God’s Sovereign Will: What Was God Thinking?

This is post 5 in our ongoing series reviewing pastor Bill Johnson’s book God Is Good: He is Better than You Think.

Pastor Bill Johnson tells a story about a woman he asked to pray for during a church service. She was suffering from cancer. Her reply was, “God has given me cancer to teach me patience.” To which Johnson replied, “If I treated my children that way, I would be arrested for child abuse.” The woman reconsidered, agreed to be prayed for and was healed.

The woman replied, “God has given me cancer to teach me patience.”

What is God’s Will?

Too often in the church we have crazy notions about God’s will. We fail to distinguish between the sovereignty of God (what God allows) and the intention of God (what God desires). We lump it all under “the will of God.” The result is that we assume whatever befalls us is what God ultimately wants for us. We have become the woman in our story who reasons the fact she has cancer is a sign God gave it to her and wants her to keep it.

As Johnson rightly points out, what the modern church has done is to simply embrace a fatalistic theology to justify its own complacency. If all that happens to me is the best God has for me, then there is no need for me to change. But if what God wants for me exceeds my present circumstances, then I am forced to ask difficult questions.

But how do we make sense of a Father who allows what He ultimately does not intend? If we embrace the truth that Jesus has come that we might have life and have it abundantly, as I do and certainly Johnson has, what explanation do we possibly give when loss, difficulty, and even heartbreak strikes?

How do we make sense of a Father who allows what He ultimately does not intend?

This is where a lot of people get stuck in embracing the intention and sovereignty of God. If they do not turn from God, they reconcile with Him by saying the loss was His perfect will (that is, it is what He intended). Or, they stand their ground on the goodness of God and refuse to believe God had anything to do with it: It was not God; it was the devil.

God’s Sovereignty: What is He Thinking?

The real issue here is finding God’s intention in His sovereignty. To help us, we are going to return to the very beginning once again: The Fall.

The events surrounding the Fall tell us something important about God, and it is that as good as God is, He is nonetheless willing to allow mankind to suffer under certain conditions. The first, as we have discussed, is justice. When mankind willfully partnered with Satan in rebellion, God’s holiness superseded his goodness. (In truth, God’s holiness and mercy both make up His goodness, but we are using the term “goodness” here as Johnson would.)

But more importantly, embedded in mankind’s act of rebellion is another condition: human free will. God places a high premium on mankind’s right to choose. As deeply as He loves us, He is nonetheless willing to sacrifice our safety and happiness in exchange for our right to choose it.

God places a high premium on mankind’s right to choose. He is willing to sacrifice our safety and happiness in exchange for our right to choose it.

God could have created a world in which it was impossible for Adam and Eve to have sinned. He could have created us with the inability to choose evil. But God chose to do otherwise, even if that meant the possibility of evil, and our ultimate suffering. He was comfortable with the arrangement.

Evil: The Necessary Ingredient?

Some have argued that free will is necessary for love to exist, since love must be voluntary to be genuine, and since free will must exist, so does the possibility of evil. In other words, for love to exist, the possibility of evil is necessary.

This is a compelling argument. But it would be a mistake to think that God, in creating the world and deciding that it should include love, realized that free will, evil and suffering were unwanted but necessary byproducts. We may see these things as necessarily so from our perspective, but God, being all-powerful, is not driven by necessity. He created a world with these things because He ultimately wanted it this way.

We are left then with an important conclusion: God, though infinitely good, is not infinite in his willingness to keep us from harm. God’s love for mankind is unfathomable, but He will not encroach upon the sacredness of human free will to ensure that we experience it.

God: Not as Good as We Think?

This is actually a very important point to understand about God’s goodness. We are not saying, “God is good, but not that good.” On the contrary, we are saying that God’s goodness is not defined by our own ideas about what is good.

When the skeptic asks, “How could a good God allow human suffering?” he is assuming good means an infinite commitment to keep mankind safe. But this is not the goodness of God we find in the Bible. God’s goodness does not contain within it the guarantee of us experiencing it, nor does it eliminate the need for us to choose it.

It is important to remember that God’s goodness existed before Creation, before Adam and Eve, and before we ever chose Him. It may contain within it the potential to meet our deepest needs, but it does not exist for that purpose. It does not exist to serve us. On the contrary, if Scripture is our guide, it is more likely to place a demand upon us.

God’s goodness may contain within it the potential to meet our deepest needs, but it does not exist to serve us. On the contrary, it is more likely to place a demand upon us.

If we are willing to accept it, God commitment not to violate our free will is not a shortcoming but in fact an aspect of His goodness.

God’s Intention: Choose

Having this understanding of God’s goodness helps us to see God’s sovereignty in a new light. God’s desire may be for us to experience His goodness, but his ultimate intention is that we, by the exercise of our own free will, choose it voluntarily. His ultimate goal is that we freely choose to seek, surrender to, and conform our lives to Himself, who is Perfect Goodness. The whole of the Christian life can be thought of as God, having saved us, now reaching out to us and inviting us through various circumstances to choose what is good (in fact, what is best). All God’s effort in His sovereign activity in our lives is to this end.

God’s motive behind His sovereign will at work in our lives is not that we experience His goodness, but that we choose it. God is now inviting us through various circumstances to choose what is good — in fact, what is best.

We see this exemplified simply yet perfectly at the Cross. Jesus died for all humanity, and as Johnson  points out, “God is not willing that any should perish.” This is an absolutely true statement. But through the Cross, all of humanity was not instantly saved, whether they wanted to be or not. Would it be better for them if they were? Absolutely. But God is not merely interested in what is better for mankind. He is ultimately interested in mankind choosing what is better.

God is not merely interested in what is better for mankind. He is ultimately interested in mankind choosing what is better.

If we see the sovereignty of God in our own lives in this way — not as God actively working in our lives to experience what is better, but as God actively working in our lives to choose what is better — then we can see clearly the folly of assuming that whatever happens to us is what God intends: God intends that we choose Him. He intends that we respond and participate. He intends that we change.

In our next post, we shall take a closer look at how these things play out in the Christian life. Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts on God’s intention and sovereignty in the Christian life, and yours. Blessings till next time.

4 thoughts on “God’s Sovereign Will: What Was God Thinking?

  1. I’ve found that some people don’t like the idea of God allowing what he doesn’t intend. They think it makes him look weak, and the agency of Satan and man look strong. Of course, whether we like a piece of theology or not has no bearing on whether or not it’s true.

    The key is to ask. I absolutely believe that God leads us through some suffering to sanctify us, but not all. Assuming God’s intents is failing to ask him, failing to have relationship with him. That’s the deadly trap. Religious assumptions actually distance us from God, because there’s no dialogue.

    1. Thanks Brandon for the insightful response. Yeah, it is interesting that God allowing a thing would be perceived by some as weakness, since the alternative is what would imply Him being powerless. And regarding failing to ask is failing to have relationship: Yes, yes and yes! I could not agree more.

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