Is God Sovereign or Not?
The other day, I received an email from a Sunday School class requesting prayer for a person for whom we had been praying. The woman – a Christian – was not doing well, but after prayer, seemed to improve. Then things took a turn for the worse and another request came through to again pray for this woman and her ailments.
The person who sent the message said something to the effect that she had been doing well and she assumed it was because we had been praying for her. The fact that she began to do poorly again indicated to her that it must have been because we stopped praying or had not continued praying with the intensity we had when we first began praying for her.
This concerns me because it begs the question of God’s sovereignty. In other words, the implication from the person’s comments are manifold. She seems to be indicating several things.
- God isn’t really sovereign because…
- He can only work when His children ask Him to do things
- His hands are tied
In any case, whether this woman thinks so or not, the truth of the matter is that she believes God is handicapped, locked out by our alleged “free will.” It is either this or He is unable to get His will done in all things because of the sin nature that all possess, even Christians. Beyond this, because Satan is the ruler of this world – for the time being – many believe that this hampers God’s activities in this world.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe this is a giant misconception about prayer. It takes the actual meaning of prayer and turns it on its head. It takes the focus off of God and places it directly on humanity. God can only work when human beings pray with fervent faith for His will to be accomplished. Anything short of this and God is, unfortunately, limited by us.
First of all, people who are affected by fatal, near-fatal, or terrible illnesses do at times rally, all by themselves. The human body is remarkably and wonderfully made and will use everything it has at its disposal to heal itself, if it can. Of course, the human body is limited and often, medical intervention is needed. Even there though, there are times when the body cannot heal itself and does not benefit in the long-term from medical treatments either. This will ultimately result in death, which will come to everyone, save those who are taken in the Rapture.
My father developed stomach cancer a number of years ago. He was taken to the hospital, was operated on in what the doctors believed to be a very successful surgery. In fact, he showed great improvement after the surgery and was healing rapidly. Unfortunately, within two weeks he was dead.
Did he die because people didn’t pray long or hard enough? Was God limited by fallen humanity? Was God unable to affect true and lasting healing with my father because there weren’t enough Christians praying for his recovery? No, on all accounts.
As I’ve mentioned previously, my sister died several years ago after suffering a major heart attack. While she was still with us (though hooked up to ventilators), many, many Christians prayed for her daily. Yet, she died. What happened? God’s will happened. He said “no” to our requests to heal my sister. It wasn’t that He was unable to heal her. It was that He was unwilling to heal her because it was her time to go home to be with Him. Tragic for us, but eternally beneficial for my sister.
I am familiar with those areas of Scripture where the Bible tells us that Jesus could not do many miracles in a certain place because of the people’s unbelief. One such section of Scripture is found in Matthew 13, where we learn how the people reacted to Jesus.
And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief, (Matthew 13:57-58).
If we consider things here, we note that there are a few things happening. Primarily, the people “took offense” at Jesus for what He was teaching. They rejected Him out of hand. They refused to believe that what He said about Himself was true. It was due to this unbelief in Jesus that prompted their reaction. Because of their unwillingness to see Jesus as God, they failed to be able to receive from Him what He was more than willing to give them. The text says “He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.”
It is not that their unbelief kept Him from being or doing miraculous things, or kept Him from being God in the flesh. Their unbelief would not allow them to open their hearts to Him. Have you ever been angry or frustrated enough with someone who then tries to do something nice for you in spite of your resentment? You might have responded with something like, “No, I don’t want you to do anything for me!”
This is the type of situation Jesus was up against. People did not want Jesus to do anything for them so He wasn’t able to do so. It was their unbelief that kept them away from Him. Their unbelief had no impact on His deity or His willingness to do for them. They simply would not accept what He was offering because they did not believe who He was.
But the fact that God accomplishes His will in the life of believers and unbelievers is a message that is soundly noted throughout Scriptures. We need simply look at the Pharaoh of old who stood against God and Moses. Yet, there were times where the Bible clearly tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in that account – Exodus 9.
