I have not written in a long time. I have been rather preoccupied mentally and physically with the whirlwind excitement and nausea of the first few months of pregnancy, but I am glad to be back at the keyboard and it is this new life experience that has prompted this post. Along with all the joy of finding out I was pregnant and telling family and friends, I have at times encountered an old enemy: fear. He shows up at my most vulnerable moments. He questions beliefs I hold that might be tested. He asks perniciously and repeatedly, “What if…?” What if I lost the baby? What if the baby has a defect or a disease? What if God is not really good? What if God is not really sovereign? Ultimately, what if it is not really good that God is sovereign?
All of this, along with the book I am reading for my ladies group, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts by Jerry Bridges, has led me to really ponder this subject and what I really think about the sovereignty of God. I have always believed that God is sovereign, but my attitude towards this truth has often been one more of resignation than of joy and thankfulness because let’s be honest, sometimes we wish He wasn’t. I have found, however, that the sovereignty of God is not just a fact, it is a glorious fact: one I should treasure, trust, and find ultimate peace and rest in.
I) The Difficulty of the Sovereignty of God
Most Christians would say they believe in the sovereignty of God, but I think few are really comfortable with all the implications of that. As Bridges points out, we are perfectly fine with accrediting God when something good happens, when someone is saved, or we get that job we needed or meet our spouse. However, we have a harder time with the bad stuff, when an unsaved person dies or we don’t get that job or we find ourselves consigned to live of singleness. In those instances, the really tough ones, we tend to want to let God “off the hook.” The only problem is that God never asks or even wants to be let “off the hook.”
In the Scriptures, God is adamant and unapologetic about His absolute sovereignty over every person and event, large or small. God is seen not just allowing or regretfully standing by as bad things happen, but ordaining everything that comes to pass. “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lamentations 3:37-38).” And yet, Scripture is also adamant that God is not the author of evil or sin, that we and not He are responsible for the evil and suffering wrought in the world. This is a mystery indeed that I will not attempt to fully understand and which no doubt, causes us to question if it is really good that all in our lives, even the bad and painful, is from the sovereign hand of God. Can such a God really be trusted?
I think it is helpful to remember that our problem in grasping the goodness of the sovereignty of God is really one of perspective. We are very much the child and He is very much the Father. A father is, in many ways, sovereign over his child. He decides when he will eat and sleep, when he will work and when he will play, where he will go and what he will do. He does many things which make no sense to the child, which to his understanding, do harm and not good to the him. The father decrees things the child does not like and concludes that the father must be opposed to him. The child sees things this way because he does not possess the wisdom, the information, and the perspective that the Father does. It is only when the child has grown, when he has gained the maturity and mental capability to grasp the bigger picture of the father’s plans that he understands that all the father did which often seemed so questionable, he did in love and for the good of the child.
II) A Far Worse Alternative
I will not deny that the sovereignty of God is a fearsome thing. It does not promise that only good will pass our way. It robs us of our false assurance that we are the makers of our own destiny. It makes us vulnerable to pain we would rather choose to avoid. Indeed, it makes us ask if it would not in fact be better if this God was not so sovereign. Perhaps it would be better if more should be left up to us or to chance.
Consider this though. If God is not totally sovereign, if God is not behind my cancer or the loss of my loved one, then what is? It may only be my enemy or blind, unfeeling chance, neither of which do I wish to be at the mercy of. I may fancy myself to be the arbiter of my own life (which really would be a terrible thing) and yet we all know that this is not really the case. We are all susceptible to the whims of people and circumstances.
If then God is not fully sovereign over the bad circumstances in my life, then I may only conclude that He has left me vulnerable to the devil whose only design is my harm. Either that, or my suffering is nothing more than bad luck which shall render it meaningless and therefore, hopeless. We find then that we should much rather suffer at the hands of a sovereign God who has promised to infuse our suffering with purpose and work it for our ultimate good than at the hands of him whose only purpose could be our destruction or random chaos which has no purpose at all. The surprising truth is that if my suffering is from God, then my suffering can be trusted.
III) Pain is Valuable and Evil is Redeemable
We often distrust the sovereignty of God because it may bring us suffering and we dislike suffering because it hurts. I do not wish to trivialize the pain of suffering, but I must observe that our aversion to pain and our commitment to avoid it at all costs is short-sighted, much like the example of the child earlier. We dislike pain because well, because it’s painful, but the truth is that pain can be extremely valuable. It can achieve things for us. The runner endures the pain of the race because he wishes to obtain the prize. The mother labors that she might give life to her child. The father disciplines and brings pain to his child that he may mold the child’s character (Hebrews 12:11). We endure pain because we believe that the pain is earning us something which will make the pain worthwhile. This is the promise of scripture. Our pain is not pointless. It is not in vain, but rather it is delivered to us intentionally and lovingly from the sovereign hands of God Himself. Our “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4).” And this hope does not disappoint. In other words, our pain is worth it. It is achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs it all.
But what if our suffering should be a result of evil? What then? Has God ordained that evil should be done to us? I cannot explain this fully. God is not the author of evil and yet He is sovereign over it and uses it for His purposes. Consider the cross. Has ever a more evil and wicked act been performed than the crucifixion of the guiltless savior at the hands of guilty men? And yet, God the Father ordained that this evil should come to pass, that His son should be crushed. And God the Son willingly embraced the pain of this evil. Why? Because it purchased for Him something of greater worth: the glory of God and the salvation of His chosen people. In this, not only are we redeemed, but so is the evil of the Cross. That which was wicked was made good. That which was hopeless became the fountain of all hope and the greatest act of hate became the greatest act of love. In this the example of our Savior, we see that our pain, though real, is valuable and the evil of this world, though mysteriously ordained by God, will also assuredly be redeemed by God. What man has meant for evil, God has meant for good (Genesis 50:20).
IV) The Real Answer: Sovereign Love
I must add that though I have been dealing with fears and these difficult questions abstractly, I am not now in a position of suffering or pain. I am currently dealing with the question of God’s sovereignty mostly intellectually. I recognize then that I am in no position to preach to the one in enduring real trial and pain. Indeed, I am sure that these abstract musings would be of little help at all to the one in the midst of a storm. In a storm, we can’t see beyond our reach and in the fire, we can’t think beyond our pain. We don’t need abstract ideas. We need a person and Jesus is the person we need.
The real, heart answer to this question then is that it is good that God is sovereign because He loves us and we can hope in this love because it is sovereign love. If He be sovereign, but not loving, He can only be feared. If He be loving, but not sovereign, He can never be fully trusted. The cross tells us that He is both. His love is not weak impotent and His sovereignty is not detached and impersonal. His sovereignty is love and His love is sovereign. His words for the one who suffers are these:
“But now, this is what the LORD says–he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 43:1-3).”
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).”
God does not promise that He will not give us pain. In fact, He promises just the opposite. What He does promise though is that He will be with us. This is the answer to fear and doubt. He, not just a God or even the God, but our God will be with us. God became man that He might stand in our place in our greatest trial: the judgment of our sin. His sovereign love directed Him to endure such affliction from sinful men in order that He might make those sinful men His own, in order that He might be their God with them in every trial and every storm. We can trust His sovereignty, treasure His sovereignty and rest in His sovereignty because His sovereignty has done this for us. We are His people and He is our God.