The sovereignty of God is one of those theological ideas that causes some significant challenges in the lives of believers. The idea that “God is in control” seems like it honors God because many mistakenly think that absolute control over everything at every moment is a fundamental requirement for God to be God. Plus it can be comforting because it shifts responsibility for what people do and don’t do onto God, along with the consequences of those choices.
It also can seem comforting to think that God is controlling events when something horrible happens that is completely outside of that person’s control. Some people find comfort in the idea that God meant for them to suffer in order to serve some greater purpose of his.
Unfortunately it’s a false comfort because God is not in control of everything that happens here on planet Earth. The Bible is very clear on this issue, as we will explore in a moment.
We will also look at one of the huge consequences of this unbiblical view on the sovereignty of God, namely that it turns believers into powerless victims instead of the powerful sons and daughters of the Living God they were created to be.
People who say God is sovereign, and by that mean he is in control and directly responsible for everything that happens in our world, misunderstand a couple things that are explained in scripture.
One of the things I notice in conversations with people who hold this view, is that their opinion is almost never anchored in what is actually written in the Bible. Typically it comes out in simplistic generalized statements, the most common of which is simply, “of course God is in control.”
It’s critical that we learn what the Bible actually says. Otherwise we may very likely get things wrong.
Jesus answered them, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.” — Matthew 22:29
Then there are those folks who do reference scripture mostly take a verse or two out of context which they use to support their predetermined understanding of God’s nature. But that’s backwards. We don’t look for passages in the Bible to “prove” our viewpoints. Instead we should look at the whole council of scripture and adjust our views to match that truth.
That said, let’s dig into what the Bible has to say on this topic.
Power vs. Authority
When it comes to this question, the first thing we need to understand is the difference between power and authority. God is indeed all powerful. One of the many names of God is El Shaddai, which means Lord God Almighty.
However, even though God is all powerful, he sovereignly chose to self-limit his power by delegating authority to mankind in the Garden of Eden.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” — Genesis 1:26-28
With that delegation of authority, God made man responsible for what happens here on earth. It also meant that God could only intervene when invited into a situation by mankind because of God’s own self-imposed limitation of authority.
Because God said mankind has dominion, if he then stepped in the earth to do stuff uninvited, God would be violating his own word. That is something God cannot do (Psalms 89:34).
God of This World
Of course Adam promptly sinned and thereby abdicated his authority to Satan who then became the god of this world.
If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. — 2 Corinthians 4:3-4
That abdication by Adam in the Garden gave Satan the legal right to wreak havoc in the world, especially where people’s lives are concerned.
Later, God made covenants with different people. First was Noah (Genesis 9:8-17), and then Abraham (Genesis chapters 15 and 17). Obviously there was the Old Covenant with the nation of Israel, which gave us the Law. These covenants gave God the “legal” right to intervene in specific ways with specific people.
Authority Given to Believers
Then along comes Jesus who lives a truly righteous life, fulfills the law, and takes all authority back from Satan. Jesus then delegates that authority to us, his New Covenant believing followers (Matt 28:18, Luke 9:1, Luke 10:18-19, John 17:18).
Jesus gave us the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. — Matthew 16:19
Now the authority over the earth resides in us as believers.
God Does Not Approve Satan’s Activity
We should take a moment here to talk about the stuff Satan does here on earth. One variation of the sovereignty of God teaches that, OK. God doesn’t do everything himself. But God does have approval authority over everything that happens.
This view tries to split the difference by claiming that God is still in control even though he doesn’t do the bad things himself. People in this camp say God appoints Satan to do the bad stuff and Satan can only do the bad stuff that God allows him to do.
These folks point to Job as the primary source for this. But they missunderstand what’s happening in this passage:
Satan replied to the Lord, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!”
And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. — Job 1:9-12
Satan isn’t getting approval from God to mess with Job there. Instead Satan basically pointed out that God was protecting Job “illegally” because he didn’t have the authority to do so. Satan was the god of this world because of Adam’s sin.
Therefore, by protecting Job, God was encroaching on Satan’s authority on earth.
Importance of Covenants
That’s why God later established covenants with various people. Those covenants gave God the legal right to bless those who were part of the covenant.
Justice is part of God’s character (ex. Deut 32:4, Isaiah 30:18). Therefore God must have a legal means to bless people in order for him to stay true to his own nature. Covenants are that legal means.
The New Covenant with Jesus is the mechanism through which God’s authority and power flow as we bring the Kingdom of God to the world around us. It is vital that we understand covenants today and the difference between covenants and contracts as believers and followers of Jesus.
