Some of my friends have been discussing the Sovereignty of God.
Is God in control? Is every happenstance: God’s will? How much sway does human will have? Did evil originate with God? And of course the problem of pain: why do “bad” things happen?
This is a difficult topic and no one knows the full and complete bigger picture. What I have to say on this topic is my limited perspective, open to growth and change, and certainly doesn’t answer every question that I personally have on these matters.
I believe that God is sovereign. Nothing that happens on this earth comes as a surprise to him. He permits everything that happens. I believe it is within his capacity to intervene and in some instances it seems that he does, and in other instances it would appear that he allows circumstance and consequence to play out.
I believe that God created human beings with a limited-free-will. Human beings are limited by physics i.e. gravity and the limitations of a physical body that bleeds and dies. Human beings are limited by the capacity of their own brains: intelligence is limited and varies from person to person. Brains also collect and arrange data differently in each person, and no two people have 100% the same perspective of everything in life. There are social and environmental limitations: nationality and culture, family and upbringing, economic factors, religious influences etc. The human will is free in the sense that people can make choices about behavior and lifestyle etc., but even those choices are limited by other people’s choices and the knowledge that there are consequences for everything, not to mention the biases and personalities that we develop that cause us to limit our own choices.
Our human will plays out inside the realm of all these limitations and inside of God’s sovereign will. Yet God has given human will a lot of leeway, and I still believe that there are things that happen in the context of God giving us a will, that go against what he wanted.
I believe there is a distinction between what God wants and what he allows. I watched my mother die of cancer, and I heard her cry out in agony two days before she died because the cancer was eating her alive and her morphine drip had a leak! I do not believe that a body being eaten alive by cancer is ever what God wants. I don’t believe that children being sold as sex-slaves, is something that God is indifferent to. I do not believe that God is violent or that he willed for human beings to go to war – to drop atomic bombs, or murder millions of people in gas chambers, or even for one person to die in a shower of bullets or a sword fight. Human will brought these things about, and God allowed these things, by allowing “free will.” But there is no reason to think that his heart does not break over these things.
John 11:11 says that “Jesus wept.” He appeared to be grieved that his friend Lazarus was dead, and probably felt for Mary and Martha who were deeply hurt by their brother’s death. Isaiah 61 says he comforts all who mourn. He is empathetic to our plight.
In Luke 13, Jesus refers to eighteen people who died when the towers of Siloam fell on them. He makes a point of telling his hearers, that these men were no worse than anyone else! Verse 2-3 “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no!” He gave no specific reason WHY bad things happen, but he confirmed that bad things can happen to anyone and that it doesn’t mean they were worse people or that they were being punished.
But there is a bigger picture that I am beginning to glimpse. It is the plan of redemption. God’s answer to the problem of pain, seems to be: healing, reconciling, loving, blessing, redeeming … saving!
Romans 9-11 paints a picture of both sovereign will and human will and how God steers human will in such a way, so that he can save the entire world. Romans 9: 16-18 ‘It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.’ Calvinists use this text to support the idea that God is not only sovereign, but that he in fact chooses exactly who he will save and who he will not. But we need to read the whole three chapters to understand what is really going on here.
Romans 10 says almost the exact opposite! ‘How can anyone call on the one whom they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?’ In this chapter, Paul is now painting a picture of human will, and how our behavior factors into people hearing the message of salvation and being saved. Arminians use this chapter to back up their belief that it is a human being’s decision whether or not to put their faith in Jesus and be saved, and that it is no fault of God’s if a person refuses to believe.
But still, Paul has not finished. He brings together this picture of God’s sovereignty and human will in chapter 11:25-36 when he says: ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in and in this way all Israel will be saved … Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all!’
It’s not either / or; it is both and. God allows hearts to be hardened. God uses those hard hearts to bring other people to salvation (i.e. the Gentiles see the Jews are hardened against God, and they repent. Then, crazily enough, the Jews see the Gentiles repenting, and they become jealous and repent too!) There was a human will at work, being hardened and feeling jealous and sharing the gospel and receiving it or delaying the reception of it … but in the end, God saved all Israel and all Gentiles through his sovereign will which allowed human will to have its day of disobedience, only to be overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of God!
I see God’s sovereign will as allowing a lot of “bad” things to happen on this earth. But I see his ultimate plan of redemption triumphing over all, in the end – not to the abuse of human will, but incorporating and allowing free will, knowing that every human being will eventually see the light.
God’s love wins.