The following is a conversation that recently took place in my daughter’s middle school group. And I think it does a good job highlighting three mistakes that we often make when we talk about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to sin and suffering in the world.
Youth pastor: God is sovereign. That means he controls everything that happens.
Middle-schooler: So God was in control when my dog died? Why would God kill my dog?
Youth pastor: That’s a tough one. But sometimes God lets us go through hard times so that we’re prepared for even more difficult things in the future. I remember how hard it was when my dog died. But going through that helped me deal with an even more difficult time later when my grandma died. Does that make sense?
Middle-schooler: (Long pause.) So God killed my dog to prepare me for when he’s going to kill my grandma?
Youth pastor: (Silence.)
Ah, youth ministry. There’s nothing like a question from a 12-year old to make you realize that what you just said doesn’t make as much sense as you thought it did when you said it.
Like I said, if you look closely at this quick exchange, I think you’ll see three mistakes that people commonly make when talking about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to the bad things that happen in the world.
1. Answering the Wrong Question
This one actually relates more to how we handle difficult questions in general. It surprises me how often I hear someone ask a really good, thoughtful question, only to receive an answer to a completely different question. Notice in the dialog that the student wanted to know about why God killed their dog. That’s a question about God’s direct, personal agency in something apparently bad. But the answer had to do with why God permitted the dog to die. That’s a related, but distinctly different, issue.
And this isn’t a small problem. Many people won’t realize that your answer didn’t actually match the question. Instead, they’ll assume it did. And that can set them up for some serious misunderstanding.
That’s what happened in this dialog. The student asked about God killing the dog. The youth pastor skipped that question and went directly to God’s permissive will. But the student (understandably) thought the youth pastor was answering the question he actually asked. So he concluded that the youth pastor was agreeing that God did in fact kill the dog, and was just trying to explain why God would do such a thing. That clearly wasn’t the youth pastor’s intent, but by answering the wrong question, he set the student up for that misunderstanding.
All this to say: listen to questions carefully. Answering the wrong question can cause problems.
2. Confusing Authority and Agency
When talking about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to sin and evil, it’s important to distinguish two concepts: authority and agency. When we say that God is “sovereign,” we’re affirming that God has authority over everything that happens in the universe. He’s the king. And as such, he has sovereign power over everything that happens. If he wants to make a river flow backwards, he can do that. It’s his river. As king, he has the requisite power and authority.
But that’s different than saying that he directly causes everything that happens, which is a question of agency. A king may have sovereign authority over the merchant in the market, but when that merchant sells a bag of rice, we don’t say that the king personally performed that action.
So agency and authority are distinct concepts. And we can combine them in different ways when understanding how God relates to sin and evil. Pretty much all Christians agree that God has authority over everything that happens, even the bad stuff. (Yes, even Arminians affirm that God is sovereign in this sense.) But they disagree on precisely how to understand God’s agency. Some will say that God directly causes everything that happen. Others want to talk about different kinds of causation (i.e. divine and creaturely causation are both at work in every event, but God’s agency is somehow less direct and he is thus not responsible for sin and evil). And I could go on. The point is to recognize that different approaches to divine agency still affirm divine authority. They just unpack it the relationship differently.
In our story, the youth pastor failed to recognize the distinction and answered a question about agency with an answer about authority. Don’t do that.
3. Trying to Make Evil Sound Good
There’s a fine line between helping people see that God is amazing enough to use even the worst situations for his good purposes and making it sound like those horrible situations are actually good things. Yes, God can use a bad situation for good ends. He does it all the time. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and God rescued people from famine. The Babylonians crushed Judah, and God demonstrated his awesome holiness. Jesus was executed on a cross, and God redeemed a sinful world. Our God is amazing, and he is always at work in the midst of even the most horrific situations.
That doesn’t mean those horrific situations are actually good. It just means that God is good. And creative. And powerful. And redemptive.
We don’t praise God for evil, we praise God in the midst of evil. Those are critically different responses. And we must avoid the former lest, in our hurry to comfort, we minimize evil and suggest that God is somehow culpable in the very sin he works so actively against.
Discussing the sovereignty of God with someone struggling through a difficult situation is always a challenge. You have to be careful not to minimize their pain and make it sound like they should somehow be able to just “move on” simply because you’ve reminded them that God is in control. The sovereignty of God doesn’t make the pain go away, it just puts the pain in context. That is a good thing to do, but it must be done carefully.