SF 16: Affliction & the Eternal Decree of God

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How do we reconcile God’s sovereignty and human will? How do we reconcile those two things when those things are suffering or tragedy? Does that mean God decreed our suffering from eternity past? If God is in the business of decreeing what happens in this life, what choices we make, what suffering we endure, what does that say about human will and human sin?

A 500-year-old document offers us help to understand how these things work together. It’s called the Westminster Confession of Faith. It might be old, but it’s spiritually profound.

We will consider the confessions’ first two points of chapter 3 along with it’s scriptural proofs. This is a long one, but I think it will be worth your while.

You can also listen to it on YouTube here.

Transcript

The Puritan’s were no strangers to suffering. The Puritan pastor John Owen buried eight children and a wife. Two of his daughters died weeks apart from each other. Untimely deaths were much more common in the 1600s. The average life expectancy was age 35, a little more than half what it is in the Western world today. But, even for that time, Losing a wife and 8 children is a staggering amount of loss.

I guess there may be a small degree of comfort in knowing that your child loss does not single you out, like it does today. When everyone is losing children you’re not burdened with questions such as, “Why my child, Lord? Why did you chose this for our family? Did we do something wrong? Are you chastening us?” The Puritans may not have been plagued by those kinds of questions. But that doesn’t make their loss any more bearable. Statistics don’t provide comfort.

The Puritans were familiar with suffering, and perhaps this is one reason their writings are so deep, comforting, and spiritually profound. John Owen is widely regarded as the Grand Master of the Puritan theologians. Sinclair Ferguson has said of Owen that when he reads Owen he wonders why he would ever read anyone else. Just maybe, losing 8 children and a wife had a transcendent impact on him that influenced the depth of his relationship with God, an urgency to study Scripture well, and a perspective that set apart his teaching from everyone else.

In the writings of the Puritans, I have found strength for my suffering—a strength and comfort that I don’t find with most contemporary authors. The Puritans had an other-worldly perspective about life, God, and suffering that helps me transcend my own pain. They are a salve to my soul.

They firmly believed that the Bible teaches all things that come to pass on this broken earth, both good and bad, are ordained by God. At the same time, they do not minimize human will and responsibility. And this is clearly expressed in an old text that has been very instructive to me in my own grief and trauma. It was designed to help God’s people wrestle with the difficult questions we face in this life, and I hope it will help you in whatever form of suffering has come upon you. The text comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith, the first two points of chapter 3, which is called “The Eternal Decree of God.”

What is the Westminster Confession of Faith?

It sounds old, dry and dusty. It’s not. It’s powerful. It was written in 1646 by 121 pastors and church leaders who formed the Westminster Assembly. These men met over a period of five years to craft this document that, I will say it’s not infallible, but it is probably more precise and more carefully considered than anything you have on your bookshelf other than your Bible.

It’s a document that contains 33 chapters, with most chapters so short they could be read in under one minute. You can read the whole thing in about 45 minutes.
That’s the Westminster Confession of Faith. This confession of faith helps us to understand how the Puritans were able to face suffering with trust and joy in God. In my sons death, my trust in God has not been shaken, but I have struggled to find joy, and so have so many who have lost children or spouses, or parents in an untimely manner. Suffering robs some of their faith, and it robs many of their joy.

We will look at each of the two points, and break them down into managable segments, and we will consider the Scriptures that are offered as proofs.

Chapter 3, the Eternal Decree of God — point 1:

Point 1:
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Pretty heady stuff, right? The concept is challenging even without the difficulty of the language. So I’m going to read a version in more modern English from the Modern English Study Version, which is presented by the OPC (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church https://opc.org/documents/MESV_frames.html). The point will become a little m ore clearer just with the reading.

God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass. Yet he ordered all things in such a way that he is not the author of sin, nor does he force his creatures to act against their wills; neither is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (MESV)

As we go through this message I will jump back and forth between the original and this modern version to help us understand how the Puritans, and countless others, have understood this confessional statement about the eternal decrees of God.
And it needs to be said that this document is not intended to replace Scripture. It is not Scripture, but it’s a guiding tool designed to help us understand core truths found throughout Scripture. Statements of faith are not unusual in Christian circles. Every church and Christian organization presents a st atement of faith. And that’s what this Confession is. It’s a confession of faith drafted by 121 pastors and church leaders, and it’s a confession that millions of God’s people embraced and taught, and it is the basis for many other confessions and doctrinal statements.

