Our God Reigns (But How?) (A Sermon)
One of our favorite truths is that “our God reigns.” The Bible clearly tells us and our experience confirms—that God is the ruler over all. I whole heartedly affirm that great truth—but with one reservation, qualification. It has to do with another biblical theme: that God has adversaries. What I mean is that, according to the biblical witness God does not always yet get his way in everything.
The Bible confronts us with two equally important truths that may seem to conflict. Let’s look at two examples using two pairs of passages: Jeremiah 29:11 and Joshua 14:15… Then, 2 Peter 3:9 and Matthew 7:21-22.
These two biblical themes often appear in Christian hymns such as This Is My Father’s World and A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
Now I’m going to drop a heavy claim on you. Please bear with me as I explain it throughout my sermon this morning: Right now God is in charge but not in control.
Stay with me, please…
Equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians disagree about God’s sovereignty right now…
- Everett Koop and Nicholas Wolterstorff…
(Here I simply tell about their radically different responses to the deaths of their sons in mountain climbing accidents as recounted in their books Sometimes Mountains Move [Koop] and Lament for a Son [Wolterstorff]. Koop attributed his son’s death to God while Wolterstorff did not.)
These two men and their stories and testimononies illustrate an old problem—understanding “God reigns”…in face of evil and innocent suffering. What should we think? How can we reconcile the two biblical themes? How to answer our own and others’ questions about God’s power and goodness…?
Because there is the problem: How can God reign, be the ruler over all things, and there be such evil and suffering in his world? Inquiring minds want to know. Probably no question about God is more urgent and pressing. Some have called evil and innocent suffering the “Rock of Atheism.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
The eighteenth century Enlightenment deist Voltaire read essayist Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” in which Pope attempted to justify God’s ways. In a marginal note of his copy Voltaire wrote that “God should his ways to man explain.”
On the one hand, we Christians want to say that God does not owe us explanation; God’s ways and thoughts are not the same as ours—according to Isaiah.
On the other hand, when most of us face a tragedy we really want to know “Where is God in this?”
Over the centuries equally devout, Bible-believing Christians like Koop and Wolterstorff have come up with two opposite explanations and both of these still carry great influence among Christians.
First, many Christians like Koop believe that God right now and always controls everything; everything that happens, without exception, is designed, ordained, and rendered certain by God. (Hymn: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”)
Second, many Christians like Wolterstorff believe that God will eventually control everything but that right now all the evil and much of the suffering in the world is not God’s will.
Both views exist side-by-side in many churches; both views sometimes exist side-by-side within a single human breast. But they cannot both be true.
So why these two views? Why have they always existed throughout church history?
Possibly because the Bible is not always as clear as we wish it were. But also possibly because although the Bible is clear our minds are not clear as we struggle to understand it.
Is there a way to reconcile the two seemingly conflicting themes of Scripture? Is there a way to confess that God reigns but evil and innocent suffering are not his will?
Yes, I believe there is a way. It may not satisfy everyone, but I have found it satisfying biblically and experientially. I want to share it with you this morning.
First, “our God reigns” means that God has a “big plan” and is almighty and nothing any creature can do can thwart God’s big plan. God will without fail bring about his promised union of heaven and earth in which his will will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Second, “our God reigns” means that right now, before that future glorious day when God unites heaven and earth, much that happens is not God’s will even though God allows it.
Third, God is sovereign over his own sovereignty; he does not have to control everything to be sovereign; he gives creatures free will to resist and oppose him. And that is actually a sign of his great power and sovereignty, his rulership.
Fourth, God gave creatures—angels and humans—freedom to resist and oppose him because God is love and love cannot be coerced.
Fifth, all of the evil and innocent suffering in God’s world is the result of creatures’ defection from God, our disobedience and open rebellion against God—told in Genesis 3 and Romans 1.
Sixth, the Bible tells us that a consequence of creatures’ defection from and rebellion against God is a curse upon the ground and bondage to decay. Nature itself is broken because of creatures’ sin.
