Finding hope in the sovereignty of God
Books | An excerpt from WORLD’s 2018 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category
by Cameron Cole
Posted 3/09/19, 09:59 am
Cameron Cole’s cry from the heart and mind was WORLD’s 2018 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category because Therefore I Have Hope can benefit both sufferers and their friends who want to help. The center of the book physically and spiritually is God’s providence. Cole passes on a story about a woman lamenting her son’s death in a car accident: “Why did God do this to me?” A well-intentioned hospital chaplain replies, “Ma’am, God didn’t have anything to do with your son’s death.” The woman snaps back, “Don’t you take away the only hope I have.”
Cole writes, “Behind the grieving mother’s remark lies the hope that the sovereignty of God enables. If God is not fully sovereign in your suffering, then you cannot trust that he is fully in control of your healing and recovery. If God’s hands are tied when the Worst enters your life, then maybe his powers are also limited in helping you.” He then gets personal: “The idea that God had nothing to do with my son’s death terrifies me. … For all of these years I would have falsely believed in a universe with higher order and purpose. … If God had nothing to do with my son’s death, then certain pockets of life—the really awful ones in particular—are given over to chaos.”
Cole acknowledges that “the matter of God’s sovereignty and goodness invokes tension”—and the only way to reconcile the two is through the cross. If Jesus’s suffering was part of God’s goodness, in some hard-to-fathom way, ours can be too. As illogical as that seems to atheists, they have failed for 2,000 years to come up with anything better, even in their own eyes. In their blindness, they say light does not exist. We encourage you to read the following excerpt, courtesy of Crossway. —Marvin Olasky
In times of tragedy and suffering, well-meaning pastors and friends frequently offer a religious word that momentarily appears helpful but proves hopeless in the end. As sufferers wrestle with how a loving, good God could allow such painful, wicked things to occur in our lives, people want to say, “God didn’t have anything to do with this.”
After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a pastor spoke on a radio program about how we make sense of such evil. The pastor declared that God had nothing to do with these attacks and said to listeners, “Satan is still the prince of this world.”
A colleague of mine heard the same sentiment expressed at the funeral following the suicide of a middle-aged woman. The pastor spoke directly to her family from the pulpit and assured them, “You need to know that God didn’t have anything to do with this.”
I listened to the podcast of a parent who had tragically lost a young child through an accidental death. She said that her pastor reminded her that God is not a “grand puppeteer,” sitting in heaven orchestrating all the events of the world.
But as a friend, let me sit down with you and tell you the immediately hard but ultimately hopeful truth about your Worst: God did and does have something to do with your tragedy. I know this sounds like a cruel statement, but stay with me. There is hope in the end.
There is both a fundamental and a practical reason why the notion of God’s limited involvement in suffering breeds harm and hopelessness.
Let me tell you what I hear when people say, “God didn’t have anything to do with this.” I hear …
God’s hands are tied.
God took his eyes off the road when your Worst occurred.
Satan is just as great, mighty, and sovereign as God.
God just isn’t that powerful. He’s impotent.
God is not in control.
God is weak.
None of these statements resembles the God of the Bible. The witness of Scripture testifies to a God who remains sovereign in every moment.
The Bible says that God controls the forces of nature (Ps. 147:15–18). His providence rules over plants and animals (Jonah 4:6; Matt. 10:29). He ordains random events (Prov. 16:33; Acts 1:23–26). He reigns over rulers and nations (Job 12:23–25). He controls major disasters (Lam. 3:37–38; Amos 3:6). He has power over the spiritual forces of evil (1 Sam. 16:14; Matt. 8:31–32).
If God controls all these elements of existence—all of which are far less significant to him than you, his child—then certainly he reigns in the story of your life, even in your Worst.
A story my mentor Rev. Frank Limehouse labeled as the most significant moment in his early ministry career illustrates why the sovereignty of God is so instrumental in maintaining hope during the season of your worst nightmare. Frank, as a seminary student, was shadowing a hospital chaplain when they were called to a room where a woman’s son had been pronounced dead after a tragic car accident. The woman lamented over and over again, “Why did God do this to me? Why did God do this to me?”
The chaplain, trying to be helpful, inserted, “Ma’am, God didn’t have anything to do with your son’s death.”
To this statement, the wailing yet wise woman pointedly looked the chaplain in the eyes and replied, “Don’t you take away the only hope that I have.”
Behind the grieving mother’s remark lies the hope that the sovereignty of God enables. If God is not fully sovereign in your suffering, then you cannot trust that he is fully in control of your healing and recovery. If God’s hands are tied when the Worst enters your life, then maybe his powers are also limited in helping you.