Let’s look at the first part of point 1.

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…

This is the heart of this first point. It’s the assertion of God’s complete sovereignty over everything that happens in this world. Everything that comes to pass in the world, in your life, in the life of those you love, was ordained by God. To ordain something in this context is to exercise a holy authority. It’s to decree something to come to pass. When a human ruler decrees something it may or may not come to pass, depending upon the political environment, and it may come to pass with a lot of flaws. But when God ordains something it comes to pass just as he intends, and it comes to pass flawlessly. Everything that comes to pass was ordained by God from all eternity, before mankind was created, before you took your first breath.

Everything was ordained by the most wise and holy counsel of God’s own will. He did not consult with angels. He did not seek the counsel or advice of man. He ordained it freely. There were no mitigating circumstances or political pressures that compelled him to make his decrees. And his decrees are unchangeable. They cannot be prevented. Whatever has come to pass, and whatever will come to pass, has been ordained by the wisdom and holiness of God within his own eternal counsel, and those decrees stand.

What does that mean practically? It means that the price of gas we see today was ordained of God. It means the delay on the freeway that prevented you from reaching the pharmacy before it closed was ordained by God. It means mosquito bites on my arm were ordained of God. The leak in my dishwasher was ordained of God. The fact that I can’t attend the event next week that I wanted to go to was ordained of God.

In the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, God ordained whatsoever comes to pass,
—even the death of my son.

This is hard for us to accept. 4000 years ago a man named Job understood it. He lost his ten children and his wealth in a single day, and he bowed down and said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” (Job 1:21). Does this mean we should accept whatever God gives us without sorrow or mourning? Of course not. Job mourned. Job wanted to talk to God about what happened to him.

Does this mean that prayer is pointless or powerless? Why pray if whatever is going to happen is going to happen? We pray because Scripture urges us to pray. Jesus himself teaches that the prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much. He tells us that we should pray like a persistent widow seeking justice from an unjust judge. Her persistence drives the judge to act. God’s ordaining of events does not mean we should be fatalistic. Fatalism is not a biblical belief system. This will be come clearer as we move through this confessional statement. Before we get there, we need to look at the scriptural proofs that the Westminster theologians provide to support this statement.

Romans 9:15, 18
For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

This comes from a larger passage in Romans 9 where Paul wrestles with the fate of his people, knowing that God chose some and not others. He engages some tough questions: Did God’s promises to Israel fail? Is God’s choosing unjust? Can God hold those he didn’t chose at fault? It’s not our aim to wrestle with th ose questions in this podcast, but it is important for us to see that it’s God’s prerogative to ordain what he will. He will have mercy on whom he has mercy, he will have compassion on whom he will have compassion, and he will harden whomever he wills. This does not make him unjust, nor does it remove the guilt of those who sin against or reject him.

I do want to read verse 16, because I think there’s something there that is helpful.

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

With regard to salvation, salvation does not depend upon human will or exertion. It depends upon God who has mercy. That’s a very important point, because when we think about salvation, we think about fairness. If God has compassion on some and hardens others, how is that fair? The answer Paul gives is that it’s not fair, it’s merciful. It depends on God who has mercy. He doesn’t say it depends upon God who has the Law or judgment. If that was the case none of us would be saved. If God was being fair, none of us would be saved. We don’t deserve it. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life, right? But Paul tells us it depends upon God who has, and exercises, mercy. Mercy is not deserved. It’s God’s prerogative to have mercy on those he will have mercy, and harden those whom he hardens.

Who are we to complain about someone’s exercise of mercy? God would be just and holy to cast us all into Hell. This should not inspire our criticism, it should inspire our worship.
This is what’s behind God’s decrees. It’s what’s behind God’s promises to Israel. It’s what’s behind how God blessed Jacob and cursed Esau. It’s what’s behind why God raised up Pharaoh for destruction. It’s what’s behind why God ordained a generation of Israelites to reject their Messiah.

