Christianity 201

June 7, 2018

Is God a Cosmic Tyrant?

by Clarke Dixon

Is God a cosmic tyrant?
Is God in control of absolutely everything?
Are natural disasters a matter of his choice for the world?
Are your personal disasters a result of his decisions for your life?
Are our own decisions merely illusion, that in fact, God has foreordained even what we think we have decided, even when we choose actions that are sinful and cause incredible harm to ourselves and others?

Or perhaps God is not in control at all and just set everything going? All that happens is a matter of our free choice and what happens naturally.

The Bible pushes us toward belief in the sovereignty of God. Consider, for example Psalm 139 especially the latter part of verse 16:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

So then God is a cosmic tyrant? Our favourite prayer might become that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “yet not my will but yours” (Mark 14:36), prayed with a tone of resignation: “Whatever you come up with, Lord, I will put up with.”

There are problems with this line of thinking:

First; the Bible does not present the sovereignty of God as something to be resigned to, but something to be excited about and find encouragement in. If you were an actor tasked with portraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, how would you perform his prayer as he faces arrest and execution? Would it be with resignation, or with determination? Would you say the lines in a way that communicates “I think Your will is terrible, but I will if I must”, or “I know Your will is best, and yes, let’s do this”? Whatever the tone of Jesus as he prayed it, the hours that followed were not moments of resignation, but of determination and decisions that reflected his knowledge that good things were truly ahead. And good things did come! Jesus was raised from the dead and our sins were dealt with. Knowing that God’s will is good we can find encouragement that our future is not determined by chance, or even by our own poor choices, but by the good purposes of God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

“All things” includes things that happen naturally within Creation and human decision. We can be excited about how God is shaping things that would otherwise cause fear and panic.

Second; The sovereignty of God is not a cold philosophical proposition, but rather a comforting reality. Sometimes we take something written for our encouragement and imagine it is written for our theological curiosity. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 is not a professor trying to work out the details of life from the comfort of a Lazyboy in preparation for a lecture. The Psalmist is someone going through real life struggles. We might summarize the whole of Psalm 139 like this: “I can hide nothing from you, nor flee from your presence. See that I am innocent, and the person threatening my life is not. I need justice to prevail and for you to reward the innocent party (me), not the guilty (them).” Perhaps we can relate to this Psalm. Yes, we all sin, but sometimes there really is nothing we have done to deserve this cancer, or that Parkinson’s, or that ill treatment from someone we thought was a friend. We can relate to the Psalmist and say something very similar, “Lord, I am your child, yet I am under siege by people or circumstances”. In those moments, we don’t need a theology textbook. We need God and we need the outcome to be in His hands.

Third: The sovereignty of God is not something we can fully grasp. Sometimes we take something that is true and try to turn in into something that is understandable. No professor or Bible teacher, no matter how smart and knowledgeable, could ever really understand everything there is to know about God anyway.

While we often might long for the “patience of Job”, the Book of Job is really about humility in the face of deep questions. After so many words were spilled on trying to make sense of Job’s suffering, God finally speaks near the end of the book. But in speaking he does not give answers. He only asks questions. And what was Job supposed to learn from that? That he, Job himself, is not God, neither are his friends, and that God’s ways may be beyond understanding.

We are not always going to have the answers. We learn to live with the questions. We learn to trust God despite our lack of understanding. God has the future in His hands, even if we cannot understand how.

So what do we mean by saying that God is sovereign? Has he already decided what all our decisions will be? I am reminded of the expression, “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you”. Or, does God in his sovereignty allow things to unfold, naturally, and as consequences of our decisions, but only according to his purposes. Let us consider Psalm 139:16 again:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

This verse does not tell us if what is written is prescriptive or descriptive, or somehow, both. Is God’s “book” a to do list as God unfolds history? Or, is it a book in which God writes down how history unfolds as he foresees it, as a historian might, but before the events rather than after?  Or does God in his omniscience and omnipotence see what unfolds, but makes the necessary adjustments to ensure the story turns out well?

We can think of a manager of a hockey team who might like the ability to see ahead of time which players will excel in the future, then being able to adjust the rosters based on that foreknowledge. The team could be massaged into a Stanley Cup win.

Perhaps sometimes we think of God as a thing to be studied and understood, rather than a Father, to be in relationship with and enjoyed. As parents, we sometimes allow our boys to experience the consequences of their own decisions. And sometimes we make the decisions that will help them flourish. None of this is done according to a formula, and our boys may never understand us. It is done in relationship, it is a matter of love.

So is God a tyrant? No, God is a loving Heavenly Father. But what if I cannot figure out how the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty squares with my experience of free-will? You can trust God in real life circumstances much sooner than you will be able to fully comprehend Him in a classroom. That is much better anyway!


Clarke Dixon is the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Listen to the audio of the full sermon on which this based (35 minutes).

clarkedixon.wordpress.com

 

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