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

Providence

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.

God did and does have something to do with your tragedy.

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.

If God is not fully sovereign in your suffering, then you cannot trust that he is fully in control of your healing and recovery.

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.

According to the Bible, God is sovereign.

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.

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.

Content taken from Therefore I Have Hope by Cameron Cole, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Cameron Cole

Cameron is director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., and is chairman of the student ministry Rooted.

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Comments

  • MTJanet
    Posted: Sat, 03/09/2019 11:29 am

    This is very good.  It makes me remember some of the hard times and what those hard times drove me to - to Him, my Redeemer.  Cameron Cole says it so much better.  I'm trying to think of who would benefit from this book in my circle of family/friends.  

  • JIM BURWASSER
    Posted: Sat, 03/09/2019 10:52 pm

    As I watched my young wife suffer though cancer, as her question was why and I could never answer. I was so fortunate to see her faith give her a peace that all who saw it respected. I know I failed to grasp what was happening to either of us then, but God provided as His church reached out to us. After weeks in a coma with no sign that she had any recognition of others, the doctor told me her suffering was almost over, and I went and told her she would soon hear the words well done good and faithful servant.

      Then she reached out, put her hand on the back of my neck and breathed her last, a gift never to be forgotten. In shock I walked out of that hospital with the greatest pain I have ever felt, but with trust that His ways though beyond my understanding were better than mine. Twenty six years latter my walk with Him, though far from perfect, is what makes the hope of tomorrow so so good.  Because He is so so good and I and She have been so so blessed.  Rom. 8:28... hold on He's coming.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 03/10/2019 06:57 am

    Cameron Cole writes, "Let me tell you what I hear when people say, 'God didn’t have anything to do with this.' I hear …" and then gives his list in which he has created the classic straw man argument. After reading this list would that person then say something like, “Gee I never thought of those things. Maybe you are right.”  Maybe this list consists of  items that Mr. Cole hears but has he ever really listened to the rest of the argument? It is easy to ask these rhetorical questions when there is no one to answer, because it is his book.

    Why have we defined sovereignty is this way? Do we really believe and gain comfort from believing that children being abused, raped and murdered is something that God perpetrates to bring about some greater good? Do we really believe that is what scripture is teaching?

    God was not surprised by these tragedies. Nor was he impotent. He is not surprised by our poor choices and bad decisions. But he is there at every step to guide and turn what evil was meant to good. God is working his purpose out as day proceeds to day, but he is not in the business of torturing babies, perpetrating genocide, or with grim fatherly concern inflicting cancer or dementia or genetic diseases on his beloved children. Do we really believe that is what scripture says?

    Of course the “Reformed World,” as this magazine should be called, picked this article as its 2018 book of the year since it is consistent with this binary picture of a God who either is impotent and thus cannot prevent evil or he is the one behind it all in some loving way that some day we will understand. It may be argued that we now see the underside of the embroidery or the quilt but God is on the other side looking down and he sees the beauty of his design. And someday we will too. With one fell swoop all arguments and scriptures to the contrary are swept away. How cozy. But I do not see this as either comforting nor accurate.

    One cannot read the totality of scripture that includes passages that show God “meant it for good” along side of “…the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”(1 Jn. 5:19) and come up with this definition of sovereignty.  Do we not see the current state of the universe and the war that is currently being waged in and around us? Do we not see how repugnant it is to tell the parent of that child that "God did this"? How can we gain comfort from that? What is he going to do next? Maybe in his love he will have my other children die in a plane crash! God's hands are not tied as this caricature is presented by this theoretical theology. But in the midst of the war that is going on in the heavenlies and that spills over into this all too often nightmarish world God is at work. He is the all powerful, as well as merciful and loving, God that is at work and has a purpose. But, we need a balanced statement and understanding of sovereignty that is more consistent with scripture and what we see going on around us. That does give a realistic hope. Do we not understand Ephesians 6!?

