The Sovereignty Question: Does God Control Everything?
There are many who believe that whatever is destined to be, will be. They think that humans have nothing to do with the future; that is God’s sphere. Things only happen, these folks contend,because of God’s sovereignty, and human beings don’t really cause anything to happen that God wouldn’t have done anyway. This group would argue that our thoughts, beliefs, and actions are more of an aside, because God will do what God will do, irrespective of what humans do.
To be sure, there are some “God things” we can do nothing about. They are just going to happen in our lives. Paul says God “works out everything in agreement with the counsel and design of his [own] will” (Eph. 1:11). He also wrote, “Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, ‘Why did you shape me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20). God does do the sovereign thing from time to time; we must accept that.
But the Bible is also jammed with story after story of God responding to the will of his people. To claim that everything that happens in the universe is the result of God’s sovereign will just doesn’t make sense. If God had really wanted to create a world where humans couldn’t control things to some degree, then why did he create a world filled with laws—laws so specific and predictable that we can send a person to the moon and predict within a fraction of a second when he or she will land there? What if God created laws precisely so that we humans could have more control over our lives?
The great apostle Paul claimed, “All things are yours, whether . . . the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours” (1 Cor. 3:22). In another place he wrote, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). These texts assert that the way we participate in the world God created is much the same way a farmer participates with the laws of nature. A farmer who wants the earth to yield a corn crop must learn to cooperate with nature to get it. Nature does not select the kind of harvest—it waits for the farmer to decide. The farmer makes that choice. He predicts the field’s future by the kind of seed that is sown there.
What if God doesn’t determine the tone of our lives on his own? My personal level of joy skyrocketed as I learned to pray scriptures like “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Peace began to pervade my soul when I stopped focusing on my circumstances and intentionally thanked Jesus for promising “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give isn’t like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27).
What if we can take more control of our emotions, our responses to life, and even some of the negative circumstances that hit us, through Bible-based praying and learning to trust God to help? What if everything is not determined?
Though it may be uncomfortable at the onset, the Bible supports the idea that what God does or does not do in our lives is connected on some level to whether or not we trust him. A pretty provocative thought. If this is true, we have to face some tough questions: Am I really trusting God in my life? Am I trusting God in my finances? Do I trust him in my marriage [or my single life]? Do I really trust him as I process life’s major changes? If we are NOT, it appears we won’t be able to expect much in the way of God’s activity in our lives.
This would suggest that much of life is under our individual control. But then another bunch of questions immediately pop up in our minds: What about sovereignty? What is God in control of? If I have this kind of authority, how do I feel about where my life is right now?
Presumably, if things are going well, you will feel pretty good. But what if things are going horribly? The idea that you are responsible for how much good you experience can be a pretty heavy weight if your body is wracked with cancer, you have just lost your job, or your marriage is on the rocks.
If you uncritically accept that humans have control in this world, you will end up believing that every person who has a hard life is a bad person. But that is not fair.
The truth is, sometimes we can stop things with our faith, and other times we can’t. Of course we ask in response, “How can we know when we can and when we can’t?” I don’t think anyone knows that answer but God. Faith is not an exact science.
So what should we do? Simply this: acknowledge that trusting God and making good choices gives you the best shot at a great life. So go for it. Seek God. Trust in him to bring the best into your life. However, remember that life in this world is way too complex (and you and I are way too “creaturely”) to think that our actions and responses in faith consistently control anything.
I love trusting God for help and healing and provision and restoration. But there are no absolute guarantees. Faith is more like probability theory. Ask a scientist where an atom’s electron is at any given moment and she will tell you where it probably is—most of the time. Trust God in life and things will probably get better for you—most of the time. But sometimes they don’t get better. In fact, sometimes things get worse. In other words, bad things happen to good people.
People who say having “great faith” guarantees that one will never suffer are either too ignorant, too young, too inexperienced, or too isolated from real people. They have definitely joined the “Beyond the Bible”club. Some of the godliest people I know (and lots of the Bible people) have had some pretty horrible moments. Sometimes life is logical; sometimes it isn’t. And when it is not, you have to “fly” by faith, trusting that God is good—good enough to work out his will even in the bad.
There is a story in the life of King David that illustrates this point (2 Sam. 12). He hears that his son has taken ill and begins to fast and pray night and day that the child will be healed. But the child dies. Because of David’s intense vigil, his servants are afraid that he might do “something desperate.” So they don’t tell him. But David sees them talking and asks if the child is dead. When he learns the truth, the Bible says David gets up, washes and gets dressed, worships at the temple for a while, and then returns to his house and asks to be served some food. His servants are confused. “Why are you acting this way?” they ask. “While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”
David responds, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
This is how I think the believer should respond to trouble. When it comes, we hit it with prayer, faith, fasting, crying, and a total commitment of abandonment to God and his promises. Sometimes that changes the world. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we need to get up, wash and change our clothes, go to church and worship, and grab a bite to eat. We move on. And the next time trouble knocks; we go after it again.
Though the Bible is clear that trust in God can dramatically impact our lives, it is equally clear that there is mystery in life—things happen that we cannot get our minds around. In those times we have to learn to dance with the mystery. We have to be OK with questions. We need to do what we know to do, but at the end of the day, we must trust our sovereign God for the outcome.
Obviously, this kind of chatter musters a boatload of questions. I was a fundamentalist once. We didn’t have any questions, only answers. I think we thought asking questions was a sign of a lack of faith. But hooray for questions. Questions help us acknowledge the seeming contradictions present in faith. Truth is, authentic Christianity is lived out in the tension of paradox. Questioning is the only way to stay balanced in the tension—it is the pole in the hands of the tightrope walker. Ask questions. Maybe Christianity isn’t just about having answers; maybe it’s about asking great questions; maybe it’s about being OK—trusting even—when those questions remain unanswered. At least for now.