Sovereignty and Tragedy

In our last post, we discussed God’s sovereignty — the fact that God is in complete control of His creation — and how that relates to free will. Specifically, we addressed how it is possible that God can remain fully in control of His creation when we have free will. The answer is that God, unlike us, transcends His Creation much like a novelist transcends the novel. If we are thinking God cannot be fully in control of His creation in the face of free will, it is because we have made Him too small.

But the other difficulty we run up against in accepting God’s sovereignty is tragedy. In discussing the recent death of two-year-old daughter Olive of well-known worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal at Bethel Church in Redding, California, pastor Bill Johnson rightly objects to church leaders accepting such a tragedy as “God’s sovereign will.” On the other hand, this is exactly what it is. Let me explain what I mean.

There is vast difference between God’s perfect will and God’s sovereign will, especially as it pertains to tragedy. Now I have just introduced three terms in a very short space: God’s Perfect Will, God’s Sovereign Will, and Tragedy. So let me define what I mean by them:

  • God’s Perfect Will is what God wants to see happen in any given situation. In the Garden, God wanted to see Adam and Eve obey His commandment. In the desert, God wanted to see the children of Israel obey the Ten Commandments and enter into covenant with Him. In our day God wants to see all come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. God wants to see all saved, healed and delivered.
  • God’s Sovereign Will is what plays out as a direct result of exercising human free will. Whether our actions and decisions are in alignment with His perfect will or not, His sovereign will is accomplished. Using the novel analogy, the novel writer may desire many things for the characters in his story, but the novel progresses exactly as he or she has planned from the beginning, with all the ups and downs, the failures and setbacks resulting from every character’s virtue, weakness, and flaw. So it is with God’s sovereign will.
  • Tragedy may not need a definition, but I am defining tragedy here as anything that does not go according to God’s perfect will. Tragedy is as big as catastrophic death and as small as the common cold. In other words, tragedy is never God’s perfect will, but always God’s sovereign will.

A few things need to be said here, the first of which is: It is a miracle that God has a sovereign will at all. I mean, think about it: God wants one thing, we do another, consequences follow. Whatever those consequences are, it seems pretty obvious they are not “God’s will.” In fact, by definition they are not  — if by “God’s will”, we mean His perfect will. And yet, from the perspective of God’s sovereign will, God knew the events that transpired would transpire exactly the way they did. Not only this, God orchestrated them to go that way from the very beginning. This is what we mean by God’s sovereign will.

It is a miracle that God has a sovereign will at all. I mean, think about it: God wants one thing, we do another, consequences follow. Whatever those consequences are, it seems pretty obvious they are not “God’s will.”

God’s sovereign will, then, never represents what He wants to see happen in any given situation. Rather, it is what He intentionally allows. I am not saying things will never go the way God wants. Rather, God’s sovereign will never represents what God wants. So when someone says, “It was God’s sovereign will that this took place,” that is true, because the very fact that it took place means it is part of the narrative God, in His sovereignty, is writing. But this says nothing about what God wanted to see happen in that situation. 

This of course becomes very important when we walk through tragedy, because it means we can be fully confident that, whatever the reason for God in His sovereignty allowing it, God did not want the tragedy to happen. It also means (and this is a big part of Bill Johnson’s objection) whether an event is God’s sovereign will or not, it does not excuse us from our responsibility in it. If someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, we have a responsibility to pray for miraculous healing. If someone tragically dies, we have a responsibility to pray they will be raised to life. As Christ’s body on the earth, we are not called to toss up our hands and say, “Oh well. This all must be God’s sovereign will.”

When we walk through tragedy, we can be fully confident that, whatever the reason for God in His sovereignty allowing it, God did not want the tragedy to happen.

We are called to change history. And when we do, we are not violating God’s sovereign will: On the contrary, we are fulfilling it.

Two people were called by God to change history. One said, “I will go.” The other said, “Since all that occurs is God’s sovereign will anyway, I will not.” When both arrived in Heaven each saw their lives replayed before their eyes: The first fulfilled their destiny and saved many lives, the second failed to fulfill theirs, and many lives were tragically lost. “But this is not fair!” the second one protested. “For it is impossible to oppose your sovereign will!” To which God replied. “Indeed it is. For it was my sovereign will from the very beginning that this one next to you would respond to my call and change history, and you, believing a lie you were powerless before my sovereign will, would not, and history would suffer.”

If we can linger on this thought a bit longer, God’s sovereign will in any situation can and often will be in opposition to His perfect will. Bill Johnson mentions the story of Jesus rebuking the storm and remarks that simply because the storm was there did not mean it was God’s will that the storm overtake Jesus and the disciples. if that were so, Johnson explains, it would mean God was opposing Himself. And that is absolutely true — if we are talking about God’s perfect will.

But it is not true from the standpoint of God’s sovereign will. For it was God’s sovereign will that brought the storm to Jesus and the disciples, just as it was God’s sovereign will that caused Pharaoh to oppose the children of Israel. This is why God is able to say to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God was not saying he forced Pharaoh to do what he did, or that by delivering the children of Israel, He was opposing Himself in some strange way. On the contrary, He was saying to Pharaoh, “By opposing me, you think you are god. But it is I who have created you. And not only do I know the end from the beginning, I am writing every line of it, including your own life. Though you act on your own volition, it is in reality I who have raised you up for this very purpose: To bring myself glory.”

Just like Pharaoh, we can know that no matter what faces us in this life, it is God who is fully in control of it. But unlike Pharaoh, we who have been chosen by Him can know He is working everything for our good. We may not have an answer to why God in His sovereignty allows certain tragedies, but we can rest in confidence it is never what He wants for us. And because He is fully in control of our lives, He is able to bring about His redemptive purposes in the worst of tragedies in ways we cannot even imagine. Not only this, I firmly believe every tragedy is an opportunity. Dare I say, even an opportunity to change history.

We have more to say about God’s sovereignty, specifically addressing objections to it. But for now, be blessed, confident in God’s unfathomable mercy and power in your lives as you step out to change history.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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