Sovereignty and responsibility

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The same thought hit me from three different sources this morning. I’ll introduce the thought by the most oblique route, a quote from the Guardian this morning:

The administration has shifted from solidly supporting Mubarak, to suggesting he should go now, only to back him at the weekend to remain in office until the autumn – a decision that secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, reversed hours later when she threw US support behind Suleiman.

The US government is desperate to be right in Egypt. It is so desperate to be right that it is demanding a wide range of different outcomes, depending on whatever looks most likely at the time. Then when something finally happens, it can say “that’s what we wanted!”

My point is not a political one. It’s a theological one: so often we can cast God into this role.

The second source was a conversation with a missionary friend. I won’t quote their words, but another example I’ve heard in the past goes like this:

We were planning to go out to the mission field this year, but we couldn’t raise the support we needed so I guess God’s will was for us to spend more time with our families and churches.

You what?

You thought God wanted you to go overseas, but you’ve been an ineffective fundraiser, and that’s made you realise that God actually wants to spend more time with your family? Did God switch to plan B? Or was God’s plan B actually plan A all along, and in reality He didn’t actually want you to raise those funds, or go out on the mission field just yet, and you heard it wrong the first time? (I call this the God’s-will-is-whatever-actually-happened school of guidance.)

And let’s really mess with your head: if you’d actually been a decent fundraiser, does that mean that God wouldn’t have wanted you to spend more time with your family? Does God’s will for your life depend on your fundraising ability, and if so, why didn’t He know about it in advance?

Where, in all this wonderful demonstration of the will of God, is the room for your own responsibility, for you to say “actually, I messed up and we had to change our plans”, to say “this wasn’t actually what we wanted, and it might not actually be what God wants, but this has to happen now,” to be real and honest with our feelings and say “I’m disappointed with this situation but I’m trying to find ways to make it work for the best.”

Because it’s all terribly convenient when God’s will is whatever happens. We don’t need to be responsible for our actions at all.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, you have no idea what God’s will actually is, and no business making pronouncements about something so incomprehensible, and maybe even, just maybe, He isn’t actually interested in micromanaging your life to that detail anyway, and time with family and churches or time on the mission field would be equally OK with Him so long as you do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before your God.

Let’s play with some more statements of a similar nature. You hear this:

And then the political situation got ugly and we were kicked out of the country, so I guess it was God’s will for us to come home at that time.

You don’t hear this:

And then my wife got ill and died, so I guess it was God’s will for us to come home at that time.

Why not? Well, just like the US, we’re desperate for God to get it right. Our understanding of “sovereignty” demands that He wills whatever happens in the end. But we don’t want to cast Him as actively malevolent, so we end up with these crazy pronouncements which have God in support of rioting and civil war if it brings a missionary home at the “right time”, but not cool with a Christian being ill.

I think we can say a little bit more about God’s will than this. The only reason we have to keep revising our pronouncements about “God’s will” is because we can’t bear it for Him to not get what He wants. Of course, we dress it up as “I heard wrong”, but the reason I know I heard wrong is because it didn’t happen.

But I think that actually He doesn’t get what He wants, a lot of the time. I don’t think He wants war. I don’t think He wants murder. I don’t think He wants death. I don’t think He wants disease. Yet these things still happen. So sometimes God’s will is frustrated. He can want something, and it doesn’t happen, and it seems like He’s actually bigger than that and that’s OK.

Because the third source of this thought was Diane’s blog post this morning, where she deals with this head on:

Some people talk about the “sovereignty of God” as if God has orchestrated every single blessed and tragic small and great thing in the world. Every single solitary thing that happens is “God’s plan,” as if God is pulling all kinds of strings all over the place. I believe in the sovereignty of God, but I’m not sure that’s what it means. I think that somehow, in the end, God will work everything for good, that there will be a time and a place where there is no more crying and no more death, where every tear will be wiped away, and where we will cast our crowns before the throne of the Lamb.

In the meantime, sometimes, it just doesn’t turn out right.

If Diane is right, and I think she is, then can we stop playing silly games with God’s will to try to make Him look like He’s more in control than He is? Can we have the courage to say that stuff happens that He doesn’t want? Can we be rather more circumspect about what His will is, to avoid coming out with contradictory desires all the time? It makes us look foolish and Him look capricious, and puts Him in the position of wanting truly terrible things just because that’s what happened.

And do we need, really, any more guidance for our lives than the guidance He has given us: Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly; love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself; go into the world and make disciples of all nations.

Isn’t that actually quite enough guidance to be getting on with for now?