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Overcoming Adversity 101, Part 1: The Sovereignty of God

Overcoming Adversity 101, Part 1: The Sovereignty of God

The first step to overcoming adversity is accepting and resting in God’s sovereign rule. Adversity got the best of me until I grasped this scriptural reality. It’s a concept that can only be understood through the parameter of a relationship with Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus Christ is vital to overcoming adversity. You might call it “Overcoming Adversity 100.” Overcoming adversity is impossible apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ. If you don’t know Jesus personally, stop and read How to Know God.

What does it mean to say that God is sovereign? When it comes to the uncontrollable details of life, we either shrug them off declaring, “Oh well, God is in control”— or we fume, “God, You are in control. You could have done something!”

There are two sides to this theological coin…and I’ve lived on both. The thought of God being in control either brings great peace and assurance…or it fosters immeasurable anger.

Meaning

What does God’s “sovereignty” mean? What effect should it have upon us?

“The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom [his sovereignty] rules over all.” Psalm 103:19

The Biblical definition of God’s sovereignty simply means that His kingdom rules over everything. Sometimes the broad, sweeping concepts are the hardest for my finite mind to comprehend. A simple dictionary definition sheds helpful light on this deep subject.

“Sovereign” means:

1. the supreme ruler; king or queen…monarch

2. having supreme control

3. greatest in rank, authority, power

4. independent of the control of another; freedom from outside control [i]

God is the supreme ruler of the universe. He has ultimate control over all details. No one outranks Him. He rules independent of the control of any other being, even Satan. Absolutely no one has more control over the events of this world—over the events in your life—than God. In other words, the buck stops with Him.

The Supreme Ruler, In Ceaseless Control

God is the ruler of the universe. Nothing is outside His authority. No one outranks or overrules Him, not even temporarily.

“His dominion is an everlasting dominion. And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’” (Daniel 4:34-35, NASB).

Notice that Scripture says God “does according to His will in the host of heaven.” He has authority over all powers. Christ“is the head over every power and authority” (Colossians 2:10, emphasis added).

Permitting and Limiting Trials

No trial reaches us without God’s absolute appointment and specific permission. Satan was not allowed to touch Job’s life without God first allowing it—and limiting it. (See Job 1:6-12; 2:2-6) Satan had to ask permission to sift Peter “as wheat” (see Luke 22:31).

Perhaps it seems that God is too loving, too powerful and too good to allow terrible things to enter our lives. God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence seem to contradict each other when it comes to suffering. After all, God couldn’t know beforehand that a trial was going to occur and still permit it. Either He is so loving that He longs to stop it, but can’t because but He lacks the power to do something about it – or He has the power, but lacks the love to care.

As Kay Arthur says in As Silver Refined, let’s follow that line of thinking. Let’s see where it goes. [ii]

If God did not permit the adverse situation, who did?

1. Was it fate? Was it an accident? Are we left alone in a chaotic world where nothing fulfills God’s promise to work all things together for the good of them that love Him and are called according to His purpose?

2. Was it Satan? Kay Arthur answers, “If God didn’t control evil, the result would be evil uncontrolled. If bad things come only from Satan and God has no power to stop them and no authority over Satan, then whose hands are we really in?” [iii]

God is not Satan’s clean-up boy. Sweeping up after the devil has done his worst, trying to bring good out of it somehow.

3. Was it a Person? Was it the drunk driver? Did the driver have more power than God? Does God have no ultimate power over that which He has created?

In this line of thinking, the cause—fate, Satan or man—had to overcome God to do it. If this is the case, then somebody or something is greater than God. If it overcame God, then God is not really God.

If you find yourself thinking, “God could not have allowed this,” you’re on the path to a bad outcome. You’re creating a god in your image—one who isn’t God at all.

“See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand” (Deut. 32:39).

God puts to death and gives life. He heals and He wounds. God is in charge of everything.

