I’m thinking today of the young man who was verbally pummeled by his father his entire childhood and has emerged a porridge of an adult – or a rock-hard missile of abuse himself.
Or the young woman who experienced far more horrific abuse on the part of her father and now sees a dirty, irredeemable person in the mirror.
Or the Israelite infants who never even grew old enough for trials but were sacrificed alive in the superheated arms of bronze idols.
Or the elderly man I know who has received not only a terminal diagnosis, but a stack of medical bills that could drown his children in debt – followed by a flippant denial-of-benefits letter from an insurer who sees him as a claim number.
Would you look these people in the eye and say that their suffering is God’s will for them? That the soul-level damage, the sheer violation of God’s intention for this world, was initiated directly by God for his glory?
Just your reaction to that question will reveal a…dilemma we face in learning God’s sovereignty. We have agendas. I do, and you do. It makes the debate prickly; we’ve staked out ground and feel compelled to defend it.
If life is a journey east on Interstate 90, I’ve only traveled as far as the state I actually live in – Montana. I’m a mere journeyman in Biblically understanding God’s sovereignty. This article isn’t a finished building but the raw materials; it’s less about finding an answer and more about honestly acknowledging our agendas.
For there are two different kinds of people approaching this problem. It affects how we debate the issue – and, crucially, how we speak of it to the sufferer.
The Two Sides
When it comes to God’s sovereignty, there are those who need to know God’s power more, and those who need to know his heart more. You probably know people who reside in each category. One of my friends said this: “I need to know that God has chosen the color of my socks this morning.” He would be in the former category. Something in him is bugged by the idea that God might not be the mover of every action, and comforted by the idea that he is – even if it requires laying some truly despicable events at his feet.
Some of you are firmly in the camp of my friend with the socks of many colors. You believe God’s sovereignty makes him responsible for all things. If that’s not so, you reason, how can we be assured that any of his plans will come to pass?
Scripture seems to agree. Ephesians 1:11 says that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”; and we all know Romans 8:28, which says that God “works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
I, on the other hand, fall into the latter category. I’ll cop to it straight-up. I fall on the side of God not having “done” everything, but rather men and angels being agents in the world and God allowing them their own choices because he treasures free will (as the C.S. Lewis school of thought goes). Here’s why I land here: the idea that God didn’t bring every evil against me? It leaves more room for knowing he’s on my side. And knowing God is disgusted on my behalf is easily amongst the top five “ideas that have brought me closer to God during my life”.
Again…not confirming either camp. Just trying to illuminate our agendas. Put the pitchfork down, I’m not sure my insurance covers that.
“God might graciously allow men and angels to help write the story?” you might ask. “Doesn’t that worry you?” Sometimes. I dunno. I take more to heart with each passing year the Scriptural idea that this life is a write-off anyway, and that heaven will cure every disappointment. But I’ll tell you what does worry me: the idea that God isn’t who Scripture says he is – good, and without evil. The idea of Scripture being false? That grinds my gears.
I know, I know – the definition of “good” isn’t ours to decide. God isn’t evil to wipe out nations. I cannot agree with Christine Suhan’s statement that “God’s plan is never for someone to have cancer.” Her take is un-Biblical, throwing out Scripture to secure sympathy.
But what about James 1:13, which lays sin at the feet of “man’s evil desires”? Or Daniel 10, which sees demonic forces clashing in the ether as if in open war? Or Ezekiel 13, which tells of false prophets wounding God’s people when he “had caused them no grief” (v.22)? These are things which God simply answers with anger, disappointment, and offers of healing, as if he would rather have avoided the whole affair entirely.
Surprised by Scripture
In our zeal to make God look good (and ourselves more comforted), we vigorously defend our positions on sovereignty. Each of us thinks we preach well. The first camp people think they’re making God look good by attributing all things to him. The second think they’re making him look good by emphasizing his heart, his outrage on our behalf, and his desire to heal. It turns, if we are not vigilant, into an agenda.
What we all must remember is that God alone decides what makes him look good. We must follow his definitions of his glory, not our own. And those definitions are found in Scripture, which has a way of surprising each of us. Nobody expected the manger. The humble youth of Jesus didn’t fit into human ideas of God’s greatness. Yet on the other hand, Israel’s exiles obviously weren’t expecting God to actually act like, you know, God. They toyed with him, mocked him, and eventually found out that he is very much sovereign over heaven and earth – to their detriment.
We must all be prepared to be surprised. You and me.
For Scripture doesn’t seem to fully answer the question of sovereignty versus free will. Perhaps it’s not interested in doing so. It seems more interested in questions like, “Will you live for God today?”, which is something we can all do.
But the reason I really care about this?
The sufferer. Eventually, the sufferer will ask us the question. “Why?” And in that moment, it would be good to know which type of person we’re dealing with.
As someone who’s spent some time counseling youth (and being counseled as one), I’ve found that what I speak is not always what another person hears. When you tell someone God has a purpose in their pain for his glory, they might be the type to accept it well. Or they might hear “God isn’t concerned with your pain. He’s going to make himself look good with it later. Rejoice in your trauma!”
Over many years, I’ve wrestled with God’s sovereignty. Eventually, I realized that it’s not actually sovereignty I dislike (not that it matters what I dislike – it matters what’s in Scripture), but how it’s delivered. There are those who teach sovereignty so enthusiastically that they blow right past the sufferer’s question – “but what about my pain?” – and leave him without a sense of God’s compassion. Even if it’s not done to their faces, they hear it nonetheless – in sermons, in books, in conversations.
Yet if you were to paint God as a sympathetic Father who allowed it to happen simply because “that’s his policy”, there are problems with that, too. You don’t want to convince someone that God “just doesn’t step in anymore”, even if he didn’t that time, or that there’s no purpose to it. Awful beliefs to base one’s life upon.
What Is God Saying?
Obviously, sovereignty a delicate thing to deliver. Perhaps that’s why God said this:
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
If we want to glorify God, we obey his command to us today and mourn. That’s it. For if God is asking us to do that, it’s probably what he himself is doing.
Neil T. Anderson taught me in Victory Over the Darkness that there’s no race against the clock to secure a grieving person’s theology. There will be time for tough questions later. Even when that time comes, there are things we cannot know and should not presume to say. Some people don’t need to hear that God has a purpose for their pain; they need to see it. They need to see the plan unfold, the holy hijacking arrive at its destination as God turns the Enemy’s doings against him like a judo master in his prime, before such high things become understandable. And until that day comes, what they need is his compassion. Others might indeed need to know that their pain is doing something for them, and not the idea of “perfect versus permissive will”. They need to carry the Biblical idea of a God who has every molecule of his universe under control.
There is a time to offer nothing to the sufferer except for our tears. And we cannot set limits on that time. When they are ready for truth, they will need to know God’s sovereign power and his compassion. In ways beyond our understanding, both are 100% true. We know that much. We must avoid any message that cancels one of them out. Romans 8:28 doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grieve. And his compassion doesn’t exclude all sacrifice. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the cross – or the events of Revelation, which will, praise God, come to pass.
How incredible to think God works all things together for good, and still mourns with those who mourn.