In another example, God directs the actions of a leader whose title is “Gog” as we’ve noted previously, found in Ezekiel 38-39. God is said to put “hooks” into Gog’s jaws and turns him about to put his eye on Israel. Though it will seem as though it is Gog’s idea to attack Israel, God was the One who put the idea into Gog’s head.
Regarding Christians and prayer, we continually seem to lose sight of a very important fact. Jesus said that He only did what He saw the Father doing, right?
Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”
Is Jesus saying He is powerless? Not really. What He is saying is that His will is so perfectly aligned with the Father’s will that He (Jesus) only does those things that He actually saw the Father doing. Anything else would have been sinful.
What does this mean for us? As Christians, we need to understand that we should not be seeking our own will, but only the Father’s will, just as Jesus did. We wrongly conclude that God wants to heal people every time, that He wants us to never experience any problems or difficulties in this world that don’t have a happy ending. We then determine that because we are not experiencing healings, etc., it all comes back on us. God is willing, we say, but only if we devote ourselves to prayer. This is really a form of “name it/claim it” and should be repudiated.
If Jesus only did those things which He saw His Father doing, that alone should tell us that God is fully sovereign and fully in control of the outcome of all things. In other words, regardless of decisions that people make, God will work all things out for His glory and for His sake. We can join with Him by only doing those things that we “see” Him doing or we can insist that He do things our way. This causes a very real sense of false pride because no matter how you slice it, we have placed the oneness on us and removed sovereignty from God. I’ve written about this in a short series I recently posted on Prayer and Praise.
In the end, can we pray? Can we ask God to do things for us? Yes, absolutely, but as I’ve stated before, we should always temper our prayer requests with “not mine, but Your will be done.” Let me end with a recent example. I’ve been dealing with an immune system deficiency for years. Of late, it seems to have once again risen to the surface. Symptoms include constant itching, swelling, and a general lack of energy. It can be debilitating.
I’ve been praying about it and it seemed to me that the Lord was directing me to another dermatologist. I had actually gone to an allergist first, who then recommended a skin specialist. The skin specialist I have now seems to understand the situation better than other dermatologists I’ve had in the past. He took some biopsies and had blood drawn to determine what he could. As the time passed, I grew a bit impatient waiting for results.
Finally, I just prayed, “Lord, I’m wondering if you would be willing to provide me with the results from these biopsies along with a treatment plan for my situation? I ask that you would provide the answer today. However, I want to submit myself to you and if it is not your will that I learn the results today, then so be it. I want your will in the matter and maybe you are working on creating a more patient attitude toward you and your will. I’m asking that if you have chosen not to provide me with results today, then would you allow me to simply accept that as your will, your response to this request?”
I had also asked for another request in the same prayer, that information from that other area would be forthcoming the same day as well. Yet, I was mindful to let God be God, to give Him room for His sovereignty over my life. I was able to let go of both situations and wait.
Interestingly enough, God provided the answer to both my requests that same day. More interestingly, I was not surprised. For my dermatology problem, treatment has begun, but one of the medications the doctor wanted to use is going to likely be a problem for me because of a mutated gene I have (learned from DNA testing done nearly two years ago). With that knowledge, my doctor will have to do more research to find a medication that works for me.
Why hasn’t God healed me? Why hasn’t He removed this problem from my life? For a variety of reasons and I’m sure at least some of them are the same ones encountered by the apostle Paul who sought the Lord’s healing in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. Paul tells us that the reason he believed he had this affliction (whatever it was), was designed to keep him humble because of the tremendous supernatural revelations he had received from God. In the end, Paul understood that God’s grace was thoroughly sufficient for him.
Today, I have a feeling that if Paul were alive and suffered the same malady, Christians would surround him and point out that he was just serious enough about praying. Because of that, God couldn’t “do” anything about the problem.
Christian, we either recognize that God is fully sovereign over us, or we take credit for whatever God does in our life. It’s one or the other, but not both. God is God. He is sovereign. Let’s allow Him to be sovereign in our lives, understanding that what comes into our lives doesn’t always have a “happy” ending physically. It all works out in the end though. The sooner we come to terms with that, the better off we will be and the more glory God will receive at our hand.