God’s Original Plan
This brings us back to the original order of things that God put in place as we see in Psalms, for example.
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet — Psalms 8:4-6
We could preach a whole sermon series from that passage. But now I want to focus in on that word that both the KJV and the NKJV translate as “angels” there. That word is translated over 2500 times in the KJV Bible as “God” and only once, here in this passage, as “angels.” Look at how the New Living Translation renders that passage.
What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You gave them charge of everything you made,
putting all things under their authority — Psalms 8:4-6 (NLT)
This accurately describes our position in Christ.
Unfortunately we tend to be woefully inept at exercising that authority. For many, a huge part of that ineptness is that they are waiting for God to do things that he has already authorized them to do themselves.
Multiple Forces at Work
The other big thing people who misunderstand sovereignty get wrong is that they have this sense that God is the only force at work in our world today. However, even though he is already defeated, Satan is still operating today and steps in wherever believers fail to exercise their God given authority (2 Cor. 4:4). In addition we have 7+ billion people on the planet who all have individual wills of their own and often do stupid things.
Then on top of all that creation itself has been subject to corruption compliments of Adam’s fall.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. — Romans 8:20-21
Starting at least as far back as the time of Noah the planet has been unstable with earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, mudslides, tsunamis, etc. that bring death and destruction to millions. We know that God does not send these things because he instead brings life and peace.
My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave these to him; it called for reverence, and he revered Me and stood in awe of My name. — Malachi 2:5
So there are therefore a whole host of other forces acting in this world which are responsible for the bad stuff. As we’ve seen here, the Bible is very clear on this.
God Not Author of Bad Things
God is not the author of the bad things that happen in our world, regardless of misguided theology that claims he is.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. — James 1:16-17
Even in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, people were presented with a choice.
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; — Deuteronomy 30:19
Every day in a thousand little ways we make choices that either add life to a situation bring death to it. The life choices bring blessing the death choices bring cursing into our lives and the lives of those around us.
We are free agents in respect to being able to make choices about whom we serve.
It’s a life test that we all have before us day in and day out. Those choices are ours alone. We have the ability to choose. Fortunately if any are unsure which answer is right for this test, God tells us the right one. Choose life.
If people had a choice back then, that meant God was not controlling them. Believers are also offered a choice today too.
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. — James 4:7
Submitting to God and resisting the devil is a choice. Otherwise James would not have told us to do it.
Unfortunately, far too many Christians today have it upside down. They are submitting to the devil and resisting God. But that’s a whole big topic for another time.
God’s Will Clearly Thwarted
If the sovereignty of God doctrine was true and God really was in control of everything, then it would be impossible for anything to happen that goes against God’s will, right?
Yet scripture contains at least one very clear example of God’s will being thwarted. In his second letter Peter is talking about how God is patient and outside of time. Then he makes this statement.
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. — 2 Peter 3:9
God is not willing that anyone should perish. Universalists point to this passage as evidence that everyone is ultimately destined for Heaven. But that cannot be what he meant there because that view conflicts with other passages of scripture. The Bible clearly says that many will not end up in Heaven.
Many Ultimately Find Destruction
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. — Matthew 7:13-14
Jesus said “many” will follow the road that leads to destruction. “Many” is far more than “not any.” You can look it up.
Then we find this in Revelation:
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. — Revelation 21:8
Again, that scripture clearly states that at least some (in reality many) folks will perish and be destroyed. This is true even though Peter said it’s not God’s will for anyone to perish.
So clearly God’s will does not always come to pass. Therefore God cannot be in control of everything and that sovereignty of God doctrine must be false.
What about Job?
To keep things confusing, there are some passages in Job that seem to indicate that God is in control of everything all the time. We already addressed one of those passages above.
It’s important for us to look at Job in its proper context. We need to keep in mind that the Bible is true, but every word in the Bible is not necessarily truth. That means the Bible accurately records conversations, for example. But sometimes ungodly people are the ones talking and they say things that are untrue.
The Book of Job basically divides into three sections. The first two chapters are introduction where we see a conversation between Satan and God and Job lose everything. Next we have 36 chapters of conversation between Job and his friends. Then, finally in chapter 38 God joins the conversation and speaks for four chapters.
God basically rebukes everyone. Then Job repents, prays for his friends, and gets his prior fortune restored double at the end of the book.
Here’s what God said to Job’s friends at the end:
And so it was, after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” — Job 42:7
God said that the things Job’s friends said about God were not true. Just before that Job himself declares that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. — Job 42:3
Therefore we should not look to those passages quoting the things they said to get insight into God’s nature and character.
