Discern God’s Sovereignty and Providence
In his book Is God to Blame?, Gregory Boyd tells the story of a woman named Melanie. After preaching a sermon on living with passion, he was approached by this distraught middle-aged woman. She used to be on fire for God, but a tragedy in her life deadened her spiritually and sent her into a pit of deep depression. She said, “I used to love to read the Bible and pray, but now I find it both laborious and aggravating. I just feel dead!”
She hadn’t gotten married until she was in her mid-thirties. After three years, she and her husband still hadn’t been able to conceive a child. Doctors told her it was unlikely she ever would because of a medical condition. But then suddenly, it happened. She was pregnant. It seemed to be a miracle. The pregnancy went fine, but as the baby was being delivered, something terrible happened and the baby died. Their miracle had turned into a nightmare. Melanie and her husband were left with a question that tortured them: “Why would God miraculously give them a child, only to take the baby away while coming into the world? Why did this happen to them? Even more tormenting, why was God preventing them from conceiving again?” Those are tough questions and the answers they received from other Christians didn’t satisfy them.
Greg Boyd’s answer is that God didn’t have anything to do with it. God didn’t bring this tragedy into Melanie’s life. Instead, God sees what happened to her and he wants to free her from her pain and help her get beyond it. Boyd says, “…we have no reason to assume God put Melanie and her husband through this tragic ordeal. Rather, we have every reason to assume God was and is at work to deliver Melanie and her husband from their ordeal.”
That sounds like a nice answer. It’s an answer that appeals to many people today. It’s an answer that comes out of a trend in theology known as open theism. Open theists like Gregory Boyd don’t believe God is sovereignly in control of all that happens. Instead, they believe God has given up control and allows the universe to take its course. Events that happen are just as surprising to God as they are to us. Open theists speak about God taking risks and chances and respecting and allowing for human freedom to the fullest extent. Open theism is the logical endpoint of the Arminian view of God and his sovereignty – Boyd and others like him admit as much. Moreover, as you can see from the story about Melanie, this is not some pie-in-the-sky ivory tower academic discussion. How you view God and his sovereignty and his providence impacts how you reflect on what happens in your life, both the pleasant and the not-so-pleasant, even the ugly and heart-breaking.
As always, our plumb line for discerning truth has to be the infallible and inerrant Word of God. We have to set aside our own feelings and opinions and let God speak. When we do that, we discover three important related truths in the Bible.
First, the Bible speaks about God’s overarching absolute sovereignty. He is fully in control of all things. Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” God is, as we say, omnipotent — all-powerful.
Second, the Bible speaks about God in his providence is in control of all good. He sovereignly ordains all the things that we experience as being good and immediately perceive as beneficial. For example, Psalm 65:9-13 speaks of how God waters the earth so that crops grow. God crowns the year with his bounty. Few people have difficulty accepting this biblical teaching.
The third truth is far less palatable, but just as biblical. God also sovereignly ordains and controls all the things that we experience as being difficult and have trouble perceiving as being beneficial for us. There are numerous Scripture passages which teach this. Here are a few:
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:38)
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20)
In addition, you could also see Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 102:10 and Deut. 32:39. Moreover, the Bible also teaches that all things (both the things we experience as good and those we experience as troublesome) work together for our good (Romans 8:28). In the beautiful words of Answer 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism, God will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in his life of sorrow. Nothing happens to us by chance — it’s all in the hands of our good, loving heavenly Father.
Sadly, open theism has made significant inroads. Quite some years ago, I wrote about how Philip Yancey in some of his books used the language of open theism. In books like Disappointment with God, Yancey writes of God having taken various risks and chances. Today these kinds of views are widely accepted. In fact, research just released by Barna shows that even among American Christians with an orthodox view of God, only a third believe that he is actively involved in their lives. This reflects the kind of deist theology being peddled by Gregory Boyd and other open theists. It’s a huge departure from the Word of God.
Anyone who’s experienced significant personal loss and suffering is likely going to struggle with what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and providence. Speaking personally, I struggled with it enormously after the loss of my mother to suicide in 2002. The temptation is there to let your feelings dictate how you’re going to view God. We need to resist that temptation and build on the only sure foundation: God’s Word. In the wake of my mother’s death, what got me through and helped me accept my Father’s will was what I knew for certain from the Bible: the cross. I looked at the cross and with my suffering and dying Saviour I saw the love of my Father. The cross was a horrible tragedy, far worse than anything anyone will ever experience. Yet out of that tragedy, our sovereign God brought the greatest good, both for the one who suffered (he was crowned with glory!) and for those who believe in him. I came to see that the cross is how God proves his children can trust him. I’m like a little child and I don’t understand all my Father’s ways and why he does things the way he does. But I look at the cross, and I know he loves me and I know I can trust him. That’s enough for me.