Sovereignty, Providence, and Cultural Blinders
It’s difficult to assess the spread of views on sovereignty and providence in the Christian population.
I have friends, daily devout and simply faithful, who never use these terms in their discussion of God, ever. To them, and for them, God is largely their good buddy, an equal partner, someone who contributed significantly to their salvation, but who is essentially their personal protector when needed, a doddering figure who doles out useful doses of friendly wisdom, when asked, and who intervenes in a crisis when prayer is passed up the chain; although how this casual friend has the authority or power to actually accomplish anything always seems obscured.
Other good friends are those who tend to be more legalistic and who use the Bible as the source of authority to get their way. And it is a good thing that God has joined their team, because their way is the most properly aligned with the Bible, and their way is the surest path to success in establishing God’s Kingdom. These folks speak of God as sovereign, and it sounds as though he is actually pretty powerful, but they are the ones in the driver’s seat. He is sovereign, to be sure, but their lives reflect only a passing nod to any form of submission on their part. Like some odd anime character, God is a powerful weapon in their hands as they move the Kingdom forward on their own terms.
I have known others who view God as a capricious despot who uses his power and authority to push us around with arbitrary and often nasty acts for his own nefarious ends. These people tend to either live in paralyzing terror that God will smite them if they aren’t “holy enough” or they reject him altogether, calling him that “Old Testament God,” who murdered people and said it was “okay” for some hidden reason. It is inevitable that you can’t have a relationship with a God like this. How sad that the hearts of men love to create gods who are infinitely distant.
And then there are some of us, the reasonable few, like myself, of course, who confidently pick up our Westminster confession and want so desperately to trust God’s sovereignty and providence. We want to believe that, “necessarily, freely, or contingently” connects to us with faithful regularity and means that God really loves us! We cling so desperately to “doth.” He “doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions and things…” These phrases reflect God’s Word, lofty and promising, and for the most part, we believe them firmly and have a ready response when we are cornered about How It All Works with vague references to “the mysteries of God.” But for the most part, it is confusing, and mysterious, and doesn’t really align very well with what happened last Tuesday.
Or, when we are honest, we struggle with figuring out how sovereignty and providence jive with most Tuesdays. We struggle with the issue of God being in charge. And we try to pretend that this is an intellectual struggle against a mystery, but the truth is that it is difficult for us to trust God.
The problem starts with our hearts, of course. We don’t want to submit to a Sovereign, and we are afraid to trust his plan. That is our vivacious starting point as humans. Once we are united to God through faith in Christ, we can at least want to submit, and we try to overcome our fears. In our union with Christ by faith, we know, finally, that God has a loving plan for us, one that truly is for his glory and our good.
But then it’s Tuesday, again.
As Americans, (and sinners), we don’t have an example of a Good King. There is no “authority” in our lives, or in our world, who is powerful and benevolent on our behalf. The most vivid expression of authority in our lives is traffic control. When we drive our cars, we must stop at red signs and red lights. And when I say, “stop,” of course, I am not talking about what a physicist would consider a cessation of relative motion against the surrounding environment; we all know that “stop” means “coast” or “slow down.” And don’t even get me started about those vague suggestions, you know, those numbers surrounded by “SPEED LIMIT.”
The fact is that traffic laws are not benevolent, personal, or even very sovereign. And yet, they teach our eager hearts daily that submission to sovereign authority is distant and avoidable, optional, irrelevant, and not in control as much as my gas pedal. When we say that God works out everything for his glory and for the good of his people, we don’t have a workable image in our mind to say, “God is like that.”
Cultural influences present a challenge to our “go to” verse about God’s providence and plan in Romans 8:28. God is working everything out for Good! This verse is absolutely true, but perhaps we look at that verse through optimistic American eyes, where “all things” are supposed to stinkin’ work out with a happy Hollywood ending where the good guys win, the bad guys get blown away, and everybody is happy, healthy, and rich with no bad outcomes or consequences. We are then disconsolate when things don’t work out that way; often the wicked do prosper, and in every story, when we are honest, we are the bad guys who should be blown away.
You see, on Tuesday, something goes wrong and Houston, We Have a Problem. We are enlightened people who know what good is. It is true that God made us so that we can tell the difference between good and bad. But we need to be careful not to twist this to mean that good is when my plan works out, and when bad things don’t happen to me. Inevitably, in a moment of pungent reality, Tuesdays always shake our Westminster Confession foundation and life begins to fall apart.
It is a vivid struggle. How do you put “good” together with the fact that God’s sovereign plan includes, sickness, pain, death, suffering, financial struggles, careening careers, failed grades, broken marriages, defiant children, failed parenting, car wrecks, collapsing bridges, war, poverty, injustice, political intrigue, lost luggage, delays, coffee that is too sweet, clocks that are off by five minutes, dogs that bark when you’re on the phone, rotting fruit, grass that always needs to be cut, trashcans that are always full, and gas tanks that are always empty. Your heart has a ready answer; the only guaranteed constant in life is that there will always be something that will remind you that your plan is better than God’s! Hence the struggle; we know that God works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose, but MY plan for Tuesday didn’t include any problems!
The solution to Tuesday has two parts.
First, we need to fill our lives and minds with the word. Trite, of course, expected, of course, imperative? Absolutely. The solution to our conflict with sovereignty is truth; lots of it. We need to overwhelm our Tuesdays, our traffic, our mystery excuses, our rotting fruit with so much truth that nothing else matters. We also need to balance and inform our “go to” verse in Romans 8 with another passage, Acts 2:22-23: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (ESV)
We wonder why God lets bad things happen to us, and this verse changes the object of that wonder. Rather than basing our confidence in God’s plan on something as fluid and shifting as whether Tuesday was good or not in our eyes, let’s place our feet on the foundation of God’s definite plan and foreknowledge that crucified his beloved son on our behalf. God himself suffered the worst evil and pain in all of history as part of his own, sovereign, plan so that we can have him. This passage is proof that God uses even the worst things to bring about glory and love and freedom and joy and peace. He is not capricious about his love and care, he is determined to pour out his love on us, and he has proven his commitment. In this context Romans 8:28 takes on a whole new meaning; for those united to Christ by faith, everything is good and works out for our happiness and salvation.
Second, we need to go back a few thousand years and visit a family of Israelites in Egypt, and it is year 200 of Israel’s enslavement. Imagine the young son, after a day of slave labor, perhaps beaten, asking his father about the sovereignty and providence of God. He asks his father about when “good things” will begin to happen, he knows the difference. For him, every day is Tuesday. His father knows the Scriptures, the promise of God to Abraham, the Law. Israel must “be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” What do you tell your son when you know that you, he, his children and grandchildren will all live and die as slaves in Egypt? Did the love of God somehow get used up by Joseph?
At the core, this is our Tuesday dilemma. How do we reconcile what we know is true about God with the unassailable evidence that life is one endless trouble after another?
Humble faith. We must believe that no matter the sorrow, no matter the pain, this is the very thing for which Jesus died and this is the exact thing that he will deliver us from. Maybe not today, maybe not even in this lifetime, but deliverance is a guarantee. And despite the present circumstance, God still loves us, he still cares, his plan is still benevolent, we still have a glorious future, still, still, still.
By faith, God’s sovereignty and providence are unassailable by any number of Tuesdays.
This blog was written by Charles Fox