An Open Response to a Statement Regarding the Sovereignty of God.
A while back, some Facebook friends were rejoicing over God’s promise in Jer. 29:11 that His plans are for our welfare and to give us a hope and a future. That is a promise worthy of deep joy — it’s also a promise which must be taken in context, something that can be difficult to do when that context is the suffering of deportation and enslavement.
My statement: He’s telling them that the plan He has for them is to be conquered, exiled to a foreign land to be ruled over by a pagan king for 70 years, then at the end of those 70 years He will call some of them back home to Judea. That’s not exactly what a lot of us think of, though, when we hear that God’s got these great plans for us.
The Response: God’s plan wasn’t for them to be exiled. They brought that on themselves by breaking their covenant, and bringing on the discipline. God warned them over and over that if they didn’t turn from their ways, they would face the consequences. It’s NEVER God’s plan for us to suffer or be disciplined. It breaks His heart when we won’t listen and disobey. If they had followed God like they said they would, they would have only seen the blessings of the covenant. I relate, because I turned away from God and made choices that had devastating and life-long consequences. This was NOT God’s plan for me. I am so deeply thankful that God is a merciful and loving God, who patiently waited for me to see the truth, and turn to Him.
My Open Response:
I haven’t replied to your message yet because I first wanted to ponder my thoughts and weigh my words carefully. What you say, above, has a depth of consequences and ramifications that, if true, would alter our theological reality—which is why the core of this topic has been debated for millennia. And I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I in no way have enough knowledge or intelligence to produce any kind of final word on the subject; what theologians have been discussing, debating, and pondering for generations, I’m not going to be able to definitively answer. Please allow me, though, to share with you some observations and ask some questions, because it’s crucial to not be in error regarding the core of this topic: the sovereignty of God.
There is a divine tension here between two realities, like a rubber band stretched between your index fingers. Pulling one end is the reality of God’s sovereignty; pulling the other, the reality of our freedom to make life choices and bear, not only the consequences (good or ill) of those choices, but also the responsibility before God for the choices made. Scripture is clear that both realities coexist in infinite harmony.
Of those two, I think it’s God’s sovereignty, His divine Providence and position as final authority and Righteous Judge, that we struggle with the most. It’s tough to get our finite brains around ‘transcendence’ or to see how suffering could be His preconceived idea, but Scripture is clear that Christ was “slain before the foundation of the world,” (Rev 13:8) and “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rm 5:6). If Jehovah would establish a specific, right time and intend suffering for the second part of Himself, why should we expect Him to not intend it for us?
Also, to say < It’s NEVER God’s plan for us to suffer or be disciplined.> is not only to assume that we know His mind but also contradicts Hebrews 12: “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline (of which all have become partakers), then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” Or how could Paul “deliver such a one [unrepentant sinner] to Satan for the destruction of his flesh that his spirit may be saved” (1 Cor. 5:5)? Or John record from outside time and space, “If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes” (Rev 13: 10)?
#1 ~ We always learn far more through suffering hardship and rebuke than we ever do during ease; even the cliché ‘taking the easy way out’ implies times and paths of ease are of little ultimate benefit. So, if this is our natural bent, the way we function, then God intentionally “knit and wove us together” this way for a purpose. And being intentionally fashioned in this way by our Creator would seem to imply He also intends us to experience those hardships and rebukes.
Why? I think Paul gives a partial answer just before those verses in 1 Cor. In 4:20, he says, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power.” As human beings, we can talk a good line, but how few of us ever truly repent and believe until we come to the end of ourselves and see who we are, our corrupt, immoral, sinful nature; broken, sick, depraved, and hopeless.
I rejoice with you that < I am so deeply thankful that God is a merciful and loving God, who patiently waited for me to see the truth, and turn to Him >. Me, too!! Preach it, Sister!! But would we have gotten there if we hadn’t gotten to the end of ourselves? Would we have realized our only hope was in Christ Jesus if we never realized we were totally without hope in any other form? Would we be at all inclined to turn away from anything we call our own strength if we had never gotten to the end of that strength and realized it left us in a dark, powerless place? I don’t think so. And it’s at that point where we realize only the power of God is sufficient for salvation.
