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Overcoming Adversity 101, Part 2: Do God and Satan Alternate Shifts?

This post is part two in a series on God’s Sovereignty. If you have not read part one, please see Overcoming Adversity 101: The Sovereignty of God, Part 1. The question of alternating shifts of power is first addressed there.

Do God and Satan alternate shifts of controlling the world? It often seems like Satan has punched in as manager of the world and God is never coming back from His break. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Psalm 103:19 establishes a foundational fact:

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

God is in control of all world events – large and small. If a hardship touches our lives, it is because God has allowed it. It has been filtered through His fingers of love.

“What about hurtful actions of other people?” you ask. “What about pure evil? Is God the source of it? How can He be sovereign over it – how can He govern it – and not be the source of it? It seems that one of two scenarios occur. Either, 1) God is in control; and therefore, when evil, tragic events occur, He is the source of them. Or 2) when people perpetrate such evil, Satan is in control of world events and God has no choice in the matter.”

Actually, neither scenario is correct. God oversees people’s sinful actions, but He is not the source of them. He can allow events to take place where evil plays a role — without being the source of the evil.

God doesn’t originate everything He permits. He doesn’t put evil in anyone’s heart. Such evil is the result of man’s innate evil desires and Satan’s fury. Even when suffering involves the work of the devil, Satan can only do what God allows.

Job

Job’s story clearly illustrates this. Job had everything he could desire – money, land, possessions and family. He was a man of great standing — the “greatest man among all the people of the East,” the Bible says.

One day the angels came before God’s throne, and Satan came along with them. God asked Satan,

“Have you noticed my friend Job? There is no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.” Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose!

But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.

God replied, We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him” (Job 1:6-12).

On the heels of this conversation came a tragic day for Job. A servant rushed to Job with terrible news, “Sabean bandits stole the oxen and donkeys and killed the field hands.” A second messenger ran in, “Bolts of lightning [probably igniting brush fire] struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them—burned to a crisp.” Before he finished speaking, footsteps of another running messenger could be heard. “Chaldeans came from three directions and raided the camels and massacred the camel drivers.” While he was still talking, another messenger burst in with tragic news. “Your children were having a party at the home of the oldest brother, when a tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house. It collapsed and they all died.” (Scripture quotations from Job 1:14,18, The Message.)

Job’s reaction is exemplary. He fell to the ground and worshiped God saying, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken way, may the name of the LORD be praised” (1:20-21).

We should all take a cue from Job’s correct response. He was able to bow in worship and praise God’s character because he understood God’s sovereign role in his tragedies. Our focus in this post, however, is God. What is God’s role in our trials? How does He relate to Satan in the large and small details of our life? Do they alternate shifts? Does God take the day shift and Satan the night?

Who caused Job’s trial?

At the most basic level, natural forces did. These storms weren’t miraculous or rare. Such occurrences were common in that part of the world. No laws of nature were suspended. If television meteorologists had existed, they would have been on the local network news moments before warning of approaching storms. Bad weather killed that day.

At the same basic level, evil people caused Job’s trial. Criminal prosecutors would have sufficient cause to put these perpetrators behind bars. Greed along with a little desire for dark adventure motivated these criminals. They will one day answer to God for their appalling crimes.

At a deeper level, Satan caused the disasters in Job’s life. “Everything he has is in your hands.” God told him. The Bible doesn’t specifically say if Satan always influences the weather, but clearly, this day he had a hand in these storms. When it comes to the evil men in the plot, Scripture does say that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (I John 5:19, also 2 Cor. 4:4 and 2 Tim.2:26). Yes, the storms were natural events and the men acted true to their evil nature, but according to Scripture, Satan orchestrated it all. He will be punished for this in hell.

On the very deepest level, though, God authorized Job’s trials. Satan asked to destroy Job’s bubble of blessing and God signed the decree giving him permission.

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good things and calamities come” (Lamentations 3:38).

Job obviously knew who was ultimately in charge. He revealed this when he said, “The LORD gives and the LORD has taken away” and “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” At the end of the book, Job received comfort after “all the trouble the LORD had brought upon him” (Job 1:21; 2:10; 42:11).

From the highest angle, nothing happened to Job that God didn’t ordain. But notice how it occurred. Satan acted of his own volition. No one forced him to do what he did. He wanted to destroy Job and embarrass God. All God did was merely “lengthen his leash,” as Steve Estes says in When God Weeps.[i] Estes writes concerning the Sabeans and Chaldeans,

“They didn’t start their day with private devotions, seeking God’s guidance, learning that he wanted Job’s herds stolen and servants butchered, and riding off on a holy crusade. They were just a bunch of good ol’ boys enjoying a drunken looting spree, savoring life’s simple pleasures. No divine arm-twisting there. As for nature, it got up on the wrong side of the bed as it often does, helped along by Satan in a manner we aren’t privy to. It got to howling and blustering—tossing some fire crackers, crumbling some building, frying man and beast. It didn’t know the difference. As far as science is concerned, nature didn’t color outside the lines that day. Following the laws of high-and-low pressure systems, electric al charges, and other scientific principles that nature itself didn’t understand, nature just…shall we say it?…acted naturally.[ii]

God’s decree made room for these terrible events, but He didn’t perform them. In fact, He limited the heat of Job’s inferno of trials and steered the flames to accomplish results for Job’s long-range good.