And these aren’t just moments where God peppers his decrees across history. He doesn’t decree things here and there, while leaving other events to whatever course that may happen. God is in control of every event.
So how do we reconcile how all this works together? If everything is true at the same time, then this seems like a cosmic bag of tricks. The next scriptural proof helps us to answer that.

Romans 11:33
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

We quote this verse a lot. It’s our go-to verse when we’re faced with something about God that we see is so far above our comprehension. And that is the right response, but I wonder if we really grasp what it’s saying?

Do you realize that this verse is the conclusion of Paul’s very difficult teaching about God’s sovereignty over human affairs, his choosing of Israel, his setting aside Israel while raising the Gentiles? It’s also the conclusion of the passage in Roman’s 9 that we just looked at. This is Paul’s praise to God after he wrestles with these very difficult things in Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11. Let’s read it again.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

Paul worships God whose wisdom and knowledge has a depth that we cannot plumb. The riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge we cannot begin to comprehend. God’s ways cannot be searched out, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many books we read. God’s ways are inscrutable. That means they can’t be explained. They are incomprehensible to the human mind. There are things God reveals to us that we cannot comprehend.

We’re like a 3yo whose understanding and ability to process ideas is far inferior compared to his fathers’. The boy might be able to process basic math, but his father knows algebra, calculus, and trigonometry. The father might be the greatest math teacher, but he will never be able to get his 3yo to understand calculus. The child doesn’t have the developmental capacity to even comprehend that calculus exists. Higher math is beyond the child’s reach.
That God ordains whatsoever comes to pass is not something we can search out, nor is it something we could comprehend if God explained it to us. We have to accept our finitude.

We cannot demand that God work within the limits of our finitude. If we say that, because we don’t understand something it cannot be true, is to assert that our minds are infinite. That would mean we have infinite minds in our finite bodies. We know our bodies are finite, that they have limits. We don’t have superhero bodies and we’re fine with that. The same is true of our minds. Our minds are not superhero minds. Our minds are not like God’s. Our minds have limits, they are finite! Yet the demands that we place on theology are demands that the greatest mathematical minds do not place on higher math. Mathematicians don’t say that because they can’t comprehend any other math that no other math exists. We have not reached the limits of mathematics, nor have we reached the limits of science. Science has the humility to know that there is so much it doesn’t yet know, that it can’t at present time comprehend. Why is theology any different? Paul understood truths about God given to him by divine inspiration, and yet he didn’t know how it all worked out. He knew it was beyond his ability to comprehend these truths. Did this inspire his doubt? Did it inspire him to criticize? No! It inspired him to worship. God operates in the depths of the riches of divine wisdom and divine knowledge that humans are unable to plumb and cannot understand even if God tried to explain it to us. We must recognize our finitude in comparison to God’s infinitude. It’s not a cop out. It’s reality. We have to trust God’s Word, and when we cross into the infinite reaches of theology that we cannot process, this should inspire our worship.
That’s why these scriptural proofs are important. The Westminster Confession offers another.

Ephesians 1:11
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

God works all things—all good things, all horrible things–according to the counsel of his will. That’s where the Westminster Confession gets the language of the counsel of his will. All things means all things. God works all things, not according to the will of an angel, nor any human being, nor any wise body of human beings, he works all things according to the counsel of his will, and his will alone.

Let’s look at the second part of the point.

…yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

This provides us with three clarifications.

1. God is not the author of sin.

James 1:13
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

If God ordains everything, and that means he ordains our individual sins. If God himself doesn’t sin, then the only way for him to get his creatures to sin is to tempt them into sin. That temptation would have to be irresistible, right? Maybe that’s how it works? But that’s not what James says. James tells us God tempts no one. However God ordains sin, it’s not ordained by God presenting temptations to sin. That would make God an author of sin, where it’s direct or indirect. God is not the author of sin.
That would also go against 1 Corinthians 10:13 where Paul tells us God does not let us be irresistibly tempted by sin. Instead of tempting us with irresistible temptation, God is doing the opposite. He always provides ways of escaping temptation to sin. God does not author sin, he actively works to help us escape sin.

