On Monday morning, Aug. 29, 2005, a large section of the 17th Street canal levee in New Orleans gave way to the storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina. Within a few hours, two more levees would burst, flooding 80 percent of the city. Because of the great devastation it caused, the storm is considered the worst natural disaster to hit the United States since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which killed 6,000 people.
Etched in our memories is also the day after Christmas 2004, when an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean created a tsunami that caused more than 200,000 deaths and displaced millions more in Southeast Asia.
Yet other kinds of tragedies haunt our time. On July 7, 2005, four powerful explosions rocked London’s transportation system, killing more than 50 people and injuring at least 700. It was the worst terror attack in Britain since World War II. A similar incident, though even more deadly, occurred in Madrid, Spain, in March 2004. And even more devastating to human lives and property were the horrific Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
The question on many people’s lips is, “Where is God in all of this?” And perhaps even more urgently they ask, “Where is He concerning the adversities in my personal life?” In the midst of such questioning, it is time to ask a question of the Scriptures: Is God really in control?
Tragic events uncover our deepest, most personal questions about God. Many observers noted, for example, that church attendance in the United States rose just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. People were looking for answers. Whether the difficulty is large or small, whether it strikes us personally or unfolds unemotionally on our TV screen, in times of adversity we look for answers to our most profound questions.
Of course, some people are dismissive of God, even expressing anger at Him. Soon after the South Asian tsunami, a commentator in The Herald of Glasgow, Scotland, wrote the following:
“God, if there is a God, should be ashamed of himself. The sheer enormity of the Asian tsunami disaster, the death, destruction, and havoc it has wreaked, the scale of misery it has caused, must surely test the faith of even the firmest believer. … I hope I am right that there is no God. For if there were, then he’d have to shoulder the blame. In my book, he would be as guilty as sin and I’d want nothing to do with him.”
An online poll that ran for many months following the tsunami on the Web site beliefnet.com asked, “Does God have a role in natural disasters?” The results consistently showed that almost half of those polled agreed with this statement: “Although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy.”
But just as headline news raises questions about God’s involvement, so does personal tragedy–perhaps even more so, because we often suffer alone with our questions and anxieties. Just a few years ago, I had seven friends who were battling cancer. Over lunch one day, a businessman friend confided that his company was perilously close to bankruptcy; another experienced heartache over a spiritually rebellious teenager. The truth is, all of us face adversity in various forms and at different times. One of the best-selling books in recent years, written by a psychiatrist, put it very well with this opening statement: “Life is difficult.” In fact, sometimes it is downright painful.
Is God Sovereign in My Suffering?
Adversity with its accompanying emotional pain comes in many forms. There may be the heartache of an unhappy marriage, the disappointment of a miscarried pregnancy or grief over a spiritually indifferent or rebellious child. There is the anxiety of the family breadwinner who has just lost his job and the despair of the young mother who has learned she has a terminal illness.
Still others experience the sting of injustice, the dull ache of loneliness and the stabbing pain of unexpected grief. There is the humiliation of rejection by others, the smoldering hurt of racial bias and the anguish of failure that is one’s own fault. Finally, there is the despair of realizing that some difficult circumstances–a physical infirmity of your own or perhaps a severely handicapped child–will never change.
All of these circumstances contribute to the anxiety and emotional pain we all experience at various times and in varying degrees. Some pain is sudden, traumatic and devastating. Other adversities are chronic, persistent and seemingly designed to wear down our spirits over time.
When adversity strikes, even the Christian is tempted to ask, “Where is God? Doesn’t He care about the thousands who are starving in East Africa or the innocent civilians who are being brutally murdered in many war-ravaged countries around the world? Doesn’t He care about me?”
Is God really in control? Is He trustworthy? Will He help? Even the Apostle Paul pleaded with God three times to take away the thorn in his flesh before he finally found God’s grace to be sufficient. Joseph pleaded with Pharaoh’s cupbearer to “get me out of this prison” (Genesis 40:14). And the writer of Hebrews very honestly states, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (Hebrews 12:11). During the time that I was writing a book on this very topic, I experienced adversity that made it difficult to trust God. Mine happened to be a physical ailment that exacerbated a lifelong infirmity. It came at a very inconvenient time and for several weeks it would not respond to any medical treatment.