Moments will come in your Worst where it feels as if God has left the building. The scriptural word concerning the sovereignty of God assures you that even in the moments when it feels as if God has abandoned you and your plight, you can know objectively that God remains in control in those moments of fear and despair.
I have the obvious indications that God ordained Cam’s death. On a Sunday afternoon, my perfectly healthy child asked me if he could go see Jesus. He asked if we could get in the car and travel to heaven. He wondered whether he would see Adam and Eve in glory. He professed faith in Christ. Eighteen hours later, my wife found him dead in his bed.
It would take an irrational level of skepticism to deny that God put those thoughts on my son’s heart and to doubt that God orchestrated his expression of faith in Christ’s saving grace. That these, the most beautiful moments of my time as a parent, occurred immediately before Cam’s death is no coincidence. It confirms my faith in God’s full control in Cam’s life and death. Consequently, it also confirms my sense of confidence in God’s sovereignty in my Worst.
You may not have some magical story like mine to offer you the same comfort. This is why I emphasize the objective promise of God’s sovereignty in his Word. God reigns supreme when the Worst enters your story, and God reigns supreme as he works in every second to heal and restore your heart and your life.
Your Worst Is Not Meaningless
The idea that God had nothing to do with my son’s death terrifies me. If I were to believe that he was not involved in Cam’s death, it would shatter my entire worldview. For all of these years I would have falsely believed in a universe with higher order and purpose. I would have falsely believed that God is holding all things together and moving all moments toward an appointed end where justice and redemption ultimately prevail. I would have falsely believed that all of life had meaning.
But those beliefs would fall apart if God didn’t have anything to do with Cam’s death.
This false suggestion proposes that some moments have meaning and some moments do not. If God had nothing to do with my son’s death, then certain pockets of life—the really awful ones in particular—are given over to chaos because the God of the universe is removed from them. In the case of my Worst, and in the case of yours, if God is not involved, then it has no purpose.
My receiving the traumatic phone call, my holding Cam’s corpse, my attending his funeral, my carrying his casket, and my weeping and weeping and weeping would all be meaningless because God had nothing to do with it.
But that is all a lie.
According to the Bible, God is sovereign. He was in control before, during, and after my Worst, and he is in control throughout yours. Consequently, your Worst has meaning. Your Worst has purpose.
In times of tragedy, people often cite Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Too often we overlook two pivotal aspects of this verse. First, we misunderstand the definition of “good.” We tend to think that “good” involves prosperity, happiness, and comfort. From the context of Romans 8, however, “goodness” involves believers being conformed to the image of Christ, fruit being borne for God’s glory, and God drawing his people into deeper fellowship with him. This form of “good” often comes out of deep pain, but God does “work good” in everything—both the happy and the sad.
Second, we overlook that we are called “according to his purpose.” The purpose of God is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). We cannot always see the redemptive activity of God in either the mundane or the difficult, but God promises that every element of our lives fits into a grand, redemptive story whose significance and beauty are far greater than we conceive.
For me, I find hope in trusting that my son died because God determined before the foundation of the earth that Cam would live three years and fifty-five days. My son died for a reason: he died that people may see the beauty and majesty of Jesus Christ and that God may fully redeem and perfect the broken world. Cam’s death is neither random nor meaningless. I may not necessarily see a fraction of the ways God accomplishes this, but his Word promises me that it is true.
Let me tell you the truth: your Worst is not random or meaningless.
God Is Not Punishing You
The level of God’s control in your suffering is critically important, but it really isn’t your foundational concern. A question inextricably linked to God’s sovereignty constitutes the make- or-break issue.
In Isaiah, God foretells the exile of the Israelites. His people had been warned to repent from idolatry and cautioned against putting their faith in alliances with foreign countries. God warned the Israelites of the risks of provoking their aggressive enemy, the Babylonians. Alas, God’s people ignored him, and they fell prey to invasion, conquest, and exportation by the Babylonians.
While he foretells the Babylonian exile, God also promises the redemption of his people. He pledges to bring them back to Israel and to forgive their sins.
In Isaiah’s prophecy, God clearly states that these events will occur and that God himself will direct them. In Isaiah 46, he contrasts himself to idols, declaring,
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose. …”
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isa. 46:9–11)
The invasion and exile that God ordained was not pleasant.
The Israelites experienced their worst nightmare when they were attacked and then exiled. They witnessed atrocities at the hands of the invaders. Many Israelites experienced starvation. They were removed from the land so dear to them and taken to a foreign land to live as second-class citizens while pagans tore down their sacred temple.
What makes this passage compelling is that God proclaims his sovereignty in the events before they occur. The passage is prophetic. In essence, God wants them to know before their Worst happens that he is in control of their fate. For God to predict the events and remind his people of his ordination of them suggests that he must consider his sovereignty an instrumental aspect of their ability to trust and hope in him amidst suffering.
