By Pastor Glenn Pease
On December 7, 1941 bombs fell on many sons in Pearl Harbor, and hundreds of families had their hopes and dream shattered. On December 8, a man who had been up sobbing all night because he lost his son confronted his pastor in anger and said, "What kind of a God did this? If you God could have stopped this and didn't He must be a terrible God. And if He couldn't have prevented it, He isn't worth the time of day." The father's feelings were not unusual, but represent the feelings that millions have had as they are confronted by the reality of tragic death. This kind of anger is misdirected however, for it assumes God is responsible for sin, and all of its evil consequences, such as war and death.
This misconception, that leads so many to become angry at God for life's tragedies, is encouraged by those who declare that God is the one who sovereignly appoints all death. The confusion arises because Christians do not think though what they mean, and what the Bible means by the sovereignty of God. If you mean by the sovereignty of God that God controls absolutely everything that happens, then you have a fatalistic theology like that of Islam. Everything is the will of Allah, and there is no way it can be different than it is. Whatever will be will be, and no amount of effort on man's part can change it. All is determined, and all is a matter of fate. This is not the Biblical view of reality.
In the Bible we see that God has limited His sovereignty by the freedom He has given to man, and to other free willed beings. Jesus could say to the Jews, I would have taken you under my wings but you would not respond. And so He wept over Jerusalem for their choice meant death and destruction that He did not want. The Bible reveals a God who cries out, "Why will ye die when you can choose My will and live." The Bible puts the responsibility for sin and evil, and all of its consequences upon those who choose to defy God, and not upon God, who gave them their choices.
God made sin and evil a possibly by His sovereign power of creation, but He is not responsible for it. An analogy can make this clear. The highway department puts up signs such as, cross over ahead, dead end, slow down, bridge out, 35mph, etc., and yet drivers will ignore these signs and go 70mph and crash through a barrier and get killed. If you want to apply the thinking of theology to this event, you could say the highway department is responsible for that death. They built the road in the first place, and had they never done so this driver would not have been killed by driving on it. They are the ultimate cause of this tragedy because they are the ultimate source of the road's existence. Not only that, they also made the crossover, or had the bridge closed for repairs, and built the road only to handle 35mph safely. They are the ones who by their power and wills made all of the tragic deaths on that road possible.
But, is it true that they willed his death? They made it a possibility, but the fact is they did not will that possibility to be a reality. They proved their will was against it happening by doing all they could to prevent it. They put up signs warning of all the dangers so people could make wise choices and avoid suffering and death. When a driver refuses to heed the warnings, and chooses instead to take the risk of defying what is good for his own protection, he must bare the responsibility for the consequences himself. Who could be so blind that they would accuse the highway department of being cruel and blood thirsty in planning for all of the deaths that happen on the highway.
This is precisely what men do when they accuse God for being responsible for tragedy, and blame Him for allowing, or not preventing, the consequences of sinful choices. You might just as well blame the highway department for the road as to blame God for making men with a free will. In fact, you just as well blame the reckless drivers mother because had she prevented her pregnancy he never would have been alive to die in his tragic wreck. Or, she could have kept him chained to a wall in the basement and prevented the whole thing. We could go on and on showing that it is nothing but folly to try and pass the buck for life's evils back to God'S sovereignty.
God will not allow us to escape by this trick, for He makes it clear that in His sovereignty He does not ever will sin or evil. Since sin or evil are a very definite part of reality, we must face the fact that it is the result of foolish choices on the part of man, and other free willed beings such as satan and his demons. Satan entices men to make all kinds of decisions that lead to tragedy and death, and it is an added evil when men say these tragic things are the will of God.
How then are we to see the sovereignty of God in the events He does not will? If so much happens that is not God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven, then in what way is He superior to the forces of evil that seem to get their will done on earth as it is in hell? Stephen's experience reveals this clearly. The hatred and bitter rejection of the truth that led to his unjust and violent murder was clearly a victory for the forces of evil. Sin was in control and an innocent life was taken from the earth, even though it had great potential for many years of faithful service in the kingdom of God. It was a day of darkness for many Christians who rightfully mourned Stephen's death.
