Wednesday, August 15, 2018

God’s Sovereignty vs. the Idiocy of Man

What happens when, as Christians, you or I make a mess of our lives in very serious, potentially permanent ways?

I ask the question not as someone with a theoretical curiosity, but as someone who has a habit of doing so.

So, really, where is God when, as his servants, we make complete and utter idiots of ourselves?

Either/Or and Both

With all our recent posts on the subject of Calvinism, many of which strongly emphasize the necessity of acknowledging human responsibility as part of the plan of God for mankind, I suppose it’s possible to give the impression that one or another of our regular writers [*cough* Immanuel Can *cough*] may have an occasional doubt with respect to the sovereignty of God.

Which would be a shame, since the sovereignty of God is actually one of our favorite subjects and nobody who’s posted here questions it for a second. We’re “have our cake and eat it too” Christians: Human responsibility (or “free will”, if we must call it that) cannot properly be set against the sovereignty of God, but rather, it ought to be recognized as existing within (and subservient to) the purposes of God, while still remaining genuine and “free”.

It’s not either/or. It’s both.

The longer I study the Bible, the more I am convinced that a God who is able to work with and around millions of moving pieces, many of which (or whom) behave contrarily to his purposes — and yet STILL accomplish everything he sets out to do — must necessarily be both greater and more worthy of praise, glory and the outright astonishment of his creatures than one who merely compels compliance.

He Rebuked Kings

Yes, God very much allows the will of his creatures to be demonstrated, and for the consequences of human choices to follow naturally from them, but those choices, and the ongoing expression of that will, never impede him from bringing to fruition that which he intends to accomplish.

I am enjoying these thoughts while reading through Psalm 105. Rarely is God’s sovereignty so obviously on display. For instance, speaking of the patriarchs of Israel:
“When they were few in number, of little account, and sojourners in it, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, ‘Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!’ ”
Here are the benefits of willingly cooperating with the plans and purposes of God as revealed to you: Even your mistakes may be converted into good. God’s protection is often in evidence even when you behave like an idiot. Who can the Psalmist be referring to here other than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? And in what context did God “rebuke kings” for the patriarchs?

In the context — get this, please, because it’s the story of my life and possibly even yours — of their cowardice and moral failure.

Patriarchs and Failure

Perhaps Abraham thought of himself only as Abraham the Habiru, wandering alone far from home because of the call of God; promised much, but other than (eventually) a son and some general prosperity, realizing only the tiniest fraction of God’s promised plans for him and for his “seed”. But the Psalmist correctly discerns that God sees him (and his son Isaac, and even his obnoxious, willful grandson Jacob) as “Israel”; as a “they” rather than a “he”. He sees in Abraham a people that he intends to bless, long before the people themselves are actually ever conceived or in play.

And when Abraham is merely human, when he forgets God’s promises, this is when kings get “rebuked”.

You may remember the story. There is famine in Canaan, and Abraham naturally travels where his flocks and his men can find food, in this case Egypt. Concerned that his wife Sarah may draw the attention of powerful Egyptians because of her beauty (and thereby get him killed), he asks her to lie about their marital relationship and pretend to be his sister.

Forgetting the Promises

Now I’m not going to suggest for a moment that I haven’t done any number of things equally cowardly and short-sighted, but it might be pointed out (and it certainly seems clear to the author of Genesis) that Abraham has forgotten a promise made to him by God only a few verses earlier (though it may have been many years in Abraham’s experience). “I will make of you a great nation”, God had promised. How exactly does Abraham expect God to fulfill his solemn promise if: (i) Abraham dies in Egypt; or (ii) Sarah is taken as a wife of Pharaoh? Clearly neither scenario is about to play out if God’s promises carry any weight — something that, most of the time, Abraham appears to believe.

So Pharaoh takes Sarah into his house and enriches Abraham even further, presumably by way of dowry. And Abraham, heir of the promises of God, becomes complicit in his own embarrassment in front of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

Until God says, in effect, “Enough of that”. He afflicts “Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” to such an extent that Abraham is sent away, loot (and, presumably, Sarah’s virtue) intact, to return to the land he should never have left in the first place.

Abraham leaves Egypt enriched. Pharaoh and his household get acquainted with the God of Israel (and you can bet most of them were not in a hurry to become reacquainted with him). Sarah remains ‘unsullied’, if we may use a term of such antiquity. The promises of God are still in play. And the lineage of the Lord Jesus is preserved through Abraham without the contamination of those outside the purposes of God.

Happily Ever After

By the way, this scenario plays itself out again in the life of Abraham’s son Isaac, reminding us of our responsibility as parents to behave in a way that will not stumble our children. There is, again, a famine in the land. This time, instead of Egypt, Isaac travels to Gerar in what is now Palestine. And we are probably not completely surprised to find Isaac exactly replicating his father’s behavior:
“So Isaac settled in Gerar. When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ for he feared to say, ‘My wife,’ thinking, ‘lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,’ because she was attractive in appearance.”
Yet at the end of it all, again, God blesses Isaac. Again, God protects his wife, despite the abject failure of her husband.

Instead of “Rebekah married the king of the Philistines and lived happily ever after without her wimpy husband”, we read instead that “Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him.”

I’m stumped, folks.

What are we to make of a God who not only allows us to be part of his plans and counsel, but allows for and accommodates every one of our sins and missteps along the way?

I think we have to acknowledge him as sovereign, don’t we?


  1. The "God compels obedience" view is somewhat akin to the Greek view of the gods; like us, just more so. That a God can truly be sovereign, and yet grant free will, and still accomplish His purposes, goes beyond what I can conceive. It's not what I would do, if only I had super powers.

    1. Good point, Shawn. It is indeed similar to certain of the ancient Greek views, like those held by the Stoics in particular.

      As I have also suggested in earlier posts, it's akin to Materialist Determinism as well. You see, they figure that if all there is are a) matter and energy, and b) natural laws of science, then even though human beings may not be able to do the math, in principle every action that takes place was established at the Big Bang. There has been no such thing as "free choice" since, according to them. The Calvinists say all the same things: they just call the force that is posited by Determinism by the name "God."

      The root philosophy of the Calvinists and the Materialists, then is this fatalistic Determinism. And if it were true, it would render all emotions, all decisions, all praise and blame, all science and even all rationality pointless: for all would be mere "epiphenomena," as they call them, and the deep truth would simply be that we would all absurdly be playing out a hand dealt to us before the foundation of the World.

      It's a big mess. It denies things like sin, relationship, faith and love, all in one breath. It's no philosophy for a Christian even to try to accept.

      It's one thing to say that God is "sovereign"; it is quite another to say He's "Deterministic." The former is reasonable; the latter is a philosophical distortion imposed on Scripture.

  2. The question is, of course, why are we placed in a situation where we can make missteps in the first place that could be fatal? I have heard the argument made that Evil exists because without it we would not know what Good is. Since that seems to be the formula for making our reality work then God must certainly be in a position to deal with the evil of his free sentient creature and even produce Good out of it even if out of range of our vision. I certainly assume that this does not imply that it is irrelevant as to whether I contribute evil or good

  3. God must certainly be in a position to deal with the evil of his free sentient creature and even produce Good out of it even if out of range of our vision. I certainly assume that this does not imply that it is irrelevant as to whether I contribute evil or good.

    I certainly agree with this.