Sovereignty: God’s absolute and unquestioned control over every single detail of creation, including our lives and choices.
So, how do we actually experience God’s sovereignty?
It’s a big question that lots of people wrestle with. Is God sovereign over humans? If so, how sovereign is He? Does He possess total control? And if He does possess such control, does that make us robots?
Or, do we truly have free will; and does God just respond to our choices and decisions?
It's been a long debate throughout church history, and I do not intend to settle the debate here…but, I do want to offer what I think is a biblical perspective on the subject because, to the questions of
“Does mankind make real choices with real consequences?”
“Does God control everything?”
The Bible answers both questions with, “Yes.”
**Note: What’s written below doesn’t answer every question, nor does it settle the debate. But, I hope it offers some helpful perspectives on a difficult topic…
First, a Story…
My son is a great driver. And he loves to get behind the wheel and go! I wouldn’t be surprised if he wound up doing something with driving professionally. It seems to just come naturally to him. He naturally intuits the movements of the steering wheel and the response of the vehicle. He’s a great driver.
I should also mention that my son is 8 years old.
Throughout his driving career, he’s handled the likes of power-wheels, bicycles, lawnmowers, golf carts, and the occasional gator. He’s driven on various terrains too — pavement, grass, dirt, snow, mud, and more.
His most recent fixation is driving our cars.
The drive from the entrance of our neighborhood to our driveway takes about 3 minutes, and almost every time we’re about to enter the neighborhood, my son calls out from the backseat, “Dad! Can I drive!?” And, barring some reason to the contrary, I try to oblige and make all of his dreams come true. He eagerly climbs up front, into my seat, settles himself on my lap, and grips the steering wheel like a Daytona 500 driver. And then he says those all important words, “I’m ready.” And off we go…
To his 8 year old mind, the world is at his fingertips. He’s in the driver’s seat. The car is responding to him. When he turns the wheel, the car turns. When he holds a line and risks dropping a tire off the road, the car does whatever he tells it to. From his perspective, it's him, the car, and the open road. He’s in charge.
That 3 minute drive from the entrance to our driveway includes hills, curves, turns, and he’s there for it all! It's usually a highlight of his day.
But, unknown to him is his complete and total lack of control.
He’s in the driver's seat; his hands are on the wheel; he’s making the car turn this way and that way. He’s making real life, consequential choices. In his mind, he’s in charge. And yet, his real choices are always under the control of my sovereign hand. Because while he’s gripping the wheel at 10 and 2, looking steadily out the windshield, only focused on his moment, out of his sight, my more experienced hand holds the bottom of the wheel. And while his feet stand steadily on the floor of the car, mine control the gas and brake pedals. He’s driving to some extent, but I’m in control.
While my son sits in the driver’s seat with his hands on the wheel, the reality is that the car only does what I tell it to.
But, he doesn’t know that.
To him, for those brief moments, the car is his to drive. After all, it’s his hands on the wheel; he’s making the decisions; he’s exerting his will. That’s his very real experience. And it IS real.
He will carry those memories with him for his lifetime…those memories of when “Dad let me drive the car.”
But behind his driving and decision making, a greater force is at work controlling every aspect of the situation. While my son exerts his will on the car, he only has so much control.
For example, when another car approaches in the neighborhood, his ability to manipulate and control the vehicle drastically lessens (or so it seems to him). Sometimes he’s aware of that, and sometimes he’s not. At times, when another car is coming toward us, he tries to turn the wheel; and if he did, certain disaster would ensue (he’s 8, after all). But my firm grip doesn’t allow it. In a frustrated voice, he’ll say, “Daddy, why won’t the wheel turn!?” And I usually respond saying, “That’s because it’s not supposed to, buddy.”
This illustration has helped me to think about the realities of God’s sovereignty over our lives alongside of our very real and lived experiences in the world. There are some striking parallels…
1 - We’re in the Driver’s Seat…but so is He.
One of our biggest struggles when it comes to processing God’s sovereignty is wondering who’s really in charge? Is it God, or is it me? In a very real way, the answer is “yes.”
Like my son, I am in the driver’s seat of my life. I make real choices that have real consequences. I am the one calling the shots, choosing some things and denying others.
When I choose to eat certain foods, those foods have consequences for my body…and I am responsible for that. When I choose a certain career path, I am responsible for those choices. When I set goals, work my plan, and achieve those goals, I can rightly say that I achieved those goals through hard work and determination. Or when I choose to engage with sin, I reap the consequences.
From the beginning, God entrusted to mankind the sacred ability to work and receive a yield — to make consequential decisions. Just after creating Adam and Eve, God says this, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This is often called “The Creation Mandate” — and it refers to the exercising of dominion, or the exercising of our wills. Mankind has the God-given ability to exercise his will in and upon the earth, to make things happen.
Just like when my son sits in the driver's seat of the car, exerting his will and making his choices, so the Lord allows mankind to be in control of his life, making his choices, and reaping the consequences (Gal. 6:7). In a very real way, we sit in the driver’s seat of our lives.
And yet, like my story above, we do not sit in the driver’s seat alone. God is there with us. Just as I sit in the driver’s seat with my son, ultimately controlling the situation, so it is with God. His will always supersedes and guides our own. We make our plans and choices, we exert our wills and go about our own ways, and yet, the Scripture reminds us that God is in the driver’s seat too…in a greater way than we are.
