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Overcoming Adversity 101, Part 9: Sovereignty vs. Healing

This post was originally written as an email message in response to a question submitted online.

“I see that in your blog post My Surprise Visitor, you use the term ‘God, in His Sovereignty, allowed…’ Can you help me understand this? A pastor from my former church preached on God’s sovereignty being the reason he had cancer and accepting his fate as Gods will for his life. He died not long after this in 2007. I felt hopeless and depressed as I listened to him. Why would God do this to him? Should I accept ALS as my fate and just stop believing for divine healing and promises to made to me? I began to waver in faith…. You seem so balanced Natalie, please help me!!”

– Scott

Dear Scott,

It is hard to say much about God’s sovereignty very quickly in an email – as the concept is for infinite wisdom (that definitely excludes me! 🙂 ).  But I will ask God to help me share my heart.

The fact that God is sovereign is something that is fact whether we “believe it” or buy into it or not.  He is simply in control.  (My favorite two books on the topic are As Silver Refined, by Kay Arthur and When God Weeps, by Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes.  They are both refreshing and essentially a Bible study in a book!)

As Psalm 103:19 says, God has established his throne in heaven and his kingdom, or his sovereignty, rules over all.  Believing that God is sovereign does not preclude faith, or a belief that God heals. It simply means  to understand that He reigns supreme, greatest in rank, independent of the control of another (i.e. independent of the control of Satan and demons…or man…or anything!). No one – absolutely no one – trumps His power. Not for a moment!

If we couldn’t rest in God’s sovereign rule, there would be no point to life or anything we endure.  I personally believe it was this realization of God’s sovereign rule that allowed Job to bow in worship and say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

If anywhere in his core Job had doubted God’s sovereignty, I believe he would have said the following: “The Lord gave and Satan has taken away.  Who is in control of the world today?”

Or an equivalent for our circumstance would be, “The Lord gave and ______________ has taken away. (Insert in the blank the earthly cause for the suffering: drunk driver, cancer, cheating spouse, murderer, etc.)  Who is in control of the world today?”

Without the complete realization of God’s sovereign rule, worshiping God in our suffering is at best difficult and confusing, and at worst, impossible. To believe that He is sovereign—and really believe it—is to believe that only out of loving intentions for our lives did He allow the suffering to touch us.  Therefore, when the concept truly penetrates, one cannot remain angry at God.  Otherwise, the anger impedes worship. I believe an understanding of God’s sovereignty and the ability to worship Him in difficulties (both large and small) go hand in hand.

Scott, you know all of this and live it day in and day out.  There is nothing new I can tell you on this topic.  I believe your struggle is not with the issue of God’s sovereignty but with healing as it relates to sovereignty.  Do I understand you correctly on this?  You know full well, more than I, that nothing touches us without being filtered through God’s fingers of love.  That is an understanding of God’s sovereign rule.

Fruit Bearing Truth

The understanding of God’s sovereignty is the fruit-bearing part of our sufferings – much like the core of an apple bears the seed, the part that brings forth more fruit.

Imagine if you came to me with a question:

“Natalie, I have never seen an apple.  Where do more apples come from?”

“Well, Scott,” I reply, “let’s take a look at the apple. Tell me what parts you see.”

Looking at the apple, you say, “I see a red part”.

“Yes,” I reply, “that’s the peeling.  What other parts do you see?” (In your case, your wife would do the investigating, since she is your loving set of hands.)

“Well, Natalie,” you say, as my wife scratches down below the surface. ”I see a sort of white colored part.”

“Yes. That’s the flesh or meat of the apple,” I answer.

Now suppose you stopped there in identifying the apple.  The whole apple would not have been identified. In fact, the core – the central, fruit bearing part – would have been missed.

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 doctors who missed a diagnosis, 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. Whatever role man or Satan played, they couldn’t have done it unless God allowed. If God didn’t allow it, then God is not God. If God did not allow it, then something or someone overcame God. And this is not true.

To miss this core point of God’s sovereign rule 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.

As it is with the apple, so it is with the truth of God’s sovereign rule.  If we stop short of this core truth, we have missed the entire truth – and the central, fruit-bearing truth that God is behind the difficulty.  God has allowed it.

