What Does Sovereign Really Mean?

IMG_8572And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

If you were to make a Top Ten list of most quoted Bible verses, I’m almost positive this beloved verse from Romans would be on it.  It’s a comforting message, the idea that God is in control even when adversity comes our way, God will work it out.

It’s the kind of verse you see on kitchen plaques, bookmarks, t-shirts… it’s like a warm, fuzzy sweater. Welcoming and soft.

Church teaches us that God is sovereign. We usually take it to mean that everything has to pass by Him before it comes our way.

On the surface, this idea that nothing happens with or without God’s approval is nice. In times of distress, we say things to each other like “God is in control, we have to trust His plan!” We have to conclude that if He is sovereign, He allowed the difficulty. We are told He is just putting us to the test. We experience sickness, disappointment and tragedy and force ourselves to push through it knowing God allowed it for some good reason. Right?

It’s a temporary solution. It comforts us when something awful happens, but in the long run, it just leads us to doubt His character and become totally passive. We may accept hardships as best we can, but deep down, we hold Him responsible. He could have prevented it and He didn’t. The gatekeeper let some stuff get past the gate and we aren’t sure why. It really puts us into a bind.

Thinking this way strangles our faith. If God controls every outcome, then what’s the point of praying about anything? We give up and resign ourselves to a “whatever will be will be” attitude. We’ve taken his sovereignty to mean He exercises absolute control over everything, like a king on a throne directing and dictating all that happens. The Bible never says that. There are plenty of things God desires or wills that never come to pass. And there are many awful things that happen that cannot be attributed to Him because they go against His very nature.

The book of Genesis lays out for us the whole problem that we have a tendency to forget: God gave man power and dominion over the world and man handed it right over to Satan. We live in a fallen world where sin and satan wreck havoc. Slogans like “just relax, everything will work out” lead to disaster. We have a part to play, and it isn’t a passive one:

Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)

This is the opposite of thinking “whatever will be will be.”  The word ‘resist’ here means to “actively fight against”. There are things of God we are to submit ourselves to and things of the devil we are to resist. Actively.

Back to the verse in Romans…

It isn’t saying that everything that comes our way is from God. It says that God can use those things and work them out “for those who LOVE God and are CALLED”. This isn’t everyone. It certainly isn’t the world at large. The previous verse says we must be willing to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. God desires this for everyone, of course, but it’s our choice.

Is He sovereign? Absolutely! In ways we cannot even imagine. He is above all, but He isn’t up in heaven like some cosmic man behind the curtain pulling levers deciding every outcome. He isn’t causing adversity. He will never cause something to happen that goes against His nature. Afflictions are not FROM God, they are what the enemy uses to pull us AWAY from God (Mark 4:17).  What a slick trick of the enemy though, to convince us of the opposite.

God may not be the author of the adversity, but He can bring something good out of it! That’s the difference. That’s the beauty of this verse. When we understand His ways are just and His character is good, we can trust Him. We aren’t holding our breath worried He may let something slip through the cracks to test our faith or fortitude. When we understand God is on our side it changes everything. Adversity will come, but it can’t overcome us.

So we can shout confidently, from the proverbial rooftops… or from our minivan, office, hospital bed, grocery store aisle, wherever:

“We know that all things work together for good to those who LOVE GOD, to those who are CALLED according to His purpose!” 

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