2. God does not offer violence to the will of creatures.

What this means is that, while God ordains what will happen, he doesn’t violate the will of the creatures to make it happen. The Modern English Study Version says it this way, “nor does he force his creatures to act against their wills.”
God’s sovereign decrees do not harm the will of mankind. These two seemingly contradictory statements work together in a divine harmony. This is a harmony that is unsearchable and incomprehensible to our finite minds.

Proverbs 16:33
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.

Man casts a lot into the lap, he rolls the dice, he operates the lottery machine, all random acts, yet every decision is from the Lord. How is that possible? A one in fifty million chance to win the lottery is determined by the Lord. Random acts are decisions by God. That doesn’t make sense to us, but that’s what Scripture teaches.

John 17:12
Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”

Pilate had every authority as the Roman Procurate of Judea to either release Jesus or have him executed. He had the freedom to chose how he would exercise his authority. And that authority was given to him by God. God decreed that authority to Pontius Pilate before the world was created.

But God ordained that Pilate would hand Jesus over to the will of the people for crucifixion. This plan of God did not do violence to Pilate’s authority or will. Pilate will be held to account for the sin of authorizing the execution of Jesus. Those people who handed Jesus over to him for this horror have committed a greater sin than Pilate was about to commit, yet Pilate was still guilty of the sin of sending an innocent man to death to appease a mob. And it’s not just an innocent man he’s handing over, it’s a the Son of God, which is an even greater act of injustice. Pilate and the people are 100% guilty of this great sin.

At the same time, God planned for this to take place. Human rulers have no authority unless it’s given to them by God. And by implication, the violence that the Roman rulers and the Jewish mob brought upon Jesus was given to them by God. Had God not given that to them, they would not have been able to lay a finger upon Jesus.

Peter was deeply involved in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. He witnessed the horrible injustice by the hands and minds of evil men, and he even feared for his own life, which is why he denied being a disciple of Jesus. By the time of Acts 2, some months later, Peter has a very different perspective on those terrible events. He says…

Acts 2:23
…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

Peter now understands that the horrible murder of his Lord was the definite plan of God. It was a forethought of God. All that word means is that God had knowledge of how things would unfold before they happened. This doesn’t mean God peered into the future, looking down the tunnel of time to see how things would unfold. What happened was according to God’s definite plan. It wasn’t a plan he simply set into motion though he didn’t know how it would unfold. That’s what we call “Open Theism.” That means God doesn’t know what will happen. He doesn’t know what his creation will do, and he’s just as surprised by what happens as we are. It would also imply that any plan of God is something he has to strategize carefully so that his creation accomplishes what he hopes to accomplish. And anything he makes happen is a forceful intervention against the will of his creatures.

That’s not what Scripture teaches, and that’s not what Peter is saying. Peter is saying, that this incomprehensible execution of Jesus by the hands of lawless men, in all of it’s terrible ugliness, in all of the detail of it’s pain, was the definite plan of God, and it was a plan that God knew thoroughly before it took place. Jesus’ death was no accident. Nothing that happened was unintentional. This was God’s plan, and he knew what he was doing in the fullness of knowledge.

Peter says the same thing in…

Acts 4:27-28
…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

God anointed, he chose, he set apart Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and the Israelites, to do what God predestined to take place. These people, who were enemies to each other, would gather as a untied force against God’s holy servant Jesus. God predestined, he foreordained, he purposed beforehand in eternity past, for these rulers and these people to come together against his son.

So, God gives authority, but what about individual liberties to do this or that? What about the random forces, the circumstances that fall together to create an environment for this or that?
Then next part of the confession says this:

…nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

What is a “second cause”? The language of first causes and second causes is, unfortunately, not in common use today, even in Christian circles, but it was more common is past eras. A first cause always refers to God. A second cause points to anything other than God that can be attributed as a cause. When Jesus was delivered by Rome to be crucified, the first cause was God, the second cause was Pilate and the kaleidescope of influences that motivated his decision, which included the political situation, the pressure of the Jewish leaders, the mayhem of the mob, Herod’s lack of leadership, the coming of the Sabbath, the occasion of the Passover, and on it goes. Those are second causes.

So, what does it mean to say, “nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” ?

It means people and causes are not benign. We have liberty to be the cause of events, or a contributor to those events. Our wills and the consequences of our actions are not removed in light of God being the primary cause. Our liberty to choose this or that remains completely intact.