The rightful conclusion is that there is no other cause but God behind it. Whatever role man or Satan played, they could not have done it unless God gave permission. In As Silver Refined: Learning to Embrace Life’s Disappointments, Kay Arthur writes,

There is no other cause,and there is no other god…Every disappointment—even if it’s tragic and evil—is His appointment. I may not like His appointment or agree with it, but God is in charge. Nothing happens apart from His permission. He is the ultimate authority, the ultimate cause, and He has the ultimate responsibility for all that goes on. That’s why He commands us, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thess. 5:18). What possible reason could there be to give thanks in everything if God isn’t sovereign? Why should we thank Him if He isn’t responsible, if He’s not in control? [iv]

Fingers of Love

two hands holding a stone with the inscription I love youGod holds our lives in the palm of His hand. Nothing is allowed to touch us unless it is filtered through his fingers of love. Only the circumstances that will benefit us and reveal God’s character are allowed to seep through His protective fingers. In His omniscience, God knows what difficulties will work for our good and His glory.

God sees the potential for our lives and allows the experiences necessary for us to reach it. One day, looking back from Heaven, through the lens of a Holy God, we will see all the good that came from our afflictions and we will thank God for every discomfort we endured.

God wasn’t caught off guard the day a tick decided I would make an appetizing meal. God didn’t start scrambling, trying to figure out what He was going to do now that His great plan for my life was ruined by chronic illness. No, Lyme disease was part of God’s plan for my life – part of His best for my life. It was part of God’s plan A, not plan B. Without it I would never have come to love and live by the Word of God so deeply…and I sure wouldn’t be sharing God’s comfort for life’s trials with others if it weren’t for the derailment of my plans for my life.

In the initial years of illness, I mourned my losses and despised my illness. I was depressed. I cried. And I took my complaints to God…daily. I desperately wanted my life back! One night I lay crying on the couch, wallowing in total despair and anger.

“Can’t you see how miserable I am, God? I can’t take it anymore,” I sobbed. “This doesn’t make sense! I could have gone to graduate school on scholarship. I could have been Miss Texas. I could have accomplished so much in ministry. Instead I’m lying around the house worthless and miserable.”

“This is the best thing I could do with these years of your life,” God gently replied. “This is better than if you had won Miss Texas. Better than completing graduate school. Better than becoming a Christian recording artist. Better than the best of your dreams.” His words weren’t audible, but they were unmistakable in my spirit. They are still as fresh in my memory today – over sixteen years later – than if He’d spoken them just this morning.

God wrote a book about me — and a book about you too —before we were ever born. This book contains all the events of our lives. Every detail is under His loving, wise, sovereign control.

“Your eyes saw my unformed substance, and in Your book all the days [of my life] were written before ever they took shape, when as yet there was none of them“ Psalm 139:16, Amplified).

How does God decide what to permit?

The two best books that I have read about suffering and God’s sovereignty are As Silver Refined and When God Weeps by Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes. Both books are deep, yet accessible, inspiring, and full of Biblical truth.

In When God Weeps, Steve Estes writes about the specificity of God’s plan for each of our lives,

“He doesn’t say, ‘Into each life a little rain must fall,’ then aim a hose in earth’s general direction and see who gets the wettest. He doesn’t reach for a key, wind up nature with its sunny days and hurricanes, then sit back and watch the show. He doesn’t let Satan prowl about totally unrestricted. He doesn’t believe in a hands-off policy of governing. He’s not our planet’s absent landlord. Rather, he screens the trials that come to each of us—allowing only those that accomplish his good plan, because he takes no joy in human agony.” [v]

The core of God’s plan is to rescue us from our sin. He steers what he hates to rid us of something he hates even more—sin. God cares less about our happiness than our holiness. He uses our difficulties to help us hate our sin, to grow up spiritually, and to prepare us for eternity. Every sorrow will one day prove to be the best possible thing that could have happened. “God may not initiate all our trials,” Estes writes, “but by the time they reach us, they are his will for us.” They are plan A, not plan B.

Job: the correct perspective

What effect did the realization of God’s sovereignty have upon my life? It liberated me to trust God. To worship Him. To know Him. To bow the knee of my heart and submit to His will, giving thanks in everything. It enabled me to see my situation as He saw it — from His eternal perspective.

This effect is not uncommon. To see this we need look no further than Job. How did he respond to the terrible news of the deaths of his of his children and servants and the loss of his wealth, his flocks?

Job “fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised’” (Job 1: 20-21).