How Things End
Paul reveals a bit about how thing will end up in his letter to the Corinthians. In that passage he says this:
Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. — 1 Corinthians 15:24
It stands to reason that if there is a time coming in the future when Jesus will put an end to all rule, authority, and power, then those things must still exist now.
And if there is power and authority that exists now which will be put to an end in the future, that means God cannot be the only power and authority operating today.
Sovereignty of God Is Not Absolute Control
As we can see, the Bible is very clear that God is not in absolute control of everything that happens today.
Please understand. God is indeed sovereign. However, the sovereignty of God does not mean what many people think it means.
God is indeed paramount and supreme in the universe. If that’s what we mean when we talk about the sovereignty of God, then we are correct. Even so, by now it should be clear that there are other forces at work on earth today.
Acknowledging the truth that other forces besides God are at work in our world doesn’t take any glory away from God. Quite the contrary. The fact that God is still accomplishing his purposes which he planned before the foundation of the world, even without being in control of everyone and everything, reveals God to be even more glorious.
This lines up with what Job said about God towards the end of that book when acknowledging he didn’t what he was talking about earlier:
I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. — Job 42:2
People who claim God controls everything that happens in our world often quote that verse. However, that’s not what it says. Instead it simply acknowledges that every purpose of God will ultimately come to pass.
Unfortunately a great many prominent preachers today hold to the erroneous view about the sovereignty of God, believing God is, in fact, in control of everything. Not only that, but we have entire denominations within Christianity that hold to this view.
That so many hold to this view is especially unfortunate because of the problems it creates for the folks who see God this way.
Sovereignty of God Creates Distance
One of the big consequences of this extreme sovereignty of God theology is that it creates distance between Father God and his children. Seeing God as the author of pain and destruction prevents true intimacy with God.
Who can trust someone they believe probably will send some disease or disaster their way at any time just to them you a lesson?
It is just about impossible to have any intimacy with someone you think might potentially cause you harm. You’ll aways have your guard up. There is an ever present tension and anxiety hanging there just below the surface. The distance that naturally results from this causes the love of Christians to grow cold.
Christians who say that God is in control of everything are accusing God of doing all sorts of horrible things. At the same time, they obviously see that these same things are criminal when they done by a human being. That doesn’t make any sense.
When Jesus was talking about prayer and intimacy with the Father, he said it this way.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” — Matthew 7:9-11
There Jesus says that God is far better than sinful people. But too many Christians flip that on its head. They make God far worse than sinful people by saying He is responsible for horrible evils that happen in our world.
You cannot be truly intimate with someone you expect will likely cause you hurt at any moment.
Sovereignty of God Creates Confusion
This extreme sovereignty of God view that says God controls everything all the time makes for some convoluted theology. In their attempts to reconcile the conflict created from the mistaken understanding that a loving God is also responsible for horrible suffering and disasters, theologians invented different concepts like God’s sovereign will, his permissive will, and his perfect will.
Really what they are doing is trying to bury the obvious paradox with enough intellectual sounding words that people will accept it.
Think about it for a moment.
How is God glorified by putting sickness on someone? And if we really did believe that sickness was from God, why in the world do we go to doctors or take medicine to try and get better? Shouldn’t our going to the doctor be futile because we’re attempting to go against the will of God by getting better?
It makes no sense because it turns good and evil upside down. We are unwise at best when we do that.
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness;
Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! — Isaiah 5:20
In the Bible the word woe on indicates doom and pending judgement. Isaiah is saying that those who call evil good and good evil are setting themselves up for some really bad stuff. Therefore it creates confusion when believers confuse good and evil by claiming God is responsible for evil.
Sovereignty of God Creates Victims
People who think that God controls everything, see themselves as helpless victims. If God actually caused whatever bad thing is happening, that means the only way to get God’s help in that situation is to convince him to change his mind.
The challenge there is the numerous verses in the Bible that address God’s unchanging nature. Here’s one example:
God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent.
Has He said, and will He not do?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? — Numbers 23:19
Since changing God’s mind seems effectively impossible to most Christians, they typically resort to begging and pleading with God. But those prayers are ineffective because they are filled with doubt. James tells us that’s the exact wrong way to ask for anything from God.
For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. — James 1:7-8
When people are dominated and controlled by others, they live afraid of what bad thing might happen next. Over time, that terror eats away at their souls and creates a powerlessness that comes with being constantly victimized by things outside their control.
But you don’t even have to look at the bad things which happen to know that God is not controlling everything or everyone.
Control is Unloving
Here’s a radical statement. Control is in opposition to love.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Do you notice anything about that passage?
What A Controlling God Really Looks Like
Nowhere in that explanation of what love looks like do you see love described as controlling, manipulative, afflicting, humiliating, or deceptive.