Proverbs 16:1, 9 - “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD…The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
Isaiah 46:9-10 - “I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done…”
2 - Our Hands are on the Wheel…but so are His.
One of God’s good gifts to mankind is that we bear His image. He created us in His likeness. It’s one of the most miraculous and mind-boggling realities of this life. We bear God’s image. And that truth expresses itself in all sorts of ways, one being that we make decisions, we exert our wills, and we cause things to happen.
When my son calls out from the backseat asking to drive, I have to make the choice to slow the vehicle, come to a stop, and welcome him into the driver’s seat with me. I choose to do it. No one forces me.
The same is true with other decisions…what kind of work we do, how we apply ourselves in school or in the workplace, who we date/marry, how we conduct ourselves around others, how disciplined we choose to be in life. All of those choices belong to us, and we bear the responsibility for them and the consequences they bring.
Our hands are on the wheel.
I love to exercise, and I see the great benefits that exercise brings into my life. I also recognise the dangers and potential health risks that come with not exercising. I wear a bracelet on my wrist that reads, “Discipline Equals Freedom.” It reminds me that my choices matter; whether I go to the gym or not matters; how hard I work at the gym matters; my food choices matter.
And yet, none of those very real choices and decisions can add days, weeks, or years to my life. While my exercising does yield health benefits, my life will ultimately unfold exactly as God has created to unfold. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “... while bodily training is of some value, training in godliness is of value in every way, as it holds the promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
I can eat right and exercise faithfully, but if God has so willed for me to die from cancer or high blood pressure, or some other disease, no amount of health consciousness can change that reality.
When my son is sitting on my lap with his hands on the wheel, his choices matter — but ultimately, his choices cannot overpower the governing reality of the situation, which is that my hand is securely holding the bottom of the steering wheel. Sometimes, his choices are right in line with what I want to happen, and while my hand never leaves the wheel, I let it move according to his direction, and he feels like he’s done something…because he has. But other times, he tries to turn the wheel and he meets my resistance, because what he’s trying to do isn’t right. And my grip on the steering wheel will always prevail over his in that situation.
The same is true of our lives under God. We sit in the driver’s seat and our hands are on the wheel…but so are His.
The Apostle James reminds us how this truth should affect our outlook on life. He writes, “Come now, you who say,“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:12-15)
While we make our very real and consequential choices, our lives unfold according to the will of God.
3 - Our Ability to Affect Things is Very Limited…but His is Not.
Just as I noted above, sometimes my son tries to turn the wheel when it's not the right time. If I let him turn the steering wheel every time he tried, we’d have hit numerous trees, ditches, and other cars by now. Sometimes, he turns the wheel at the right time…and while it's him doing the turning, it's ultimately because I’m allowing it to happen. Other times, he tries to turn at the wrong time, and my firm grip on the bottom of the wheel prevents his attempted error.
This is a perfect reminder that our abilities to really change and shape our lives are limited at best — but God is not limited in any way.
I am often reminded of a beautiful promise that comes at the end of Habakkuk. Habakkuk faced a tough situation; God had called him to minister to a difficult people in a difficult time. Things were bleak. The people were exiled in a foreign land because of their sinful choices. The people were reaping their consequences.
Yet, the prophet says this, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes me tread on high places.”
When life looks bleak and hopeless, even when that hopelessness is the result of my own choices, God is still faithful, and He can still be trusted. In the bleakest of situations, God can bring beauty from ashes. If you think otherwise, ask the disciples on Resurrection afternoon.
There are times when we look to God in frustration, saying things like my son says to me, “Daddy, the wheel won’t turn!” And God will say something back to us like, “It's not supposed to, little one.”
4 - Both of These Realities are True at the Same Time.
This is the most biblically faithful place to land. So many want to reduce this discussion down to one or the other; they want it to be an either/or.
Either God is sovereign OR man is responsible. But the Bible says both are true.
When my son climbs into the driver’s seat, he drives the car…but so do I. I don’t give up control because I let him drive. I don't have to lose control because I allow him some. I retain ultimate control and determination even while allowing him a measure of freedom and decision making. And so it is with God.
When God made us, He made us to be creatures with a will, and we make decisions that have real consequences; but just because we made real decisions with real consequences, that does not mean that God has given up any measure of absolute sovereignty over every single detail of His world. He absolutely did not. He maintains full and total control.
He is the God Who declares the end of all things from before the beginning (Isa. 46:9-10).
Sovereignty is a beautiful gift from God, and its meant to stir up our worship, deepen our affections, and sturdy our trust in Him.
There is a beautiful promise made in Malachi 3:6, and it comes directly and only from the fact that God is entirely sovereign over His creation. The Lord says of Himself, “I, the LORD, do not change, therefore you…are not consumed.”
That’s the beautiful promise of our Lord’s sovereignty. Because He doesn’t change, we are not consumed.
Because my son never has full control over the car, we always make it home safely. And there will come a day in his life, when he looks back on those memories of driving in our neighborhood, and he’ll give thanks for two things…
He’ll give thanks that his father let him drive the car;
And he’ll give thanks that his father was in the driver’s seat with him.
Because I never let my son crawl into the driver’s seat alone, he always makes it home safely.