The sovereignty of God presents people with a host of disconcerting challenges to their faith. Those who have experienced particularly egregious betrayals, violations, and assaults are prone to wonder: how could God let this happen. I won’t pretend that this attribute of God doesn’t raise questions in our minds. Nor will I pretend that it alone comforts all in the same way. Yet, the sovereignty of God can help us to face suffering with hope.
The sovereignty of God is His “exercise of rule (as ‘sovereign’ or ‘king’) over His creation” (Grudem, 217). He rules over all things, events, places, and people. Nebuchadnezzar rightly asserts that “no one can stay His hand” (Dan. 4:35). The Psalmist declares:
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Ps. 115:3)
The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all. (Ps. 103:19)
Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps. (Ps. 135:6)
His sovereignty extends to preservation of creation (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; 2 Peter 3:7), animal life (Ps. 104:27-29; Jonah 1:17; Matt. 6:26; Matt. 10:29), seemingly random events or chance happenings (Prov. 16:33), national affairs (Job 12:23; Ps. 22:28; Acts 17;26; Prov. 21:1), and our whole lives. He is sovereign over physical maladies (Ex. 4:11; John 9), over spiritual sufferings (2 Cor. 12), and over the direction of our lives (Jer. 10:23; Prov. 20:24; Prov. 16:9). God’s Lordship overall things knows no boundaries.
This means that there is nothing that happens to us that does not pass through God’s hands (Job. 2:7, 10). This truth is important as we seek to help people think rightly about their sufferings. Consider the following graphic:
There are a variety of causes for our suffering, stated inside the circle. Yet, God reigns over all these things. He is outside the circle and anything that would enter into it must pass through Him first. So, even Satan is not permitted to cause suffering apart from God’s will (Luke 22:31; Job 1:12). This is important because it highlights the Biblical truth that suffering has a purpose.
Romans 8:28 is not just a cliché or trite passage used to comfort us in pain. It holds a deep and meaningful truth that God’s sovereignty over our sorrow grounds them in a purpose. Nothing happens to us by chance. Though we may not always understand God’s purposes, we can rest assured that His sovereignty establishes meaning to our hurts in this life. One example may be useful at this point.
There was a young man who greatly loved the Lord and yet in spite of his commitment to God he experienced a great deal of suffering. It began with betrayal by his family. His brothers hated him and eventually schemed together to get him kicked out of the family. He was alone and with no clue where the future was going to take him. Next his employer’s wife tried to seduce him and when he rejected her advances she lied about him. She accused him of attempting to rape her and naturally he was both fired and charged with a crime. He spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit. If anyone had cause to feel that his suffering was random, purposeless, and devoid of meaning it was this young man. Yet, God was using these circumstances to do an amazing thing.
You’ve probably guessed by now that this story is the Biblical account of Joseph, found in Genesis 37-50. At the end of his recorded story in Genesis we find Joseph, having been sold into slavery, and by God’s grace having now arisen to power in Egypt, is able to rescue his people from famine. Joseph says to his brothers:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen. 50:20)
Joseph is able at this point to see the sovereignty of God as a means for navigating his suffering. He knows that what his brothers did was “evil.” He calls it clearly as such. Yet, he sees the mighty hand of God behind their evil orchestrating events for good.
The same, of course, is true of the crucifixion of Jesus. Peter, preaching in Acts 2, says plainly:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23)
The “men of Israel” “delivered” Jesus over to be “crucified and killed” by “lawless men.” They are all responsible for the part they played in the death of the Son of God. Yet, even this death was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” God’s sovereignty over even suffering is the hope of our salvation. Jesus’ death is not a cosmic accident, it was an intentional plan to save sinners. That is our hope.
Our own suffering too falls under God’s sovereignty. We can trust Him with our pain, even when we don’t understand, because He is using it for our good (Rom. 8:28). He is using it to strengthen our faith, build our character, and stir up our hope (Rom. 5:1-5; James 1:2-4). Suffering is, of course, never comfortable. But God ordains suffering for our good. Paul’s thorn in the flesh is designed by God to keep him dependent (2 Cor. 12:7). When we can see God’s sovereignty rightly we can understand the potential value of our sorrow. It’s not that it makes it all go away, but it gives it meaning and purpose.
Good counselors know how to comfort and encourage with the sovereignty of God. It does not explain all things. The so-called “problem of evil” is a challenge to our faith, and so we should know how to use the sovereignty of God carefully with counselees. Yet, for some of us this doctrine can be a great encouragement, hope-giving, and life-sustaining. It is the promise that nothing you experience is without design, all things work for good, and God is with you in the trial.