However, an Israelite reader still enslaved in exile two centuries later—a victim of these tragedies—would find no hope in God’s total control without this question being answered: Is God good? More specifically, Is God good to me?
A person with total power but with wicked character is a dictator—a Joseph Stalin, an Adolf Hitler. In Isaiah 46, God reminds his people of his goodness even more so than of his sovereignty. As the Israelites carry their idols into exile, God promises, “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isa. 46:4). Even as God refers to them as “you stubborn of heart,” he promises, “I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory” (Isa. 46:12–13). He demonstrates his love for them in that he will deliver and save his people whom he cherishes, even though they are rebellious and sinful.
If you believe in a sovereign God, you cannot help but feel that God is afflicting you when you are living your Worst. You cannot resist asking the question, “Why are you doing this to me?” You cannot help but feel as if you are being punished for something and God simply does not like you.
What the well-meaning but false-speaking pastor or friend is trying to do with the statement, “God didn’t have anything to do with this” is preserve the goodness of God at the expense of the sovereignty of God. In that statement, there is a failure to recognize that God can remain fully in control during tragedies while still being completely good.
The best way one can reconcile God being both sovereign and good is through the cross. Was there ever a moment where God’s sovereignty was more evident? The prophets predicted the slaughter of a suffering Messiah for the atonement of God’s people centuries before Christ’s birth (Isaiah 52–53; Daniel 9). Jesus insisted throughout his ministry that his mission would culminate on the cross. On the night before Jesus died, he asked God if the cup could pass, if his will could be altered, if he must die. God willed Jesus to the cross. In spite of the brutality and the pain, from before the foundation of the world, God ordained the violent death of his Son (1 Pet. 1:19–20).
At the same time, was there ever a place where the goodness of God was more magnificently on display than the cross? In the cross, God expresses his love for us to the degree that he subjects Jesus to torture and sends his own beloved Son to hell for our ransom and rescue. From the cross, God screams to each and every one of us, “I am for you!”
The cross tells us that God is not punishing us through our Worst. Everything that God could punish us for was laid on Jesus in his death.
God punished Jesus so that he never would have to punish you. Your Worst is not God taking out his frustration on you for all your shortcomings, nor is it God recreationally torturing you.
The matter of God’s sovereignty and goodness invokes tension. One would be naïve and disingenuous to ignore the paradoxical nature and logical difficulty in unifying these doctrines. God opposes sin but he remains in control over the wicked, harmful decisions of people? God hates evil but he allows it to act in the world? God authors life and yet he ordains death? God detests injustice and yet he allows sinister tyrants to reign?
People possess a will and make decisions, which have consequences. Satan is a real, personal force in the universe. Nobody can (biblically) deny these facts. God did not pull the trigger when a teenager committed suicide. He did not fly the planes into the Twin Towers or lead suicide bombers to ignite explosives in a crowd. He did not encourage or approve of the drunkenness that led to a person’s death. And, at the same time, God remained in control of the circumstances leading up to these moments of darkness. God remained in control during these events. He remains in control in the results of these events. God ordains the past, the present, and the future.
These paradoxes become far more confusing when they are your paradoxes. God loves me but he allowed my husband to drop dead while we are raising young children? God is for me but he allowed my child to have cancer? God loves my child but he allowed her to be diagnosed with schizophrenia?
Again, the cross is where our best comfort resides. While we wrestle with the tension and suffer in the mystery, we must keep our eyes on the cross, where we see God’s beautiful glory exploding from the intersection of his sovereignty and goodness.
Providence in Your Worst Nightmare
God is in control of your life. He doesn’t take his eyes off the road when your Worst occurs. He isn’t taking his eyes off the road as he restores you.
You need to know that your Worst is not a meaningless accident. God has redemptive purposes for everything that enters your life. You will not see the full extent of those purposes until you get to heaven, but you can trust that the pain you are enduring is not ultimately pointless.
The most important thing for you to remember is that only God’s goodness and love for you supersedes his sovereignty. The cross reassures you that even in the most painful of circumstances, God remains fully in control and fully good.
The Narrative of Hope
My trial is not a random accident. Nothing comes into my life but through God’s perfect discretion. God remains in control of all circumstances. He has a hand in my painful circumstances, which means that his hand can extend to redeem my life. God is good. The evil in this world and the suffering in my circumstances do not represent his character. The perfectly kind and loving person, Jesus Christ, is the very image of the character of God. The cross reassures me of his love and sovereignty. I can trust him, knowing that he is fully good and fully in control.
Cameron is director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., and is chairman of the student ministry Rooted.