3 Mistakes We Make When Talking about the Sovereignty of God

On his blog Everyday Theology, professor and blogger Marc Cortez shares from a conversation that recently took place in his daughter’s middle school group.  Marc adds, “I think it does a good job highlighting three mistakes that we often make when we talk about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to sin and suffering in the world.”

Youth pastor: God is sovereign. That means he controls everything that happens.

Middle-schooler: So God was in control when my dog died? Why would God kill my dog?

Youth pastor: That’s a tough one. But sometimes God lets us go through hard times so that we’re prepared for even more difficult things in the future. I remember how hard it was when my dog died. But going through that helped me deal with an even more difficult time later when my grandma died. Does that make sense?

Middle-schooler: (Long pause.) So God killed my dog to prepare me for when he’s going to kill my grandma?

Youth pastor: (Silence.)

Marc continues, “if you look closely at this quick exchange, I think you’ll see three mistakes that people commonly make when talking about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to the bad things that happen in the world.”

1.  We Answer the Wrong Question.  “The student asked about God killing the dog. The youth pastor skipped that question and went directly to God’s permissive will. But the student (understandably) thought the youth pastor was answering the question he actually asked. So he concluded that the youth pastor was agreeing that God did in fact kill the dog, and was just trying to explain why God would do such a thing. That clearly wasn’t the youth pastor’s intent, but by answering the wrong question, he set the student up for that misunderstanding.”

2.  We Confuse Authority and Agency.  “Pretty much all Christians agree that God has authority over everything that happens, even the bad stuff. (Yes, even Arminians affirm that God is sovereign in this sense.) But they disagree on precisely how to understand God’s agency. Some will say that God directly causes everything that happen. Others want to talk about different kinds of causation (i.e. divine and creaturely causation are both at work in every event, but God’s agency is somehow less direct and he is thus not responsible for sin and evil). And I could go on. The point is to recognize that different approaches to divine agency still affirm divine authority. They just unpack it the relationship differently.”

3.  We Try to Make Evil Sound Good.  “There’s a fine line between helping people see that God is amazing enough to use even the worst situations for his good purposes and making it sound like those horrible situations are actually good things. Yes, God can use a bad situation for good ends. He does it all the time. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and God rescued people from famine. The Babylonians crushed Judah, and God demonstrated his awesome holiness. Jesus was executed on a cross, and God redeemed a sinful world. Our God is amazing, and he is always at work in the midst of even the most horrific situations.”  More from Marc here…

I’m glad that Marc took the time to share this story and to identify these “3 Mistakes We Make When Talking about the Sovereignty of God.”  I’ve made them.

The worst thing that we can do is to confuse the confused even more.  With such massive subjects as the God’s sovereignty, evil and suffering in the world–wisdom and pastoral care are paramount.

Like many, I, too, am often called upon to counsel and sit with those who are experiencing loss, have experienced loss,  and who often continue to struggle mentally and emotionally.  First and foremost, when I’m called upon, right there and then, I begin to pray for the right words to speak into the person’s situation–because I never want to mislead or confuse those who are awaiting a word of comfort or encouragement.

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10 Responses to 3 Mistakes We Make When Talking about the Sovereignty of God

  1. David Beirne says:

    Excellent explanation. Thank you for this.

  2. Jon Hughes says:

    This is where I do believe that teachers such as Greg Boyd (open theism) have something to say.

    However, there are problems either way…

    The question is whether you want a God who allowed your dog to die (let’s assume the dog died young and unexpectedly) – so why, if God is all powerful, did he not sovereignly arrange circumstances to prevent the death; or whether you want the circumstances of your dog’s death to be outside of God’s control – so now God’s off the hook, but the universe is a really scary place, if there are certain events that are outside His control.

    • TC says:

      Jon, I’ve studied open theism. I’ve read Boyd and others. But I think we are giving up too much in open theism reductionism. Yes, I call it reductionistic!

      Regarding the dog’s analogy, why do we need to analyze how God’s sovereignty works, in his universe, to death? I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ God in the Dock here.

      • Jon Hughes says:

        We don’t need to over-analyze it, but the kid wants solid answers as to why God allowed his dog to die.

        As for open theism, I think that it does the opposite to what you suggest. Classical answers are also reductionist. All ‘systems’ are ultimately reductionist. What Boyd and others do is look at certain Scripture passages that others overlook and/or explain away.

  3. TC says:

    Jon, isn’t an “I don’t know” enough for the kid and his dog? I’m being serious here. Sometimes that is the best answer we can give, rather than misleading and confusing others more.

    The open theist God is too diminished, as I see it. The open theist has to treat texts too much in isolation.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      Hi TC,

      You’d have to ask the kid whether the answer, “I don’t know”, is enough. He may conclude from this lack of a solid answer that there is no explanation and therefore no God. It’s just the way it is. **** happens! He goes away liberated from the problem of theodicy and gets on with living his life. What were you like at that age?

      I’m not defending open theism as much as pointing out deficiencies in other explanations. For example, after John Sanders’ brother died in a roadside accident some Calvinist friends suggested that God had ordained his brother’s death so that Sanders might become a Christian. Sanders then asked himself why God would allow his (non-Christian) brother to die so that he might be saved. Some brethren exult in this kind of ‘Sovereignty’. Clearly Sanders didn’t, and I’m not sure I could either.

      Presumably, you believe that all things happen as a result of God’s permissive will. Some believers simply cannot accept this as a satisfactory explanation for why bad things happen. I certainly don’t have a ‘system’, but do find that, at times, open theism better reflects the reality on the ground.

      • TC says:

        Jon, at that age, going to church, I was taught just to accept what is. For this kid, we outline who God is and let this kid know that not everything can be explained as 2+2=4.

        Yes, Calvinists can be such knuckleheads. I personally resent this effort of explaining these events. As with the kid and the dog, I say leave things simple, and there’s always Who God is, and we always don’t know and can’t explain what happens around us.

        Yes, my view of God is simply this: God is sovereign over all, yet evil and suffering happening and so on. My ultimate trust is in who God is, and not so much in what happens around and in me.

  4. Jon Hughes says:

    But isn’t the question of who God is and what we see happening around us connected?

    • TC says:

      Yes, in a way, but I remember Isaiah saying that God does hide his face from us at times. Theologians have understood this to mean the secret ways of God.

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