Estes continues,

“[God] became a stowaway on Satan’s bus, erecting invisible fences around. Satan’s fury and bringing ultimate good out of Lucifer’s very wickedness. He exploited the deliberate evil of some very bad characters and the impersonal evil of some very bad storms without smothering anyone or anything. He forced no one’s hand, bypassed no one’s will, and (to our knowledge) suspended no natural laws.[iii]

So what was the good that came in Job’s life as a result of all the tragedies he endured? Was God just a cosmic sadist, or was there a loving purpose behind Job’s trials? At the end of the book a statement of Job’s is recorded. Job said of God,

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5, emphasis added).

The word for “seen” in the original language means: to feel, to experience, to learn, to reveal oneself, to ascertain, to make one feel or know, to cause to enjoy; to gain understanding, to be fully aware.

Can you imagine ascertaining the creator of the universe – the God who spoke the world into being? In The Case for Faith, Peter Kreeft says,

God didn’t let Job suffer because he lacked love, but because he did love, in order to bring Job to the point of encountering God face to face, which is humanity’s supreme happiness. Job’s suffering hollowed out a big space in him so that God and joy could fill it.

As we look at human relationships, what we see is that lovers don’t want explanations, but presence. And what God is, essentially, is presence—the doctrine of the Trinity says God is three persons who are present to each other in perfect knowledge and perfect love. That’s why God is infinite joy. And insofar as we can participate in that presence, we too have infinity joy. So that’s what Job has—even on his dung heap, even before he gets any of his worldly goods back—once he sees God face to face. [iv]

God not only permitted Job’s trial, He limited it. If God didn’t control evil, the result would be evil uncontrolled.[v] God is constantly restraining Satan’s work so that torment and destruction do not overcome us.

Occasionally, as in the case of Pharoah, Job, Joseph and Jesus, God lifts his hand of restraint and allows evil men to fulfill their desires only because it serves God’s higher purpose.

“God uses everything for his own ends, even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4).

Torture / Murder

The New Testament is clear about Jesus’ torture and murder. God clearly decreed it. Preaching to a crowd in Jerusalem, Peter said, “Jesus of Nazareth…was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross…Repent…” (Acts 2:22-23, 38).

Notice the mention of:

  • God’s foreknowledge – God saw it coming
  • Repent – their guilt was real.
  • God’s’ set purpose – God had a purpose for allowing it, and thus decreed it to occur. The literal reading is “by God’s having-been-decided counsel.”

Two chapters later the point is made even clearer: “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27-28).

A decree by God doesn’t make the parties involved mere marionettes on a string. Observe their actions. Pilate washed his hands nervously. The crowds declared, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” The guilty people felt they were acting freely.

“Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent. God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too. ”  – J.I. Packer

“Oh, but this is different,” you assert. “This is an exception to the rule. It was history’s great redeeming act. God’s role in this heinous act was okay. He switched the world out of autopilot long enough to pay for our sins.  On rare occasions like this, it is okay for God to run the world manually.”

What circumstances are the result of hands-on governance by God?

Let’s look at the Bible and see what kinds of circumstances God is behind.

1. In Leviticus, God gave Israel instructions for dealing with mildew. “When you enter the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as your possession, and I put a spreading mildew in a house in that land, the owner of the house must go and tell the priest” (Leviticus 14:34-35).

The Israelites are instructed when they saw mildew placed by God, they were to call for the priest. But how were they to know the difference between God-caused mildew and that which just grows naturally on the wall? They were never told…because no such distinguishing factor exists.

2. In Exodus, Moses is reluctant to answer God’s call, arguing he’s not eloquent and articulate enough to be Israel’s spokesperson before Pharoah. “The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?'” (Exodus 4:11). God is sovereign over deafness, speech impediments and blindness.  Regarding the man born blind, Jesus said, “…this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).

3. Moving on from matters of disability to those of life and death, God speaks in Deuteronomy 32:39. “See now that I 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. When a baseball slammed into my nephew’s mouth and shattered his teeth, God was in control. When my good friend Stuart had a car accident that confined him to a wheelchair for life, God was behind it all. When three-year-old  Andy Leigh Allen was diagnosed with Leukemia and never lived beyond childhood, God was at the wheel. When Kristin Howard contracted meningitis at four years of age, and was deeply wounded with severe, life-long mental and physical handicaps, God was working the shift.