Whatever role man or Satan played, they could not have done it unless God gave permission.  It is only when we grasp the fact that God is sovereign that our difficulties bear fruit in our lives. Otherwise, we walk away from our sufferings angry, crying in despair, “Where is the spiritual good in this horrible mess?“

To Accept God’s Sovereign Rule Is To Rest

But I am just preaching to the choir! You know ALL of this inside and out and live it moment by moment.  You could tell me more about God’s sovereignty than I could ever tell you. I really think it is more the aspect of healing as it relates to sovereignty that is troubling you.  To accept that God is sovereign does not mean to give up, to doubt, to quit.  It simply means to rest. To rest in God’s control.  Otherwise, we are resting in our ability and our “faith” anyway.  And that is not belief in God; it is belief in self.

One of my favorite quotes of Kay Arthur’s was written in As Silver Refined: Learning to Embrace Life’s Disappointments:

“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?” [i]

In When God Weeps,a Steve Estes writes:

“Either God rules, or Satan sets the world’s agenda and God is limited to reacting. In which case, the Almighty would become Satan’s clean-up boy, sweeping up after the devil has trampled through and done his worst, finding a way to wring good out of the situation somehow.” [ii]

Scripture says that God is sovereign over all power and dominion – over all spiritual forces:

  • “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?’”  (Da. 4:34-35).
  • “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority” (Col. 2:9).
  • “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lam. 3:38).

The Introduction That Told All

I remember when my health began to improve and 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.

People get so imbalanced – just as they must have during Biblical times.  Imagine someone with that theology commenting on Paul and his thorn or his sufferings on behalf of the gospel.  They would’ve defined it as total defeat. When in reality, Satan was NEVER winning; God was!  It was the same with Joseph’s captivity.  Satan was NEVER winning.  God was!  It was the same with Job’s affliction.  Satan was never winning.  God was!  And it was most certainly the same with Jesus on the cross!  Oh how it appeared as if Satan was winning – I’m sure to even Satan himself. But God was in control and WINNING the whole time!

Statements such as the one my pastor made stop short of the whole truth.  And in so doing, they glorify and attribute power, purpose and position to the wrong being.  To Satan, rather than the one we know is sovereign—God. They don’t tell the whole 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” (Is. 45:6-7).

The Problem of a Partial Perspective

This imbalance occurs when we don’t consider the whole counsel of God’s word. We obtain a mere partial perspective of a circumstance. The following is how such an imbalanced perspective might have described a few Biblical events:

Jesus’ Crucifixion

“Satan killed Jesus and defeated Him for three days, but then God suddenly regained power, turned it all around, cleaned-up after the devil and made it all work out for good somehow.”

Hello! By the very thing that looks like defeat, Satan is losing the WAR!

Paul’s Thorn

“Poor Paul.  Satan has really been working on him.  But someday God will get victory.  Paul will really have something to boast about then.”

Can you imagine? Paul said that because Christ’s power was completed in his weakness, he would boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses, infirmities, hardships, insults, persecutions and difficulties — because Christ’s power rested on him.

Joseph

“Satan has been stealing years of Joseph’s life.  But maybe God will eventually do something good in his life and turn it all around.”

EvenJoseph said that “God sent” him ahead of his brothers (see Gen. 45:5-8). He told them not to be grieved or distressed because “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  It was God’s plan all along to save many lives!

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

Statements like the ones above are inaccurate depictions of the situation. No doubt they were probably spoken by someone in Biblical times who failed to dig deep into the whole truth—into the central fruit bearing part—that God was behind it! He appointed the situation to accomplish His purpose! (And the fact that God had a “purpose” didn’t mean nothing would ever change. Jesus rose from the dead!  Job’s fortunes were restored! Joseph was released from captivity!  Paul was delivered from persecution!)

This mentality that one day God is in control and the next Satan is in control causes bondage and robs peace, contentment, victory, fellowship with God, growth and maturity, development of perseverance and endurance.  It fosters anger, bitterness, despair, impatience and discontentment.

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 shouts there is no victory in it and through it. It says God is not victorious now.  It defines the situation according to the flesh, not the spirit.  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.

The ‘misfortune’ that happened in Paul’s life (thorn, persecutions, imprisonment), Jesus’ life (crucifixion), Joseph’s life (captivity) and Job’s life (loss) were right from God’s perspective, but appeared wrong from man’s. Boy would they appear wrong to the majority of Christians today!

I love this quote from Ron Dunn in When Heaven is Silent. It sounds like something I’ve heard you write in your blog.  You speak so often of the work of the cross.