Did you know that there is a god that does have attributes? This is how Muslim scriptures describe Allah.
That’s something to think about.
However, according to that definition in 1 Corinthians above, love does not control others, plain and simple. Therefore, if the God of the Bible is love, then he cannot be controlling everyone or everything.
My Own Personal Challenges
I know this sovereignty of God theology creates problems for a great many Christians because I experienced it first hand.
Before I became a believer I pretty much was able to accomplish whatever I set my mind to do. Once I decided I would do a thing, it pretty much always happened.
As just one example of this, when I was in the navy I got my first choice of assignments across the board. I was selected for aviation over ships and submarines. I wanted to fly jets, not helicopters or propeller planes. Not only that, but I got the specific type of jet I wanted. Then I got the duty station I wanted. And finally, I even was assigned to my first choice squadron.
The navy always prioritizes it’s needs over the desires of the individual. Even so, I always seemed to get my first choice anyway.
Looking back, that’s just how my life worked in those days. For most things I didn’t really have a strong opinion about and took whatever came my way. But whenever I really did care and decided on a thing, it just seemed to happen.
The first thing I encountered in my life that I couldn’t “just decide” to do was quit drinking. I was a drunk. No matter what I tried to do, I kept drinking. Ultimately my inability to overcome alcohol on my own is what let me to Jesus. He gloriously set me free from that bondage.
However, I met Jesus through folks with an extreme understanding when it came to the sovereignty of God. They taught me God is in control of everything. These well meaning folks told me that God made me a drunk so that he would be glorified by my deliverance.
That created a huge problem in my Christian walk. I experienced first hand how horribly traumatizing alcoholism was in my life. I saw how it messed with every part of my life, from my relationships, to my finances, and even into my health.
Anyone who would subject me to that kind of pain and suffering was not someone I could be intimate with.
Sovereignty and God’s Will
Lining up with the will of God was one of the huge challenges. I was taught that blessing was found when our lives were lined up with the will of God and problems came our way when we drifted outside God’s will for our lives.
That view creates a logical contradiction. If God is in control of everything, then how could anything happen that’s outside of his will? If everything that happens is in God’s will, then we can never be outside his will? And if we’re always in the will of God, then we should always be blessed and bad things shouldn’t ever happen to believers.
But you only need to spend about ten minutes on Facebook to see all sorts of bad things happening to Christians.
Since I was taught that God truly is in control of everything, then it sure appeared to me that he is abusive because it’s his will that bad things happen to his people. Yet the Bible says that God is perfectly loving and not abusive.
Fight, Freeze, or Flee
From what I’ve observed, the contradictions and lack of intimacy that this extreme sovereignty of God theology causes one of three reactions in Christians.
In my case, I froze and became a powerless victim. I didn’t want to make any wrong decisions and get outside God’s will. I had no intimacy with him to truly find his will. Besides, I thought that God’s will was going to come to pass regardless of what I did.
As a result, I froze. I tried to put up a good appearance of confidence. In truth, the foundation where my faith was trying to anchor was a shaky mess of contradictions and lack of intimacy with God.
I see the same thing in the lives of other Christians.
At the same time, some Christians respond to the these contradictions with belligerence. Instead of freezing they pick a theological fight with anyone who dares to acknowledge the contradictions to their view that God is in control of everything. Those folks are not fun to be around because they tend to go off on abusive rants against those who disagree with them.
Their behavior makes sense. If they think God’s character is abusive, why would they behave any differently?
The other response I’ve seen in folks with this view of the sovereignty of God which says God is in control of everything is that they simply walk away from Christianity altogether. They see the contradictions of this this theology and then reject the whole thing.
The Truth Will Set You Free
These responses are why I say this theology is so insidious. None of those responses produces the powerful world changing royal priesthood of believers we see on the pages of the New Testament. Instead we see powerless victims waiting for God to do stuff that he’s told us to do.
There is good news. God is not in control of everything! There are other forces at work in our world today.
That means we can trust God’s character to always want the very best for us. The door for intimacy with the Father is wide open!
Then we can truly taste and see that the Lord is good. The more we experience God’s goodness, the more we want to experience it. Over time we really can become more intimate with God.
Intimacy is vital because the God wants to partner with you to accomplish his purposes on the Earth by pushing back the darkness and advancing his Kingdom here, now, today. The world needs more believers who live in that powerful place of intimacy.
We live in dark times. The need for powerful world changers to rise up in the Church has never been greater than it is today.
God is inviting you to join him. The first step is to stop blaming him for all the bad stuff that happens.