How do we really know that those horrible decisions we made, the ones that we must bear the consequences and scars for (and I hope you remember I have my share), were not part of His divine Providence for our lives? It is precisely those consequences that led me to Him; without the pain from those choices, I would be an arrogant narcissist—and I’m not alone in that; it’s called the fallen, sinful human condition and was what caused Israel to rebel against God and to be enslaved.
God is either sovereign and all-knowing or He’s not. Israel’s rebellion and subsequent captivity were either known from before creation by an all-knowing God or it crept up on Him in spite of His pleadings and He was forced to punish them in order to keep His word.
That God never wanted Israel’s captivity to happen and, indeed, was powerless to stop it from happening is the very thing Reformed theology is fighting against today. Did God know or did He not? Did He ordain or is He not all-powerful? Is He in absolute, total control over everything or not? If He’s not, then the decisions we make will affect His outcomes and what He does will only be in response to the decisions we make—we, in essence and literally, force His hand. If He’s in total control, though, the implication must include that He foreknows, fore-intends, and fore-ordains every clock-tick of all creation, including the suffering that comes from our disobedience.
#2 ~ Seeing God as Righteous Judge has taken an interesting turn for me lately. The last few years, I’ve been working with some high-powered lawyers in the Twin Cities, doing research for a book I’ve been asked to write. It’s been interesting to see the U. S. judicial system at work from the unique vantage point of being neither civil plaintiff nor defendant, neither criminally charged nor prosecuting, but merely an interested observer of some people who really know what they’re doing.
The reason laws are written in the first place is because people do things that other people determine are not acceptable; a civil society concludes that certain actions or inactions are detrimental to the on-going benefit of their desired social structure. They design laws and rules and regulations, etc., to say ‘this is the type of community we want to live in and civilization we want to maintain.’
The interesting part, to me, comes from the fact that laws are never written until someone has already done what it is the law says not to do; laws are written because man’s inclination is to do harmful things and make injurious statements; laws are accepted by a society because the people in that society have already seen the damaging effects of those behaviors and don’t like what they see or how they have to live as a result of those effects. The penalties for breaking those laws are included with each law as a deterrent to us—don’t do it or this will happen, not because legislators and judges hope we won’t break the law but because they know some of us will.
When Jehovah God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments, mankind already had a long history of doing everything on the list God said not to do. When He told the Israelites to follow Him and Him only, He already knew there’d be no one who could do it; the isolated few who would even want to would only do so because He was with them in a unique way. I think it’s possible God intended their story to be a sign, a shadow (Heb. 10) of how hopeless we are without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit gifted to us by Christ Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, resurrection, and return to the Father.
In Jehovah’s position as Righteous Judge, He knew Israel could not fulfill the law, that they would ultimately disobey Him, and so before the foundation of the world He readied His paints and brushes to produce a portrait of sin, punishment, sacrificial substitution, and restoration in the lives of those Hebrews.
Fair? Who am I to say it is or isn’t. I’m not the ultimate Judge. One of the beauties of God’s design of salvation is that even one of us fallen creatures has an opportunity to know Him, to be called to love and worship Him rather than reap what we deserve and be thrown into the fires of hell forever.
God has made Himself evident to me both as absolute, benevolent Sovereign and as divine, Righteous Judge. God has shown me that I can trust Him to know what’s best for my children, even when, right now, it looks like they’ve fallen into the deep end of the ungodliness the world has to offer. If I thought their being where they are today was solely and only a result of the choices they’ve made and not guided by a larger, higher purpose, then what reason would I have to hope they would ever know anything else?
Immediately following Jehovah’s statement in Jeremiah 29:11 is, “‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (12-14a,23).
I am convinced that our Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End is not hamstrung, surprised, or changed by our choices. If Jehovah could give a picture of the coming of the Messiah by having Moses strike the rock for water only once (Ex 17:5-6 with Num 20:6-12) and by having him place a serpent upon a pole so that all who looked upon it were healed (Num 21:8-9 with John 3:14-15), then I’m convinced that same God, not only foreknows we will fail and at times will suffer, but He has provided the perfect solution. “‘And I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:14).
“For we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined conformed to the image of His Son … He who did not spare His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rm 8:28-29a,32).
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Just as a side note, the movie The Encounter with Bruce Marchiano contains a good depiction of how and why both self-determination and divine providence are true, as well as the interplay between them. It’s available on Netflix.