    One thing I've seen over the years is that we create our systematic theologies to avoid the ambiguities in scripture and the messiness of the world around us. I gain comfort from 1 John 3:1-3. I gain comfort knowing that in the battle God is with me and nothing that the enemy throws at me is unexpected or a surprise. All the while he has prepared his armor, his powerful word and great promises that we can hold onto. I cannot see the comfort that Mr Cole, and World, wants us to swallow.

    The Bible teaches a warfare thodicy.

  • David Staats
    Posted: Mon, 03/11/2019 12:56 am

    This is bad.  God's sovereignty is real but it is a poor way to describe life and the condition of the world.  It would have been nice if the author would have spent some time reading the start of the Bible to understand why bad things happen.  It describes God giving humanity a choice, much like he still does.  Adam and Eve had a choice of trusting a perfect God that created a perfect world.  Instead they chose something different and anything different than perfection is imperfection.  It doesn't sound like much to us since we all live in an imperfect world and are imperfect ourselves but it is a truly devastating condition.  To start with, living things start falling apart and die.  Now we live in a world where everything dies!  Imperfect things do not last - only perfect things with no flaws can be expected to last forever.  As what was demonstrated at the start of the Bible, only the perfect power of God can sustain a perfect world like what occurred in the Garden of Eden.  Now without his perfect presence and power to sustain this world, it has become unsustainable and it truly has become a "World Where Everything Dies".  Sure it is incredibly sad tragic accidents take our kids at a young age and it is right to cry a river of tears for them but even worse is the rest of your family, friends, coworkers and even yourself will die and (here is a news flash for the "all sovereign" crowd) God didn't create it that way.  God is perfection and created a perfect world, he  warned Adam so responsibilty was transferred to Adam and when he chose imperfection he reaped death and everything else related to an imperfect world.  A perfect God can not remain among imperfection without also becoming corrupt so that is why God removed Adam and Eve from his presence.  Just let that thought soak in and realize now we are separated from the Author of Life and the Creator of all Good Things.  Is it any wonder why bad things happen?  Sure bad things happen but we don't have to wonder what God is doing - he knows it is really, really, really bad (which is still very understated).  He knows it is even worse than we do and that is why he went to such extreme effort to give us a second chance.  And he knows things get even worse after this world because this world still has his fingerprints and goodness on it from when he created a perfect world but in the next life everyone who rejected him will be totally and permantly be removed from the Creator of all Good Things.  To say the very least, those cast from his presence will be destined for Hell where there is not even a hint of anything good since God is not there.

    To the woman who lost her son, it is fine to say "God didn’t have anything to do with your son’s death.”  However, it should be added that the evil and tragic things in this world are a result of living in a world sperated from the Author of Life and Creator of all Good Things. It is the imperfect nature of this world that bad things such as what happened to her son happens. God knows this and that is why he sacrficed so much to save us from this world.  She should be told that this world really does hurt bad but there is hope in the future.  To those living in the "World Where Everything Dies" Jesus offers a second chance at the "World Where Everything Lives!"

    I don't have time to go respond to everything in the entire article but other thoughts are:

    - If God has a hand in all this misery, does the author think anything different would happen in heaven if this is representative of his  making things good?  Why wouldn't we expect suffering there if this is who God is?  What would explain the difference from suffering here and perfection in heaven?  In Heaven sin doesn't seperate us from God and sin didn't seperate us from God at the start of creation so things were perfect.

    - To those that discount the perfection/imperfection argrument, please note that the entire sacrificial system in the Old Testament required a perfect sacrifice and the important aspect about Jesus is that he is the only true sacrifice because only He is perfect.

    - I think the choice that God gave Adam and Eve was never meant to just end with Adam and Eve.  Everyone today still has a choice to trust God with a choice of "Good and Bad"  and the choice of "Good" is definitely God/Jesus.  You would think it was a fairly easy decision - before sin everything was perfect and there was nothing bad, everything lived - after sin we became seperated from God and all kinds of bad things start happening.  God is probably thinking that people would probably come flocking back to him because the difference is so obvious.  He probably is thinking it is should be a simple choice.  Not today - people just write books saying God's hand is in all the misery and suffering and he is actually good and the tension between the two opposites is not a problem.  How can the author not notice or address what happened at the start of the Bible?

     

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