Seventh, God is so good and so powerful that he can always bring good out of evil and innocent suffering—Romans 8:28.All of that is pretty standard Christian belief and wholly consistent with the Bible (even though many Christians prefer to believe that everything that happens is God’s will and controlled by God).
But there is one more “side to this story.” Something many good Christians today have trouble wrapping their minds around.
The Bible tells us that we are right now living in enemy-occupied territory and that God calls us, his people, to join the resistance and fight for his cause. Some call this “spiritual warfare.”
Let’s back up a moment.
Talk about Satan and his minions, fallen angels, demons, makes us uncomfortable. Especially when we go beyond saying that Satan is a defeated enemy to saying, with the Bible, that even though he was defeated on the cross of Jesus Christ and by Jesus’s resurrection he is still kicking around causing a lot of evil and innocent suffering.
Four times in the New Testament Jesus and Paul refer to this reality and even call Satan “the god of this world” and “the prince of the power of the air.” Jesus told his disciples that he saw Satan “fall like lightening from heaven,” but scholars disagree much about what he meant. Any way you interpret it, though, there’s no escaping the fact that the New Testament, including Jesus, talks much about Satan as a living and powerful enemy of God and God’s people.
This very important biblical theme does make us uncomfortable. It’s hard for Americans to believe there’s an invisible war going on “in heavenly places,” in an unseen spiritual reality, between God and his allies and Satan and his minions. But I don’t see any other way to read the Bible faithfully.
The way I read the Bible, and the only way I can see it being read faithfully and seriously, is that it says we are living in enemy occupied territory and we are called by God to help him defeat the enemy.
Perhaps rather than calling natural disasters “acts of God,” as insurance companies did, we should call them “acts of Satan.” But, in fact, we don’t always know what is causing tragedies and calamities. All we know is that this present world is not the way God intended it to be.
Let me offer a homely illustration. During World War 2 several nations occupied by Germany had monarchs who fled to England and there set up governments in exile. The king of Norway and the queen of the Netherlands are two examples. Their subjects formed resistance groups to sabotage and undermine the occupying powers in their countries. And most of the subjects of those kingdoms proclaimed their monarchs in exile as their true rulers.
No analogy is perfect. But the Bible seems to be telling us that God, although not in exile, very present with us, is not in control of everything. The enemy of God is strong and we must choose sides—either with and for God or with and for the enemy.
When I was growing up in a very evangelical church we sang many songs about this biblical theme: Keep on the Firing Line, Am I a Soldier of the Cross?, I Am On the Battlefield for My Lord, Onward, Christian Soldiers, and Who Is On the Lord’s Side?
I don’t hear this biblical theme expressed as much today—in songs or sermons or lessons or Christian books. I think we have confused the “battle language” of the hymns with physical violence and therefore shied away from it. But it’s still there—in the Bible.
My students from Africa and Asia tell me this biblical theme is alive and well and a daily reality in Christians’ lives in their home countries. They tell me it is so crucial to their Christianity that they are profoundly confused and even dismayed when they don’t hear it talked about here.
In closing, let me return to a hymn I mentioned near the beginning of this sermon: This Is My Father’s World. What beautiful words! But there’s a difficult sentence in the third verse that many hymnals now exclude:
“This is my Father’s world; the battle is not done. Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heaven and earth be one.”
The exclusion of that verse or the change of those words to other ones makes me think we evangelical Christians in America are even consciously downplaying this biblical theme of spiritual war.
I confess, however, that I know of no other way to explain to myself or others some of the things I see and hear about in the news and in the world around me.
Now don’t get me wrong; Satan has no power other than what people give him—except the power to tempt. But he is a “roaring lion stalking around seeking whom he may devour” because we are not vigilant and protective against him with “weapons of spiritual war” such as prayer.
So, really finally, back to the main question. What do I mean when I say that God is in charge but not in control?
Let me end with a page from a great Christian classic—A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy (p. 118)… [Tozer talks gives an illustration of a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean toward a predestined port while passengers freely do all kinds of things on the ship.]
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