This past Sunday, as we continued walking though the book of Acts, I preached on a subject that I’ve battled with—the sovereignty of God. I used to spend so much time speculating and trying to make sense of God’s sovereignty, then I realized that God’s sovereignty makes sense of me. (That’ll make more sense later—pun intended.) The "why" and "if" questions I would (still) ask showed me that the bulk of my tension with the sovereignty of God deals with two questions. Is God good? Is God trustworthy? (Stick a pin right there.)
A little background
I’ve never met either one of my grandfathers, but they both helped shape my life tremendously. My dad’s dad abandoned his family when my dad was 10 years old. Though he left his children and his wife alone to fend for themselves in a village where community was valued, the hardships they faced were tremendous. My dad and his siblings grew up without knowing the affirmation of their father, and he went to work very early to help provide for his family. Picture a 10 year-old spending every day working 12-hour shifts. The insecurities and anger of watching the one who gave him life walk out of his were (are) plentiful. The image of my grandfather leaving out the door with a bag of clothes and some food was seared into my dad’s soul. He talked about it often…really often.
My mom’s dad was the complete opposite—full of love, grace, compassion, and strength. There are countless stories of how he sacrificed so my mom and her siblings could get a good education. I was always told of how inviting he was and how much respect he had in the community. In addition to that, he named me. You see, when I was born I wasn’t breathing. The doctors frantically rushed to resuscitate me as my family begged God to spare their second born. God in His mercy did, and thus my grandfather named me Onyemauchechukwu, which translated means "no one knows God’s mind or who can understand the mind of God?" It’s meaning finds its roots in Isaiah 55:8-9,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I was reminded about that often...really often.
My dad was so impacted by what his dad did to his family that at the age of 10 he swore to himself he would NEVER get a divorce, no matter what happened. But what drove that determination wasn’t righteousness, faith, or resolve—it was pain. 30 plus years later of marriage, and they’re still working each other’s nerves and madly in love at the same time. Granted, while they have a funny way of expressing it at times and I’m confident my parents love each other, there’s no doubt in my mind that pain he felt and that image that was seared in soul were extra incentives to push through when hardship came (because they came a plenty). Ironically, the sin, wickedness, evil, selfishness, fear, passivity, and abandonment by my dad’s dad contributed to me being able to grow up with both my parents—a luxury that most minorities unfortunately don’t have.
Even in his brokenness, I watched my dad serve as a loving father and sacrifice willingly and regularly for his family. I watched him work five jobs without spending a dime on himself, when we had nothing, so that his family could eat and have a roof over their head. I watched him engage with the community and model service for his friends and family. I watched him manipulate and attempt to affirm me even though he never got it growing up. I saw his good, and I saw his sin. I saw him lose it when I told him I wasn’t going to be a doctor, because I wanted to pastor instead. I saw him soften when he saw I wasn’t joking. I saw him fight back tears when he watched me marry the woman of my dreams. I saw him light up with smiles and tears of joy when he laid eyes on his grandchildren. I saw him cry and mourn when we buried my little brother. His good and sin, in good times and difficulty, I’ve had my dad large in part to him not having his. My dad’s dad shaped me tremendously.
My birth and name provided ammunition to hurl at God’s goodness, “You spared me, but all that I’m experiencing is suffering and hardship. What did you spare me for?” When the pendulum swung to pride it was, “I must be your favorite cause you spared me when you didn’t have to.” Or “if your methods are beyond my comprehension, then you CANT be trustworthy.” You see, more than just the example he left, my name identified a truth that I would struggle to deal with—God is sovereign and does what he pleases, when he pleases, how he pleases, for who he pleases, and for why he pleases.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your though”
Lemme take that pin out now.
Two completely different individuals and situations shaped my life tremendously. Let me be clear, my hope or confidence can’t come from seeing how things played out, because my scope is very limited. In addition to that, for every fairytale grandfather story, I can also tell stories of times that hurt me deeply and I have zero clue why they happened or their current benefit. Hope isn’t in trying to make sense of God’s sovereignty, it’s allowing it to make sense of me. The tension that I deal with and I think most of us deal with as it relates to the sovereignty of God isn’t just a control issue. Now, hear me, humanity has SEVERE control issues that are rooted in our man-centered humanism, or as Augustine would say homo encurvatus en se (the inward curve of the human soul). We look inwardly for purpose, meaning, life, hope, and rule. However, life has a way of forcing us outward and revealing our lack of control regularly and forcing us to acknowledge it on some levels.
I think the felt tension is if whether the person or governing entity who ultimately has the control is good and can be trusted. If I see the government as good, I’m inclined to give them grace or the benefit of the doubt; if I see the government as trustworthy, then I give them grace, the benefit of doubt, and I follow. Before I get into a theological discourse and drag this on further, let me start wrapping up with this: EVERYONE wrestles with the sovereignty of God because it makes us uncomfortable, and if you say you don’t, you're lying. Over and over again the scriptures remind us about God’s complete control and his unmatched goodness and faithfulness. Sin and struggles have a way of obscuring the scope of his goodness and faithfulness, causing us to doubt his rule.
One way we wrestle well is through reminder. Reminding ourselves through the scriptures of God’s character, reminding ourselves through the stories of community of God’s character, and reminding ourselves through examining our lives in hindsight and reflection of God’s character. Making sense of God’s sovereignty is allowing God’s sovereignty to make sense of you. The solution isn’t in figuring out the whys to your life or the what ifs, nor can your confidence be in seeing the silver lining of suffering or past events. It’s not formulaic. The solution is in fighting to see the who behind it all and coming back to His goodness and trustworthiness as fuel to keep fighting.