On and off throughout my years of ministry I have been asked in various ways whether we can have confidence in God’s sovereignty. In a few cases the inquirers have had high levels of anxiety. Usually, the questions have boiled down to one underlying question. In this world, as evil and as broken as it is, how can we really trust that God is sovereign and really does care? The urgency of that question has no doubt been amplified in the midst of the devastation wrought by the covid pandemic, as well as various incidents of extreme violence that we have seen over the past 120 years.
The question is not new. It’s thousands of years old. The author of psalm 73, for example, has his own version of this question. He asserts that God is “good to the upright,” except him, it seems. His “feet have almost stumbled” for he has been grieved by the prosperity of the wicked, who are apparently getting away with anything and everything, while decent folk suffer misfortune. Or take Habakkuk as another example. In the opening line of the prophet’s book, Habakkuk cries out, “’Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?’ Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”
These questions are important and ought not to be dismissed too quickly, for example, as an indicator of a lack of faith. The whole point about the Christian faith, witnessed in the Scriptures, is that there is room for struggle, doubt, and crying out to God to act in times of injustice. Nevertheless, there are biblical references that can help us address this issue and perhaps move forward in faith. If we are to answer questions about God’s sovereignty in a world with evil, it will be helpful to begin by addressing what we mean by sovereignty.
What does it mean to say that God is sovereign?
Most commentators, and certainly the ones with whom I am familiar, would agree that God’s sovereignty needs to be understood as a “now” and “not yet” question. God’s sovereignty is inextricably connected to the end of the historical process when God’s purposes for his creation will be realised in full. Human beings’ relationship with God and with each other will restored, as will humankind’s relationship with all creation. What was lost in the beginning, recorded in Genesis 3, will be reversed and there will be shalom in the new heavens and the new earth. If one were to consider God’s sovereignty from the end of history, it would be clear that God is sovereign.
In the present, however, in the midst of what seems to be a world gone mad, after 120 or more years of world wars and extreme violence, and with any number of natural disasters, God’s sovereignty is less obvious for many people, including Christians.
Without pretending that there are any simple answers to the questions raised, there are things we can say and look to in order to raise our levels of confidence that God is indeed sovereign in this world, and that he is directing the whole world and our lives towards their final goal.
The concept of divine government is crucial in understanding the sovereignty of God. At the heart of this concept is an emphasis on God’s greatness in the face of evil. God doesn’t interfere with choices people make between good and evil. To do so would mean that we would not and could not love God freely. Nevertheless God does govern the world today in that he brings good out of evil that happens in the world. He does that in part now, but will complete that task fully at the end of time in the new creation.
The ultimate and most powerful example of God’s government in this sense lies in the death of God’s son on the Cross. God used the profound evil of the crucifixion of the sinless Jesus as the means of bringing salvation to the world. In the same way, God will attain the goal for his creation through acts of rebellious human beings. In that sense even the worst tragedies can be used by God to achieve his goal for the world. Only at the end of the historical process will God eradicate all the evils and injustices of life (Revelation 20:4). As one author puts it: “On that great day, the dead will triumph over death, the oppressed will be victorious over oppression, and God will in augurate his new order, the eschatological community.”
Despite appearances to the contrary, the historical process is going somewhere. God is at work directing human affairs towards that last day when he will his establish his sovereignty and re-order creation in the new heavens and the new earth. In his own timing God will act decisively in eradicating all evil and injustice. As God’s people, then, we live in hope.
But even today he invites us, in fact commands us, to orient our lives around his working towards that final day. Even today there are signs that we are on that trajectory, for example, every time there are acts of love, in every instance of feeding the poor and caring with love for the marginalised. In Christ we are empowered today to exchange the chaos and disorder of this life for the new order marked by community and fellowship with God, others, and all creation. There is a real sense in which we can experience today, at least in part, the shalom of the last day.