Job did not say, “The LORD gave and Satan has taken away, who is in control of the world today?”

Job’s submission to God’s sovereign rule is what enabled him to bow in worship as he said “the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.” Job’s realization of God’s complete authority over the details of his life produced the next phrase that he uttered: “May the name [the character] of the LORD be praised.”

The Apple and the Alien

apple halvesFor the sake of analogy, let’s imagine that somewhere in this universe is a person (or alien) who has never seen an apple in their life. What would happen if I put an apple in front of them and asked them to identify all of its parts? They would begin to investigate and discover that it has an outer layer that is red.

“That’s right,” we would respond, “that’s the peeling.” “What else do you see?” we might ask, encouraging them to continue the search.

“There is a second part. It’s sort of white colored,” they might answer, digging further down into the apple.

“That’s right,” we would answer. “That’s the flesh or meat of the apple.”

Now suppose they stopped there in identifying the apple. Would they have identified the whole apple? No. In fact, they missed the core—the central, fruit bearing part.

This is analogous to the issue of God’s sovereign rule over the circumstances of our lives. When the red part, the peeling, was identified, that was a true part of the apple. Just as someone might say on the issue of life’s tragedies, “The devil did it. He’s responsible.” Yes, that may be true, but only to the degree that it includes the whole truth. He did play a role, but there is more.

There was the white part, the meat or flesh. Identifying this part might be the equivalent of accusing the drunk driver – the murderer, the person – for the tragedy in your life. The person did play a role too. But, if we stop here, these are grossly inaccurate depictions of the situation. If we stop here, we stop short of the whole truth. We miss the core, the central, fruit bearing part, which is that God is behind it. He has appointed the situation to accomplish His purpose.

To miss this point is to glorify, and attribute power, purpose and position to the wrong being – to Satan, or to another individual, rather than the One we know is in control. Yes, Satan played a role. That’s true. Yes, other people, often even we ourselves, play a role. But to stop here is to miss the point. God is Sovereign. He is the supreme ruler who reigns in ultimate control. He is the greatest in rank, authority and power. He governs independent of the control of another—He is completely free from outside control. God is not one day in complete control, and the next day absent of power over the significant events of your life. He never takes his hands off the wheel, not even for a moment. No one has ever wrestled the wheel away from Him for a moment either.

Would you let someone get two layers into their discovery of the apple and walk away asking “where on earth do other apples come from?” No, you wouldn’t. Neither should we let ourselves walk away from life’s tragedies with only part of the truth wondering, “where on earth does the ‘good’ in this dreadful situation come from?” To dig down through the outer layers of our circumstances and arrive at, identify and accept the truth of God’s sovereign rule is to arrive at the fruit-bearing part of our situation.

See-Saw Control

a see-sawTwenty-first century American Christians take an approach to God’s sovereignty that is similar to a piece of playground equipment—the see-saw. We believe that one day God is in control of our lives and the next day Satan or an evil person has gained control over Him. This causes bondage and robs us of peace, contentment, fellowship with God, perseverance, proven character, growth, maturity, and transformation to the image and character of Christ. It fosters anger, bitterness, depression, despair, impatience, discontentment…

It is only after we truly view our circumstance through the lens of God’s sovereign rule that we’re able to worship Him; give thanks in all things and receive His peace, His joy, His forgiveness, His perspective, His endurance, and His character. It is then that we realize we can be more than conquerors IN all things—even in the midst of suffering.

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

The mentality that one day God is in control and the next Satan or other individuals are in control incorrectly declares that no good can come from our suffering until it is removed. It defines the situation as wrong, or bad, from God’s perspective—defines it as something that a good, loving God would not want to happen in your life and would certainly never use for your good and His glory. It says that the only position of victory is the absence of it. It equates what is victorious in the flesh with what is victorious in the Spirit. It denies that victory in the spirit comes through crucifixion of the flesh.

What if this view had been the pervasive view of Paul, Jesus, Joseph and Job? If so, then Paul’s thorn would not have been a cause for God’s grace to be made sufficient and Christ’s power to rest on him as a result (2 Cor. 12:9-10). He would not have boasted, or been “loud tongued” about his weaknesses, insults, hardships, difficulties and persecutions. When he was weak…he would have simply remained weak, not been made strong in Christ.