During those weeks, as I continually prayed to God for relief, I was reminded of Solomon’s words, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten out what he has made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). God had brought a “crooked” event into my life, and I became acutely aware that only He could straighten it. Could I trust God whether or not He straightened my “crook” and relieved my distress? Did I really believe that a God who loved me and knew what was best for me was in control of my situation? Could I trust Him even if I didn’t understand?
The Scriptures teach us that we must believe that God is completely sovereign if we are to trust Him in adversity.
Someone has expressed it this way: “God in His love always wills what is best for us. In His wisdom He always knows what is best, and in His sovereignty He has the power to bring it about.”
The sovereignty of God is asserted, either expressly or implicitly, on almost every page of the Bible. In my biblical research on this topic, I have never felt completely finished with compiling the list of verses on the sovereignty of God. New references to it kept appearing almost every time I opened my Bible. Consider this one: “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentations 3: 37-38).
This Scripture passage offends many people. They find it difficult to accept that both calamities and good things come from God. People often ask the question, “If God is a God of love, how could He allow such a calamity?” But Jesus Himself affirmed God’s sovereignty in calamity when Pilate said to Him, “Don’t you realize that I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). Jesus acknowledged God’s sovereign control over His life.
Because God’s sacrifice of His Son for our sins is such an amazing act of love toward us, we tend to overlook that it was for Jesus an excruciating experience beyond all we can imagine. It was for Jesus in His humanity a calamity sufficient to cause Him to pray, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39); but He did not waver in His assertion of God’s sovereign control.
The Providence of God
God’s providence is a term we sometimes casually use to acknowledge God’s seemingly periodic intervention in our affairs. Historically, however, the Church has always understood the providence of God to refer to His care and governance over all of His creation at all times. Theologian J.I. Packer defines providence as “the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, He upholds His creatures in ordered existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances, and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for His own glory.”
Note the absolute terms Packer uses: “unceasing activity,” “all events … all acts,” “directs everything.” Clearly there is no concept of now-and-then, part-time governance on God’s part in this definition.
For my own sake, I have developed a slightly shorter definition that I can more easily remember: God’s providence is His constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people. Again, note the absolute terms: constant care, absolute rule, all creation. Nothing, not even the smallest virus, escapes His care and control.
But notice also the twofold objective of God’s providence: His own glory and the good of His people. These two objectives never work against each other; they are always in harmony. God never pursues His glory at the expense of the good of His people, nor does He ever seek our good at the expense of His glory. He has designed His eternal purpose so that His glory and our good are inextricably bound together. What comfort and encouragement this should be to us! If we are going to learn to trust God in adversity, we must believe that just as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so He will allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out in us and for us.
The Bible teaches that God not only created the universe, but that He upholds and sustains it day by day, hour by hour. Scripture says, “The Son is … sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3), and “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
In other words, all things are indebted for their existence to the continuous sustaining action of God exercised through His Son, Jesus Christ. The so-called laws of nature are nothing more than the physical expression of the steady will of Christ. The law of gravity operates with unceasing certainty because Christ continuously wills it to operate. The stars continue in their courses because He keeps them there. Scripture says, He “brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).
The Bible also teaches that God governs the universe, not only inanimate creation, but also the actions of all creatures, both men and animals. He is called the Ruler of all things (1 Chronicles 29:12), the blessed and only Ruler (1 Timothy 6:15), the One apart from whose will the sparrow cannot fall to the ground (Matthew 10:29). The Prophet Jeremiah asks, “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?” (Lamentations 3:37). “[He] is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:17).
No one can act outside of God’s sovereign will or against it. Centuries ago, St. Augustine said, “Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either permits it to happen, or He brings it about Himself.” Notice how encompassing this statement is: Nothing happens without God either permitting it or directing it to happen.
God’s Eternal Plan
One of our problems with the sovereignty of God is that it frequently does not appear that God is in control of the circumstances of our lives. We see unjust, uncaring or even clearly wicked people doing things that adversely affect us. We experience the consequences of other people’s mistakes and failures. We even do foolish and sinful things ourselves and suffer the often-bitter fruit of our actions.
But it is the ability of God to so arrange diverse human actions to fulfill His purpose that makes His sovereignty marvelous and yet mysterious. Just as God’s rule is invincible, so it is incomprehensible. It remains in mystery. His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). His judgments are unsearchable, and His paths are beyond tracing out (Romans 11:33).
All people–believers in God as well as unbelievers–experience anxiety, frustration, heartache and disappointment. Some suffer intense physical pain and catastrophic tragedies. But what should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God; our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan, and He brings or allows into our lives only what is for His glory and our good.