The sovereignty of God is seen in the fact that when evil has killed the body that is all it can do. That is real and terrible, but it is only a temporary victory for evil, for death is now under the control of Jesus Christ. He has the keys of death and hell, and not Satan, and so Stephen went immediately into the presence of his Lord. Death was robbed of its sting because it could not hold a child of God. Death was made a mere door to the Father's house. God's sovereignty is seen, not in His appointing the day of His children's death, but in that He appoints the day of their death, whatever be the cause, to be a day of joy and celebration as they are welcomed home. The day of death for the believer is always a day of victory, even if the cause of their death is the power of evil. The power of evil ends at death. That is the worst it can do, but do not fear it, said Jesus, for when it has done its worst it only thrusts you into my hands.
Evil men rocked Stephen to sleep with a motive of hate, but all they succeeded in doing was to send him on a perpetual vacation to paradise. The evil is real, and the death a tragic loss to the church, but in the sovereignty of God the total picture is one of victory. The Christian then must look on tragic death from the perspective of Jesus. He must weep with Jesus in that it is truly tragic that evil should have such power to ruin life on this earth. It is right and normal for Christians to grieve over the folly of wicked men who bring about so much unnecessary suffering and death. It is a shame that men have to endure a world where the forces of evil are so entrenched, and where good and godly people have suffer and die at their hands.
The first Christian to die in the New Testament was Stephen, and he died a violent unjust death. The first deaths in the New Testament, however, were the Jewish baby boys who were murdered by the heartless Herod who was trying to get rid of the Christ child. This was one of the most cruel and barbaric acts in all the Bible. They were totally innocent, but they died because evil powers are real, and they often care nothing about justice and fair play. Will anyone let Herod off the hook by saying that God must have appointed these babies to die on that day? If that was true then Herod was doing the perfect will of God and was God's servant rather than God's enemy. This theory has to be rejected for Herod was clearly the enemy, and what he did was evil and not the will of God.
But God could have stopped it, could he not? Yes He could have, and that is what most people think God's sovereignty means, that He can do anything to get His will done. That is why people look at the tragedies that evil produces in the world and say God must have had a purpose in it. Behind this thinking is the idea that since God permitted the tragedy when He had the power to prevent it, there must be some reason or purpose behind it. In a way they are right. God does permit evil for a purpose, but this is not to say that every act of evil is planned or permitted by God for some specific purpose. Evil is permitted because that is the only way God can have a truly free-willed being who can choose good rather than evil. God in His sovereign power could stop men from choosing evil, but to do so would be contrary to His ultimate purpose.
The tragedy is when people do not understand God's purpose in allowing evil, and begin to try and make evil good by assuming the sovereignty of God is behind all that is. This kind of thinking is what produced Job's friends and made them such a big pain in the neck. One of the finest books I ever read on suffering was, If I Die At Thirty by Meg Woodson, the mother of 13 year old Peggy, and Joey her younger brother, both of whom had Cystic Fibrosis. This incurable disease kills 50% of children who have it before their 15th birthday. The book is largely conversation between the mother and her daughter after she discovers she will not likely live many more years. If you enjoy a good cry this will be your kind of book. I don't especially enjoy it, but could not help it as I read this true story. But what impressed me most was the profound maturity of 13 year old Peggy. Listen to her words of response as she listened to a local radio talk show dealing with parents of mentally retarded children.
"Why did God make my child retarded? Why did God send that
tornado? Why did God give me Cystic Fibrosis? Peggy
mimicked as she turned off the radio. Why do people
always say that? God didn't do any of those things." The
mother writes, "Quick tears burned my eyes. How care-
fully I'd refrained from bringing up the question of why
Peg had Cystic Fibrosis.....Somehow I'd felt I couldn't
bear it if she pointed the accusing finger at God. But here
she'd brought up the subject herself, and the only finger she
pointed was at the people who pointed the finger at God.
"Don't they know He's not like that?" She cried, indignantly.
"He planned everything to be good. He wouldn't do mean
things like that. They say God did this or that mean thing
to make them better people. That's dumb. You know there's
one thing I hate about Cystic Fibrosis camp. Half the kids
there don't even believe in God. I don't know about Joey's
side,but on the girls side its like they've said, God gave me
Cystic Fibrosis-goodbye God."
Here was a 13 year old dying teenager who had already learned from life the negative effects of a false theology. People who feel God in His sovereignty is the cause of suffering tend to forsake Him and blame Him. It is one of Satan's most cleaver tricks to get people to think that his evil works are the will of God. God forbid that we add to the problem by promoting such a view of His sovereignty. Let us promote the Biblical view of Christ who reveals God's will to be one of victory over evil and suffering. When His sovereign will is finally and fully fulfilled all suffering and death will be no more. This is a true picture of the sovereignty of God.