Most Christians readily see God’s hand in the blessings of life. When we successfully land a job after an interview, when our child enters into the school of their choice (or is it ours?) or after a favourable health report, our heart overflows with thanksgiving and we are eager to testify of God’s goodness and acknowledge him as the giver.
However, whenever problems come our way, when we find ourselves in trying or challenging circumstances, we often have difficulties believing that God is absolutely sovereign over all of life. Indeed, how can Christians attribute what we perceive to be undesirable or are contrary to God’s revealed moral laws to God himself? But if God has no part to play in any of those scenarios, what are we to make sense of all those Bible verses that talk about God’s sovereignty, whether it is in creation, providence, redemption and judgment?
Consider Proverbs 16:33 where it says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD”. Historians tell us that the casting of lot involves the random selection or distribution of objects in order to make a choice that is uncontrolled and unbiased by the participants. In Israel, it was typically performed in order to receive God’s direction (Josh 18:8). Can you imagine? Even a seemingly random practice of casting lots falls under God’s providential governance.
Nevertheless in this matter, a Christian must not then go on to blame God if the outcome did not turn out as we desired after we made our decision based on the result of our dice-throwing or coin-flipping. This is because the Bible teaches us to exercise wisdom and to seek godly counsel. Just as we are to be held responsible for our own actions and behaviour, we would also be commended in obedience to God’s commandments. While holding on to the truth of God’s sovereignty, the Bible also asserts that God has indeed given humans true freedom to choose and respond.
Although God’s people in the Bible do grapple with the unfathomable ways in which God relates with humanity, they seem to have less of a problem accepting both good and trouble from God (Job 2:9-10). For example, the writer of Lamentations declared “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” (Lam 3:37-39). Just as in creation, God spoke and things came to pass (Ps 33:9), it was evident to the writer (as it should to us) that God has sovereignly decreed in history for certain events to take place, including Jerusalem’s destruction.
If there’s anything we know about Jerusalem’s destruction, it is that it was no pretty sight. After being surrounded by the Babylonian army and enduring a long siege, the city eventually fell in 587 BC. Jerusalem was burnt down to rubbles and the Temple was desecrated and destroyed. It is certainly heart-wrenching to read of the bloodshed, losses and suffering that the inhabitants of the city experienced and endured during that time.
Even though we know that these tragedies came about due to Israel’s stubbornly idolatrous ways, it would not be surprising if many today may find it unthinkable for God to bring about such harsh judgment upon his own covenantal people. After all, how humane are God’s “disciplinary” actions that he would declare through prophet Jeremiah that “I will appoint them over four kinds of destroyers… the sword to kill, dogs to tear… beasts of the earth to devour and destroy… I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh the son of Hezekiah, king of Judah did in Jerusalem” (Jer 15:3-4)?
Perhaps some are inclined to think that it would suffice for God to continue reasoning with Israel and demand the wayward nation to stand at some “naughty corner” to reflect on her transgressions rather than to carry out judgement through the wicked nation of Babylon. After all, in some countries today, corporal punishment of children is banned and parents will be taken to task by the law for such practices.
Interestingly enough, even though the Bible makes it clear that Babylon is indeed directly responsible for the violence and devastation, the writer of Lamentation does not flinch and take the easy road saying that God merely allowed those tragedies to happen. Instead if one considers his choice of language, such as “The LORD determined to lay in ruins the wall… he did not restrain his hand from destroying… he caused rampart and wall to lament…” (Lam 2:8), these all imply God’s involvement. While God is not bloodthirsty nor does he direct injustice to his people, it was God who decided to use the evil inclinations of the Babylonians as a rod to chastise Israel.
To be sure, there is much more that needs to be said with regards to God’s sovereignty and man’s free will as well as the questions of the origin and continued existence of evil here on earth. To some, that God does not prevent evil from existing seems to call into question his omnipotence or his benevolence. Here, Church Fathers such as Augustine and many other Christian thinkers believed part of the mystery could be solved by identifying evil as a privation of the good, suggesting that evil is something without existence in and of itself.
Reformed thought on this issue is also aptly summarized by the Westminster Confession of Faith Article 3:1 – “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
Thus, God is the “first cause” of all things, while evil is a product of “second (or secondary) causes”. In the words of John Calvin, “First, it must be observed that the will of God is the cause of all things that happen in the world: and yet God is not the author of evil”. Put in another way, God Himself cannot do evil and cannot be blamed for evil even though it is part of His sovereign decree.
Although we will never be able to fully comprehend the workings of God’s sovereignty, we know that apart from God’s sovereignty and goodness, there can be no salvation and no hope. After all, if God’s purposes can be thwarted and the outcome of our lives is ultimately dependent upon us, what difference has Jesus’ death and resurrection made? Is there any other place to find comfort and assurance in our times of sorrow and affliction apart from God’s love that is graciously and perfectly revealed in the person and saving work of Jesus Christ? What better hope is there than Jesus returning to restore all things, bringing God’s final judgment upon Satan and evil and welcoming all who had trusted him as Saviour and Lord into God’s loving presence? Until that final day comes, let us thank God that we are never helpless victims of some random happenings but that in all circumstances, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Even if sometimes it feels like God is against us.
Rev Edwin Wong
May 16, 2021