Contingency means, those things that are possibilities, or things that seem to happen by chance, accident, or logical expectation given a set of conditions. Something that happens by accident does not negate God’s hand as the first cause. God being a first cause of any freak accident doesn’t take away the second cause as being a possibility. If I drive a motorcycle at a high rate of speed in bad weather, at night, on a winding road, the possibility that I will have a serious accident, perhaps a deadly accident, is higher than normal. And when that accident occurs, we say God was the first cause of that accident, and we also have to say that the accident happened because of those other secondary causes that raised the risk. Both the first and second causes co-exist together in fullness, and without contradiction. God ordained that accident. And those second causes are fully established in that accident. Secondary causes are established, brought about, settled and confirmed by the first cause God. They are not negated by the first cause, God. Just as Jesus is both fully God and fully man, something we cannot comprehend, so too are events both fully first causes and fully second causes.

God fully planned for Pilate to hand Jesus over to be executed, and at the same time, Pilate fully committed a terrible act of injustice by handing Jesus over to be executed. Both are true. A tree falling on a passing car killing the driver is both fully God’s plan and fully a conspiracy of random forces that weakened that tree and placed that driver in that car at that fatal moment in time. Both are true at the same time.

Again, we have to remind ourselves of Romans 11:33:

How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

God is God, and he is so far above us that our logic and reasoning cannot pull this together. We have to trust God’s revelation to us though we don’t understand it. And we have to realize that if God were not unsearchable or inscrutable, he would be less than God, or we would be more than man. We are finite in body and mind. God is infinite in every part of his being. Our theology must have a threshold where we recognize the finitude of our minds.
So, with these things in mind, let’s review point 1 again.

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Now, it’s human nature to not be comfortable with leaving God’s judgments to be unsearchable and his ways to be inscrutable, we try to devise explanations to make the unsearchable searchable and the inscrutable comprehensible. And one of the most common ways we attempt this is with the tunnel of time argument. That is what point 2 of the Westminster Confession addresses.

POINT 2:

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

Here’s the Modern English Version:

Although God knows whatever may or can come to pass under all conceivable conditions, yet he has not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future or as that which would come to pass under such conditions. (MESV)

This point addresses an error we make when we try to rationalize God’s sovereign plan with our suffering. We tend to concoct two erroneous ideas.

First, we suggest that God looked down the tunnel of time to see what would happen and then he set that as his decree. In other words, God saw into the future, He saw how things unfolded, what decisions people made, what rulers came to power, and what suffering people would experience, and then he put them into his plan. These things he saw became what he ordained to happen.

The second idea we propose when we rationalize God’s plan with our suffering, is we propose that God is so wise, so brilliant, so street smart, that he knows what will happen given a set of circumstances. He has this uncanny ability to read people, to read the world, that he doesn’t need to look into the future to see what will happen, he already knows what will happen just using his infinite wisdom.

I think it’s apparent that both of these proposals are not only problematic, they are unsatisfying. On the surface they may give us a perception of relief that God didn’t ordain our suffering, and so we’re content with them because they get God off the hook. But on closer examination they turn God into a trickster, a politically correct politician who twists his lingo into slight deceptions. If God is only putting a stamp of approval on what he sees will happen in the future, or if his skills of reading the room enable him to forecast what will happen, then God is deceiving us. He is not ordaining what happens, he is simply reporting what will happen before it happens. If you take this forecasting view then it’s very hard to make sense of the many passages in Scripture that attribute events to God’s sovereign work.

Although God knows whatever may or can come to pass under all conceivable conditions, yet he has not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future or as that which would come to pass under such conditions. (MESV)

These are very difficult questions. I don’t want to minimize how difficult they are, and I don’t think those men who wrote the Westminster Confession wanted to minimize the difficulty either. When you read the individual works of these men they are not the stodgy dogmatists we might imagine them to be. They are very pastoral, comforting, and surprisingly accessible. The assembly included men such as Samuel Bolton, Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Goodwin, William Greenhill, Obadiah Sedgwick, and Samuel Rutherford who served as a commissioner.