As for Jesus on the cross? His death would have been deemed by God as an utter failure. Joseph’s captivity? There would have been no forgiveness of his brothers. Joseph never would have said, “Don’t be grieved and angry with yourselves, because it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God” (see Ge.45:5-8). And Job? There would be no closing chapters of his story. His friends would have simply been right. Job would never have said, “I know O Lord that You can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” The eyes of His heart would never have seen God (see Job 42:2, 5).

A Pastor’s Misconception

When I began to emerge from the years of severe illness, I was asked to sing at my church. The good-intentioned pastor introduced me and the song I was going to sing. This pastor wasn’t personally familiar with my previous years of suffering. He had only heard about them. I was new to the church, and he was new as pastor.

“Natalie has been very sick,” he said as he introduced me. “But the devil isn’t going to win today. He has tried to take Natalie out, but as she comes to sing, he’s going to lose,” he said.

My heart broke for this man who was so misinformed about the ways, the character and the truth of God. I also hurt for others in the congregation who were enduring circumstances that appeared, from a mere human standpoint at least, to be defeat. What this pastor’s remarks insinuated were:

  1. Satan has been and is currently winning in Natalie’s life. She was bed-ridden and house-bound, therefore Satan was in control.
  2. But when Natalie comes and sings, (and does something that appears to be victorious in man’s eyes) then Satan will be defeated.

He was viewing things strictly from a natural, earthly standpoint. He was clueless as to the way things were in the spirit. In fact, he had it all backward. He could not have been more wrong. Satan wasn’t winning in the middle of the illness either. God had never been working more in my life than during those years of suffering. I have never been freer and more fulfilled than when I was stripped of every selfish ambition, every human ability and everything my self-will could actualize. I’ve never been more liberated from bondage than when I was most crucified in my flesh. If ever God was winning, it was in the very things that appeared to others like defeat. Triumph came disguised as a cross.

I have never had to live by the life of Jesus and His Word more—literally existing by it, as God exhorts us to do—than during those years of intense suffering. Living by the life of Christ wasn’t an option for me then. My flesh was crucified and essentially ‘dead’. So if anything lived, if anything existed, if anything conquered, it was the resurrection power of Jesus Christ in me. Now that is victory. Because I experienced involuntary crucifixion of my flesh and the resurrection power which results, I now know what to seek voluntarily each day. And to the degree that my self-will prevails, I am thankful for the amount of illness that remains because it’s still a tool God uses to rid me of sin, self-worship, and temporal values. It helps keep me humble, submissive and pliable before God. And most of all, it forces me to live dependent upon Him.

Yes, God knew full well what He was doing when out of His sovereign rule, He lovingly allowed me a season on the cross. And He knows what He is doing in allowing your crosses and losses as well.

The Confrontational Language of the Cross

In When Heaven Is Silent, Ron Dunn states,

In our attempt to win the world by impressing the world, we have abandoned the confrontational language of the cross for the wooing language of power, might, success, and winning. The true power of our faith is power that the world calls weakness, and the victory of our faith is victory that the world calls failure. The Christ we profess to follow was made “perfect through suffering.” We prefer to be made perfect through success. But grace will not do for us what it did not do for Christ—exempt us from suffering. [vi]

God has spiritual victory, power and maturity in mind when He allows us to go through seasons of adversity. Statements such as the one my pastor made are inaccurate. Such shallow generalizations don’t tell the whole story – the “fruit-bearing” story that God is behind it:

  • “I am the LORD and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these” (Isaiah 45:6-7).
  • “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider; God has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14).

Don’t let your craving for temporal comfort distort your theology. God is in control. He only allows what is best to enter our lives.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Genesis 50:20, emphasis added.

Question: How does the truth of God’s sovereign rule affect the way you view your adversity today?

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[i] Barnhart, R. K., ed. World Book Dictionary. 2 vols. (Chicago: Doubleday & Co., 1994)

[ii] Kay Arthur, As Silver Refined (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 1997), 125

[iii] Ibid., 125

[iv] Ibid., 126

[v] Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 56

[vi] Ron Dun, When Heaven is Silent (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 36

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