“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.”[iii]

Resting Is Not Quitting or Not Expecting Change

Ron Dunn was Manley Beasley’s very good friend. Modern day men like Manley, or men of the Bible like Joseph, Job, and Paul didn’t exercise a lack of faith when they rested in God’s sovereign rule.  Nor in so doing, did they quit and accept current circumstances as God’s permanent answer on the matter.  As I mentioned earlier, to accept that God is sovereign does not mean to give up, to doubt, to quit.  It simply means to rest in God’s control.  Otherwise, we are resting in our ability and our “faith,” which is faith in “faith”, not faith in God.  When we have faith in “faith”, we have to have it our way and in our time…or else.

During the years that God was seemingly doing nothing in response to His promise to restore my health, I waited and waited in expectancy.  As you know, I spoke over and over – shared publicly in every way possible – that God was going to restore my health. I thought I really understood how God was going to do it (meaning when He was going to do it.)  But as things grew worse year by year, I had to let go of my expectations and my plans for God and rest fully in His.

As the years went by and I grew even worse, I finally reached the place of total acquiescence – in that I wasn’t sure if God meant He would restore me in Heaven or on earth, but I knew He had spoken to me and I knew He would fulfill His promise however He intended.  I don’t think that was a lack of faith.  I think it was submission.  I had reached the place of believing that God’s plans and promises were greater than mine…and He would work it all out.

I reached the place where I was content, resting in God’s sovereign rule. Shortly after I was diagnosed, but still very ill and unsure of the diagnosis, I was asked if I felt Lyme Disease was really my diagnosis and if so, what was the prognosis.  By that point, my approach to it all had become spiritual, not medical. I knew that no amount of finagling would change a thing medically. I had tried that. It was up to God’s time table. “For the time being and for however many more years God sees fit,” I replied, “I have the disease He wants me to have. It’s part of His best plan for my life. It doesn’t matter what name the disease has. It matters what work God is accomplishing in me through it. ”

This perspective of my illness allowed me to reap the blessings and gifts in it.  I let go of wanting everything exactly when and where I wanted it — or rather, it wasn’t so much a factor of what I wanted as it was what I had perceived my promises from God to mean through my fleshly eyes.

For example, out of the promises God gave me regarding my health, one said that God would bring my people (health, abilities, things lost) home “soon.”

Soon your rebuilders shall come and chase away all those destroying you…Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people and those who devoured you will be far away” (Is. 49:17,19).

So I took “soon” and “now” to mean what “soon” and “now” mean to a twenty year old: one year max!!  Definitely less than three!  There were countless things that He did mean, that He did promise, but I read and interpreted them through earthly eyes. Only time gave clarity and revealed God’s heart and meaning. Only time.

Over time, I began to see the accuracy in the wording of the very first promise God gave me for my health:

“At that time I will undo all that afflict thee; and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out…At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you…when I turn back your captivity before your eyes” (Zeph. 3:19-20).

As the years of illness progressed, I began to acquiesce to God’s secret knowledge of “that time.” He had foreknowledge of when it would be. It was already scheduled. At that time…

Acquiescing meant that I accepted whatever number of years God intended for me to stay sick.  If it meant twenty…thirty…or more years of lying on the floor, screaming like an animal, it did not matter. I was content no matter the circumstance because of Christ’s life in me.  And no matter how long it took, or if it came in eternity, God would fulfill His promise as He saw fit.  I didn’t quit believing…I just quit planning for God. I quit interpreting scripture for Him. I still expected Him to fulfill what He had spoken to me – I just let Him define what that fulfillment was. That is sovereignty and faith hand in hand.

The Pendulum of Beliefs

The beliefs of Christians today seem to swing to two extremes. On one side, there is a line of thinking that essentially amounts to the following: “God wants only to heal; thus, if you are still sick, it is not God’s will for you.  Therefore, God cannot accomplish any good from it.  The only good He can accomplish from the illness is to remove it from you.  Therefore, all moments in which you remain ill are bad and wrong from God’s perspective.  They are useless.  Worthless.  Nothing good can come from your situation until God heals you.”

This kind of thinking (that isn’t according to the whole counsel of God’s word) has muddied the water of theology. It has led to the idea that resting in God’s sovereignty and faith/expectancy do not mix. But they do! It is not an either/or scenario.