The confession gives us a helping hand to understand these difficult doctrines. Doctrine is not a bad word. You have a doctrine, I have a doctrine, the Westminster Assembly had a doctrine. We live in an age where it’s very easy for us to dismiss dead theologians and organized belief systems. And we do. Our Christian culture has come to believe that the culture shapes spiritual truth, not the other way around, and therefore any dead theologian is irrelevant. We also have a distaste for mixing organization and religious beliefs, as if they don’t belong together. But God is a God of organization. Just look at how much organization he put into the Israelite people, the priesthood, and the people’s worship in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Just look at how organized the Apostles became in the book of Acts, and the organization in the church found throughout the Epistles.

I look at it this way. If my doctrine was left entirely up to me to put together, I wouldn’t trust it. I don’t trust myself to know the Scripture thoroughly enough to be able to assemble my own coherent confession. Do you? If you do, would you start from scratch? It would take you a lifetime to do that. I thank God for the biblically wise men and women who have devoted their lives to studying Scripture in their original languages to help put together doctrinal books and confessions and statements of faith that we all have access to. We are indebted to these people. That doesn’t mean I turn off my brain and accept what they say as cardinal truth. I have a responsibility to be in the Word and to examine my teachers and test whatever doctrines or teaching is put forth, according to Scripture. And that includes whatever people attribute to the Holy Spirit. You may assign some impression, some thought, some whisper or inner voice, to the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean the Holy Spirit spoke to you, and if he did, you’re commanded to test the spirits. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. Many people will defend what they think is the Spirit speaking even when it contradicts Scripture.

Should we accept everything in the confession written by Westminster Assembly? Absolutely not. But we should avail ourselves of the confession for the tremendous tool it is in helping us to understand the truths taught in God’s Word, and we should examine and test it according to Scripture. It offers us help to understand how God can both ordain all things, and man still has a will to choose, a will that will be held to account by God.

It’s hard for us to see how our suffering, how our calamity, how the evil others do to us, can be God’s will. When Joseph’s brothers hated him so much they sold him to a band of slave traders to get rid of him, did Joseph know that God had a plan? When Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape and he was thrown into prison, did Joseph know that God had a plan? When the chief cup bearer forgot to tell Pharaoh about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, did Joseph know that God had a plan? It seemed nothing went Joseph’s way. He was a victim of one turn of bad luck after another. All of the hatred and injustice and people not keeping their word would have made anyone hate their life.

But, then God’s plans start to unfold, and Joseph sees how his suffering was working out for good. He sees that God ordained for his brothers to sell him into slavery. He sees how being thrown into jail, and how the cup bearer would forget him, worked out for good. When we’re in the midst of our suffering we can’t see how it can possibly work out for anyone’s good. Like a swimmer crossing the English channel, we can’t see how close we are to shore, and we lose hope. God is that shore when we can’t see it. When we’re in the waters of suffering surrounded by waves, the truth of God’s ordaining our place in the water will be our hope. He’s the only lifeline we have. And when we have him, our sovereign, ordaining God, then we can bow before God as Job did and say “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

My wife and I don’t mourn the could- haves of our son who died. We don’t mourn that we will never see him graduate college, never marry, or never see him have children. Those things were never to be. When God gave us our son, he knew he would only have 18 years 363 days of life. God gave him to us for that many years, then took him. That was all the life God intended for him. That was all the life with him that he intended for us.
God is not out of control. His death was not a surprise to God. There were no secondary causes that conspired together to snatch Tristan’s life apart from God’s will.

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain our sons suicide; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of Tristan’s sins, nor is violence offered to the will of the Tristan, nor is the liberty or contingency of his depression taken away, but rather established.

We don’t know why. We don’t see any good in that. We don’t expect to ever understand they why of his short life until we get to eternity. The Lord gave him to us, and the Lord took him from us. Blessed be the name of the Lord. That should not break our faith. And that should not rob us of our joy.

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

If God is not in sovereign control, then we have to manage a belief system that says God is in control of some things, when he so chooses, and he leaves the other things to work out themselves independent of his will. It means that maybe God doesn’t know what will happen. Maybe God is as surprised as we are when the tire blew out on that car and it careened across the double line and into the oncoming traffic killing two people and injuring three others. God didn’t know that would happen. That’s Open Theism. God’s not in control of this world. He’s sitting around like us to see how everything is going to end.

