It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations… (Deuteronomy 7:7-9)
In my trek through the Old Testament, I’m currently in Deuteronomy. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s largely a rehashing of what’s already been covered in Exodus-Numbers, this time told from Moses in the first person, where Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were all third person.
The usual sovereignty things are all covered again, as the first part of the passage above says. God sovereignly picked Abraham out of the masses to be the father of God’s people – not because of anything spectacular that Abraham did, but because God decided. Same thing is reiterated with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and then with the nation of Israel as they wander through the wilderness. They will not be inheriting the Promised Land because of their own efforts or righteousness; they’ll be getting it because God is going to give it to them. The language of the Exodus accounts mirrors that of a suzerainty treaty – the kind of treaty a conquering king signs with the people he’s just conquered.
Not the Way I’d Have Done It
To me, this just makes sense: if God can do all the stuff He apparently did during the Exodus story, then He doesn’t require my effort or even my input. And the story doesn’t give me the impression that Israel really got a vote. Like us, they appear to have had the misunderstanding that they did, in fact, get a vote (to which God on at least one occasion decides to destroy the whole nation and start over with one that will be less trouble). Israel’s opinion of how things ought to work didn’t really factor into God’s plan -which to me only makes sense. Of course. This is God. He can do what He wants.
So the odd part to me is not so much the sovereignty aspect of God’s relationship with His people. It’s that mixed in with all the commands, and the associated blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience there are these odd little repeated statements about God’s love for His people.
This is odd to me, because for God to be God, He doesn’t have to love His people. He can do what He wants to accomplish His plan. He can crush His people, He can remake them, and they’re simply pawns in His plan. And this is how it feels fairly often, isn’t it? Life is hard. Stuff happens and it feels like our prayers bounce off the ceiling, or God hung up the “out to lunch” sign. It’s easy to feel like the sovereign God of the universe has forgotten about us.
But the verse above makes it pretty clear that God’s plan – at least as far as what’s revealed in the Bible – is happening because of His love. Not in spite of it. His love is not an add-on, or somehow in conflict with His absolute sovereignty. His irresistible, sovereign plan of redemption and its outworking in time and in history is because of His love.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
Which, of course, makes things more complex, not more simple. It means that when life sucks, I can’t just say, “well, God’s forgotten about me,” or “God hates me.” That’s a much easier answer, isn’t it? Acknowledge His sovereignty but drop the whole “God is good” part of the equation. It makes the math easier, and I do this all the time. I feel like I’m somehow being faithful when I acknowledge His sovereignty and submit to His plan when life stinks. But no – if the Bible is to be trusted, then we can’t take the easy answer. If God is sovereign and good – as He claims to be. Then His sovereign plan – even when it looks like He’s forgotten me, or forgotten another one of His chosen ones, or even a whole group of His chosen ones, as with the Christian medical group that was summarily executed in Afghanistan for possessing a Bible – He is still somehow both sovereign and good.
Check Your Premises
In Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged, there’s a great line: “whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises.” This is good logic. People have been applying it to the problem of pain for millennia. If there is pain and suffering, then either God is not sovereign enough to prevent it, or He is not good enough to act. If God is both good and sovereign, then the existence of pain is the contradiction that makes one of those premises invalid. Right? But that assumes that our definition of “good” never includes suffering, death, or tragedy, and – given the example of Jesus Christ – it would appear that there are at least some instances where injustice, suffering and death can be part of a larger plan that uses evil in achieving good ends.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. …
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:18-21, 28)
Suffering is real, and very hard for anyone to go through – especially unjustly. But when we experience it, firsthand or from afar, instead of concluding that God is either not sovereign or not good, we must cling to the idea that He is both…and because He is both, we are left with the great hope that He is using even our present suffering to bring about a truly glorious future.