To believe that God in His sovereignty has allowed the circumstance we are in today, does not mean that we quit believing He has plans to change it tomorrow. It simply means resting in Him today. And letting Him be the one to determine when and how He makes good on His promises.  That’s all. It doesn’t mean you stop believing in His promises.  It just means, to me at least, that He is God and I am not.

Abraham

How many times Abraham must have wrestled with God; thinking being the father of many nations had to include a bustling family of twenty…and sooner than twenty years in coming too.  If I had been Abraham, the minute God made His promise, I’d have begun purchasing a fleet of camels (or large SUV’s) just to carry my HUGE family.  I’d have begun saving money for all the Happy Meals I would have to buy all of my children. I’d have never estimated God would wait so many years and bring the promise through only one son.

Joseph

Joseph’s dream – wow!  Now there’s a man who must have wrestled, thinking that slavery and prison did not equal ‘fulfillment of the promise/dream’.

I love the verse that says, “While Joseph was there in prison, the LORD was with him…” (Gen. 39:20-21). Joseph could have thought he had the way paved and planned.  When God gave him the dream, he must have envisioned a quick rise to power; a quick and easy fulfillment. Whatever he envisioned, he sure didn’t envision slavery and imprisonment as God’s tools of fulfillment.  If it had been me, when I asked the butler and baker to remember me when it went well with them, I would’ve set a stopwatch and begun counting down the minutes till my liberation and fulfillment of God’s promise.  And yet….God had entirely different plans and timing through which to make good on His promise to Joseph.

God was with Joseph and gave him mercy there in the prison.  If Joseph had not been a man who understood God’s sovereign rule, and submitted to it, he would have at best grown angry and unproductive and at worst insane.  Yet it was this resting in God’s sovereign rule and perfect plan that gave Joseph peace and spiritual fruit…as God was all the while working behind the scenes.

It was submitting to God’s sovereign rule and loving plan that allowed Joseph to serve with excellence, both as a slave and an inmate. Because of this, God gave him favor with men….and ultimately the promise was fulfilled. (“Sovereignty” and “faith” go hand in hand! Resting in God’s sovereign rule does not mean lack of belief in His promises!)

We could go on and on through almost all of the Biblical stories. I so often think about them and put myself in their place. In every instance, I would’ve had things planned all differently for God.  From his promises of giving the land to Abraham, to the children of Israel leaving Egypt, to their entrance into Canaan, and on and on and on and on and on and ON…I would’ve rewritten His entire script!!

Yet accepting that God is sovereign, means accepting His script. That’s all, though.  It doesn’t mean to stop persevering, believing, and expecting.  It just means acknowledging that He writes a much wiser, more dramatic and spiritually beneficial script than we do. It does not mean an absence of faith.  Or a forsaking of all promises. Or a resignation unto death.  NOT AT ALL!

Just as one spectrum of believers goes too far to the extreme on healing (i.e. God never works through sickness), many of us swing too far in the opposite direction. We fail to expect and believe God for anything. We fail to believe that He can even do anything supernatural.

“For with God nothing is ever impossible and no word from God shall be without power or impossible of fulfillment” (Luke 1:37).

Our job is to rest, knowing nothing is impossible and God is faithful! His job is to determine when and how He fulfills.

Scott, by no means do I think you are supposed to give up!!  Nor do I think you should be discontent if today doesn’t bring the healing God has promised you.  He promised it.  He’s the script writer.  Let Him bring it about. Rest in Him today – and His perfect, powerful plan.

Sovereignty and Faith Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Sovereignty and faith are not mutually exclusive. When we look at the men and women of the Bible, and all that they walked through and saw God fulfill, we see that the two go hand in hand.  Listening to the two extremes of Christian thought here on earth is what causes us to believe they are mutually exclusive.

True Biblical faith begins with accepting the Lordship of Christ. Just as it is that way with faith unto salvation, it is that way with faith unto fulfillment of all of God’s promises—universal or personal.

Scott, hard as I try, I cannot view things through the lens of your illness.  Mine wasn’t a disease that had fatal implications – only life long suffering implications.  Resting meant something entirely different for me.

Honestly, you should be the one typing and teaching me!  There is nothing here that you don’t already know – and know thoroughly, not just in head knowledge but in experience too. I pray that maybe one sentence somewhere is from the Lord and He will use it to encourage you in some way.

It’s an honor to run my race beside you, my brother. You have set the pace for me and many other believers. May the Holy Spirit strengthen you with every step!

Your Sister in Christ,

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

[ii] Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 84

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

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