Q & R: God is in control?

Here’s the Q:

What does “God is in control” mean? Does it mean that God controls every event from the roll of a dice to the rape of a woman? If that is the case what about free will? If God doesn’t control every event, how much does He control? Does He sit back and passively watch what happens? (This reminds me of the God as watchmaker scenario.) If God is in total control, then why is the world so evil? Is God in control only in the lives of believers? What then, is the purpose of prayer (other than God tells us to pray)? Wouldn’t it mean God’s will was always done, so why pray for His will to be done.
I’ve been a follower of Jesus for a long time, but these ideas have come up in my church over the past while. In terms of salvation, my pastor believes it’s like “God goes into a booth and votes for you.” Really, that is the example he used. I was disturbed, because what if God doesn’t “vote for you?” Apparently, that’s ok because we all deserve Hell anyway, so it’s kind of like a bonus for those who are blessed enough to be voted for.
I’ve found you to be a deeply thinking writer (and I’ve read a few of your books a number of times.) I appreciate that you are honest in that you have doubts too (because I have my share). I’m tired of people glibly saying, “God is in control in this situation” when I really don’t know what that means.
I appreciate that you can’t answer most email, but I hope you can steer me in the right direction.

Here’s the R:

I’m disturbed by this kind of teaching too. Your pastor is probably joining (if he hasn’t already done so) what is often called the “neo-reformed” movement. It is a resurgence of a form of strict Calvinism, which you can learn about with a quick google search. A lot of people think it’s great, absolutely true, and totally biblical. I’m not among them.
I addressed this question in a book I wrote called The Story We Find Ourselves In. I think you’d enjoy it … Bottom line: the Bible never says God is in control. “In control” derives its meaning from the world of machines and machine operation … but the universe is not (merely) a machine, and God isn’t a machine operator. God’s relationship with the universe, according to the Bible, is more relational and creative than mechanistic or totalitarian.