Somewhere in the world today a senseless tragedy will occur.
Someone will die in a car accident.
A natural disaster will destroy a family’s home.
An innocent person will be murdered.
I say “senseless,” but if you ascribe to a certain view of God’s sovereignty, then these tragedies will, in fact, be the will of God, preordained before the dawn of time for some mysterious purpose.
Sadly, this understanding of what it means for God to be sovereign is increasingly dominating much of the church today, at least in America, thanks to the rise of so-called Neo-Reformed theology. This theological framework is centered around an all-powerful God who is in absolute and total control of everything, not just in a ultimate sense, but in a micro-managing fashion in which God causes literally everything that happens.
Is there a Biblical tradition that speaks to God being all-powerful? Of course. One need only look to the last few chapters of Job to see this on full display.
But the Bible has much, much more to say about what it means for God to be sovereign.
When one strand of thought in the Bible is held up against all others in order to maintain a particular theological paradigm that will allow its adherents to claim their position as the right (or orthodox) position, the beautiful narrative of Scripture becomes replaced by monotone demagogy. In turn, when this sort of willful blind adherence to a particular doctrine, itself driven by fear, is combined with an incessant need to be right, what results is a theology of false necessities and a God who is more monster than savior.
The radical view of God’s sovereignty upheld by this approach to God’s power creates a legion of theological, practical, and pastoral problems. If God preordains and causes everything, then how are we held guilty for sin when it was really God who acted, not us? How is telling someone God wanted their child to die in a car accident in any way comforting? Moreover, if God is the cause of everything that happens, then God becomes the source of evil, but not just that – God becomes evil.
But if we can set aside our fear and drown out the cries of the demagogues enough to look at the entire sweep of scripture we will see a God far more concerned about the actions and input of His people, than manipulatively micro-managing every moment of creation. That is to say, in the Bible we see a God who cares about what people think and even changes His actions and decisions as a result.
Moses pleaded with God not to destroy Israel in the desert and as a result, God changed His mind and the people were allowed to live. In the book of 1 Samuel, God promised the house of Eli that they would be His priests forever, but the wicked actions of Eli’s sons forced God to change His plans. Jesus too changed his mind and course of action. When a Canaanite woman came to him begging to be healed he initially rebuffed her request, but her act of faith changed his mind and Jesus decided to healing her.
In short, the Bible presents a picture of the future that is open ended because God has chosen to grant humanity free will rather than exploit His own omnipotence. And free will means our actions, and therefore the future cannot be predestined in the sort micro-managing fashion some would have us believe.
We can God’s rejection of coercive power and manipulative sovereignty most vividly in the life of Jesus.
In a passage I quote often in my posts, Paul tells describes the kenosis, or giving up of divine power, we witness Jesus doing in the gospels,
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
This is not the sort of sovereignty and power demanded by so many in the church today.
It’s the complete opposite.
A total rejection of humanity’s expectations of what divine power and sovereignty should look like.
The life of Jesus proclaims in no uncertain terms that the power of the God is found in weakness, in the giving up of divine power in order to serve those who don’t deserve it. This is why Jesus was born in a stable, not a castle. Why he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a chariot. And why he chose to redeem the world through sacrificial non-violence rather than conquering force.
Everything Jesus did was a definitive rejection of the sort of power we crave and which we expect of our gods.
To put it more bluntly, a God defined by his demonstration of absolute power and totalitarian sovereignty is not the God of the Bible.
But this is does not mean that God is in no way sovereign.
Where I think we have become confused is the difference between God’s ultimate sovereignty and the sort of sovereignty that requires God be behind everything that happens.
God can be ultimately sovereign in that God is the Creator of the universe and the One who will bring that universe to its ultimate redemption, but this does not require God to control and manipulate everything action in creation. There is still space within this framework for creaturely freedom, for you and I to make decisions on our own and to act freely of our own accord (and do be held responsible for those actions) without impinging on God’s ultimate creative and redemptive power.
I believe that God has a plan of redemption and that being God He will ultimately fulfill that plan through our cooperation, but God is not Machiavellian. That is to say, God is not using the evil we suffer through as a means to a redemptive end. If that were the case, if evil was a divine attribute, or tool to be used towards achieving some ultimate good, then god would be a perverse monster no different than the countless human tyrants who have committed genocide and mass destruction in the name of establishing their utopia.
But God’s sovereignty is not found in a Machiavellian ability to exploit evil for His own ends.
God’s sovereignty is found in God’s ability to give up power, not in exercising dominion.
This act of giving up power demonstrates a power far greater than the sort of predestined manipulation espoused by so many in the church today. For if God’s power necessarily required that sort of micro-managing sovereignty, then God would be powerless to do otherwise and therefore not even be sovereign over His own decisions. But because God can and has relinquished power through the bestowal of freewill and the giving up of Himself in the form of Jesus, we can see God’s true sovereignty on display through God’s continual self-emptying love.
It is this divine act of kenosis that should serve as the example of how we are to exert the power we have been given as creatures made in the image of a self-emptying God for this is what it really means, what it really looks like to love your neighbor and your enemy as you love yourself.
God is sovereign, but if we insist on that sovereignty being necessarily expressed through the exertion of power and control, then what we are left with is a theological framework in which there is no space for Jesus.
Ultimately, therefore I think we have to make a choice.
Either we allow Jesus to be the primary rubric of the Christian faith and the lens through which we understand the sovereignty and power of God or else we must admit that we have replaced the incarnate God of the gospels with an all-powerful and all-controlling puppet master that we are more comfortable with, a god more like who we would be if we were God.
Yes God is sovereign, but if we do not speak of that sovereignty as being expressed through a free act of self-emptying love, then we do speak of the God of the Bible.
We speak of a god of our own creation.
Grace and peace,
Tomorrow I will continue my discussion of the attributes of God by looking at whether or not there are things God cannot do. Until then, it’s your turn to weigh in on the issue of God’s sovereignty. Does God have to be the cause of everything that happens in order to be God? Or is there space for free will in creation?