Last month, I began a blog series on God’s providence (see Part 1 here). The Heidelberg Catechism, we saw, defines God’s Providence as:
the almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
We saw something similar in last week’s sermon on the Book of Job. God reveals himself to Job as One who is infinite in wisdom and unrivaled in his authority over every aspect of creation. Humbled by this vision of God’s greatness, Job concludes, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
No purpose of God’s can be thwarted? All things come by his fatherly hand? What about when evil and suffering prevail? When terrible things happen in our lives? Is that part of God’s purpose for us?
As I said in Part 1 of this blog series, questions like these take us into realms of mystery that only God himself fully knows, so we have to proceed with caution. But there are a few things I think we can say based on what God has revealed to us in his word—a few questions I want you to consider.
Is God’s will always done?
Of course not, you say. Otherwise, why would we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Apparently, his will isn’t being done on earth as in heaven, so we pray for it to be done. Right? Case closed.
Well, yes, right. His will isn’t being done—in one sense. And yet, it is being done in another. It’s very important that we define what we mean by “God’s will.”
Theologians, in trying to grapple with all that the Bible says, distinguish between two different “wills of God.” First, there is God’s revealed will, also called his moral will or will of command. This refers to the things God has revealed to be his will—that we shouldn’t murder or commit adultery, for example, or that we should love one another and care for the poor. It refers to the things God tells us should or should not occur. But there is also God’s secret will, also called his sovereign will or his will of decree. This refers to things God, in his wisdom, has ordained to take place, though sometimes they might go against his revealed will.
Yeah, I know. Pretty confusing, right?
So let’s make it a little more concrete. Here’s another question for you.
Was Jesus’ crucifixion God’s will?
Well, you might say, it was murder, injustice, evil. God hates those things. He commands us not to do those things. So no, it wasn’t God’s will.
But then your inner theologian might kick in, and you might start thinking about how it was God’s plan to save us—and to save us through the death of his Son. Jesus said he came for this purpose. The Father sent his Son for this purpose. Isaiah 53:10 says, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” And Acts 2:23 says Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” So yes, it was God’s plan, his will.
Hmm, there you have the dilemma theologians are trying to grapple with. It wasn’t his will in one sense. Yet it was his will in another. God’s revealed will. God’s secret will.
So when evil or suffering happens, is it God’s will?
Well, let’s stick with the cross for a minute. Acts 4:27-28 says, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
We see here that Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and people of Israel, willed to kill Jesus. And they took action to carry out their will. Both their willing and their acting were evil—they were against God’s revealed will. And yet, at the same time, they were fulfilling God’s secret will, accomplishing what he had planned and predestined to take place.
God is only good. But in his secret, hidden purposes, he allows evil and uses evil to accomplish his purposes. The greatest act of evil and injustice in the world was planned by God to bring about the most incredible good that we could ever imagine. So could the same be true in our lives?
This sure doesn’t answer all our questions. But it may help us understand why the reformers would say: “All things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” And why Job would say, “No purpose of yours can be thwarted.” And it might help us trust his promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I appreciate Tim Keller’s explanation of this great promise, so I’ll leave you with his words:
“Romans 8 must not be read in a saccharine way. It does not say that every bad thing has a ‘silver lining’ or that every terrible thing that can happen is somehow ‘actually a good thing if you learn to look at it properly.’ No, Paul says in Romans 8:28 that all things—even bad things—will ultimately together be overruled by God in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs—a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass. Only God now has that eternal perspective and vantage point from which he can see all things working together for our good and for his glory—but eventually we will occupy that place and will see it too.”