Or, if we don’t like Open Theism, then we add to God the ability to see into the future, so that, even though he’s not in control, he’s not surprised by what happens. He peers into the future to see all things, and so that enables him to make adjustments to how he intervenes in the lives of people to ensure his purposes stand. But then that would mean, he would have to run that divine diagnostic repeatedly, because if he intervenes at one point, it has an vast impact at other points. Do you remember the movie Back to the Future? If Marty somehow got in the way of his parents meeting and then going to the dance where they would kiss for the first time, he and his brother would cease to exist. If God intervenes to keep someone from fatal harm, then that impacts whomever they marry in the future, and who their children are. And their children and the children of the person they would have married, and all those new relationships, become points of ever growing exponential change.

So maybe it doesn’t matter in the long run. Maybe the Stoic philosopher Zeno is right when he said we’re all just at the mercy of a cold, merciless, and senseless fate. And that’s where we have to land. Somehow God’s work in this world is compatible with Stoicism. Stoicism believes that the cosmos as we know it was created by God, and he wound it up and then let it loose to spin of it’s own accord. He created it but he doesn’t sustain it. When it runs out it runs out. In the meantime, whatever happens on the earth is out of God’s hands. God has yielded the governance of the cosmos over to a merciless Mover. The Earth is a mere cart of humanity and natural forces that God pushes over the top of a hill and down it rolls, and we all sing together, “Que Sera Sera, whatever will be will be. The future’s not mine to see. Que sera, sera!” So God, essentially created fate. He only controls fate to the extend that he created it at a point in time. How fate unfolds in the life of humanity is up to humanity, the forces of nature, and the unexplainable convergences that happen in time and by chance. Accidents happen. The timing of events cross each other to create bad luck. Hurricanes, floods, and avalanches are caused by the impersonal force of “mother nature” And we, and all these forces on the earth, are simply parts of a larger organism called Gaia. That’s Stoicism, and that’s what you get if God is not sovereign.

And as a Christian Stoic, you have to believe that God created Gaia, and he either doesn’t really care about what happens in Gaia, or he is caught up in his own creation, unable, or unwilling, to escape it’s forces. Gaia is sovereign over the cosmos, the functioning of the earth, and everything else that happens that we don’t want to attribute to God. Humanity and Gaia share sovereignty.

And so, you lost your house to the flooding and destruction of a hurricane; your child was killed in an auto accident because of a drunk driver; your mother caught sepsis in the hospital because it wasn’t clean enough; your lost your job because of an economic downturn in your industry. None of this came from the hand of God. God couldn’t protect you or your loved ones in any of those terrible events because Gaia and humanity are in control. You are at the mercy of Mother Nature and the humans who you co-exist with. So then, why pray?
If God doesn’t know what’s going to happen, then why pray? He can’t prevent something from happening any more than you can. How good are you at preventing terrible things from happening?

Well, maybe God knows what will happen, but he choses not to intervene. He leaves us to our free will. So when that tragic event takes place, God does nothing to help you. He has the power to stop it, but he choses to let it happen? Is that what the Bible teaches us? Is that comforting to a mother who has spent twenty-five years raising that child, caring for their every need, helping them, sacrificing for them, praying for them, only to see it all vanish in one moment of some foolishness on their part, or the part of another human being, or some freak act of nature, or some unexplainable encroachment of a cancer or disease. And that mother carries that pain of child loss for the rest of their lives. And we say, that was fate. Free will, time and chance. “Que sera sera.” Welcome to the world! Isn’t it a wonderful place? We think God could have done something about it, perhaps he could have intervened, but maybe he didn’t know?

Job was an ancient man who had no access to libraries, TV, the Internet, educational institutions, grocery stores, or modern medical services. By all accounts he was uneducated, ignorant nomad. But when mother nature spawned a whirlwind to destroy his ten children; and when the Sabean’s raided Job’s herds of camels and killed his camel wranglers save for one, what did Job say? “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be.” Is that what he said? If he said that, we would have no book of Job. But this uneducated man said “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” And he fell down and worshiped God. He understood what the great psalmist said when he penned, “My times are in your hands.” (Ps 31:15)

God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass. Yet he ordered all things in such a way that he is not the author of sin, nor does he force his creatures to act against their wills; neither is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (MESV)