4. Proverbs tells us, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33). The Athenian democracy used drawing lots, or sortition, to fill nearly all government offices and juries.  Special machines were used to ensure fair drawing of the lots. In 1954 in Rome, a 14-year-old-boy drew lots — a ball, actually — to determine whether Turkey or Spain would go to the World Cup. Today, football teams flip quarters to determine who kicks first. Youth tournament baseball teams flip a coin to determine who bats first. Yet, every winner past and present was and is chosen by God.

5. In Amos, we are asked, “When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it? (Amos 3:6). Think of all the city disasters you’ve seen on 24-hour cable news. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, bombs, terrorist attacks, widespread disease — none of it came about apart from God’s decree.

6. Regarding kings and leaders God said, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1). Kings have ordered some gruesome tragedies throughout history: genocide; torture; stonings and murders of innocent people; tongues, fingers and limbs cut off; the use of chemical weapons against their own people. According to Proverbs 21:1, is the cross of Christ a mere exception to the rule?

7. Lamentations 3:37 says, “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?” This is all encompassing. It includes congressmen making promises, coaches calling plays, teachers having children form a line, daycare workers rocking and whispering “shhhh” in hushed tones to a homesick infant, a worship leader having all stand, a mother telling her kids to clean up their room and the President ordering a troop surge.[vi]

The Bible clearly states that nothing happens outside of God’s decree. Either the Bible is true or it isn’t. If we believe it is true, then we must embrace the truth regarding God’s sovereign rule over all the events of this life.

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

How can God be in control of sinful acts?

God never sins and He never tempts anyone to sin (see James 1:13). He never puts the idea of evil into anyone’s heart either.

It is as if God says, “So you want to sin? Go ahead. But I’ll make sure that when you do, your evil actions suit my higher purpose and plan.”  Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

God knew every detail of our lives before we were ever born. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).

He sees our full, eternal potential and appoints the experiences necessary to cause us to reach it. To do anything less would be to cheat us out of the greatest blessings possible.

“God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJ).

Although we have a will of our own, God governs all we do – even the evil intentions of people’s hearts. And He does it all without compromising His holy, righteous and loving nature.

“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, emphasis added).

God turns evil (suffering) on its head to defeat evil (sin) in us.

For an example of God turning evil on its head, consider Ezekiel 20. God is recounting Israel’s rebellious history, including their idol worship that led to human sacrifice. In verse 26 He says, “I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD.”

Centuries earlier God saw this in advance. He knew that Jewish babies would be killed in worship to the idol Molech. Long before this occurred, He saw where the Israelite’s rebellious ways would take them. He told Moses, “I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath” (Deut. 31:21).

Why then did He allow them to reach this point? To reveal the wickedness in their hearts. To make them see their sin and puke at the sight. God hates the murder of children. Scripture tells us God loves righteousness and hates wickedness (see Psalm 45:7). God hated the murder of these innocent children, but He allowed it so that sin could be exposed. Exposing sin was more important to Him than relieving suffering.

God steers what he hates in order to rid us of something He hates even more: sin.

I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).

The root word for “faithfulness” in the original language means “trustworthiness.” God can be trusted with the course of our lives and all the details that occur.

Through our trials He is causing us to grow up, to hate our sin and to know Christ more fully – an experience no amount of prosperity or ease can match. He is proving our character – taking the impurities of our natural man and in return, imparting to us His holiness. (See Hebrews 12:10-11, Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4, I Peter 1:6-7).

By allowing discomforts to touch us, God is giving us long-range vision. We recognize that this world isn’t our home.

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

He is giving us His end-of-time perspective – and a value for the glory and reward that await us there.  The value we place on all things temporal – and our lust after them – is reduced.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

As our lives are stripped of every other resort, one thing alone stands as our key to survival – the Word of God (Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and the Bible, the written Word). Through our trials, we come to depend on the Word of God – and to treasure it – like never before.

“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word….It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold…If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psalm 119:67, 71-72, 92)

In this beautiful Psalm, David in essence says, “It was the Lord Himself who afflicted me – and I’m glad He did.  Out of his steadfast love and faithful commitment to me, He worked through my affliction to show me how I was wandering away from Him. During my suffering he opened up His Word to me like never before!   If God hadn’t helped me live by the life of His Word, I wouldn’t have made it through.”

No amount of perfection on this earth can amount to knowing Christ and His Word — to knowing His strength in our weakness, His peace in our turmoil, His comfort in our grief, His forgiveness in our bitterness, His endurance in our weariness, His love in our hate. As we yield to God’s wiser, higher plan, He replaces all the negative, bewildered feelings we might have with the heart of Christ — to which nothing compares.

“Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.  I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him…I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power…” (Philippians 3:8)

Question: For what good purposes might God have allowed your current difficulties?

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[i]Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 79

[ii] Ibid., 79

[iii] Ibid., 80

[iv] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 69-70

[v]Ibid., 84

[vi] Idea from Steve Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 75

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