make from these words.
As with every bible verse ever, context is hugely important, and a less popular but equally potent verse establishes the theme of God’s presence just two lines before: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. (Romans 8:26) These words show God is in our midst and working— not necessarily “in control” but mourning at our sides and fighting on our behalf.
“God is in control” could mean many different things (many of which have no basis in the Bible), and the expression doesn’t even do much to bring comfort or encouragement. Instead, it strips away agency and points a finger at God. “The Holy Spirit mourns with us” is more accurate based on the Bible and presents a God who comforts amid pain. There are times for debates over the meaning of sovereignty or control or whatever, but a crisis situation isn’t one of them.
When working with people in pain,
set aside God’s control;
focus on God’s comfort.