Most Christians are willing to say that God is sovereign – that He is in control of everything. But what about sin? Isn’t sin a rebellion against God? If God is sovereign, why does sin run rampant, why do bad things happen, and why does suffering exist?
If God is sovereign, why did He allow 9/11 to happen? If God is completely in control, why did He allow the atrocities of the Holocaust? Or perhaps the question is closer to home: why does God allow the ongoing sin and suffering in my life?
These are huge questions. And as such, they don’t have easy answers. But if we’re willing to grapple with what the Bible teaches about God and sin, we can certainly begin to form a proper understanding of how we should approach answering these difficult questions.
The Bible tells us that even in the midst of atrocities, sin, and suffering, God is still sovereign and in control. Let’s have a brief look at 2 particular tragedies that are mentioned in the Bible, and see what we can learn about sin, suffering and God’s sovereignty.
The Suffering of Joseph
Jacob, one of the patriarchs of Israel, had twelve sons. Of all his sons, Joseph was his favourite. The other sons grew jealous of Joseph to the point that they did something unthinkable – they plotted together to kill him, but after realising that they wouldn’t profit from his death, they decided to sell him into slavery instead (Genesis 37:26-27).
It’s hard to imagine doing something like this to your own brother. This horrific act would cause years of suffering for both Joseph and his father, and was borne purely out of jealousy and contempt. There is no question that this was a sinful act, and one that was deeply damaging.
Years later, through the providence of God, Joseph had risen from slavery and was now in a position of high authority in Egypt. And through his power and influence, many lives were saved from starvation and famine. Once his brothers realised who he was and what authority he held, they feared for their lives, for they knew they deserved punishment for their greatly sinful acts.
But Joseph knew that if they hadn’t sold him into slavery, he wouldn’t have risen to this position of authority. He had the wisdom and insight to see that God was working through their sinful acts to bring about His greater good. See what he says to his brothers:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
Do you see what he is saying? Joseph’s brothers intention was to harm – it was sinful – but God had a different intention in Joseph being sold into slavery, to bring about the saving of many lives. God sovereignly worked through the brothers’ sinful actions to bring about His greater good.
Were their actions sinful? Yes. But what God still sovereign? Yes!
And notice that this passage isn’t saying that the brothers did something sinful, but God later intervened and turned it around for a good purpose. No, it’s saying that God intended to save lives through their sinful actions, even though they didn’t realise it. This was His intention. This was His plan.
The Suffering of Jesus
Another key place in the Bible we can look to is the betrayal and murder of Jesus. No one could deny that Judas’ actions against Jesus were sinful. He betrayed his trust and gave him a death sentence.
And it wasn’t only Judas that sinned in killing Jesus, but the religious leaders who accused him, the crowds of people who cried out “Crucify!”, and Pilate, who sentenced him to death. To wrongly condemn and kill any man, much less the Son of God, is a heinous act.
But the Bible clearly teaches that it was God’s plan and intention that this would take place. Speaking of Jesus, Peter proclaimed,
This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
It was God’s set purpose that they would crucify Jesus. Those who crucified Jesus were sinning, but it was God’s plan that they should do so. They were sinning, but God was still sovereign and bringing about His plan. Unknown to those committing the sin, God was bringing about His greater good through their sin.
Were their actions sinful? Yes. But what God still sovereign? Yes!
God brought about His plans through their sin, yet He committed no sin Himself. The Bible affirms that people are held accountable for their own actions, but also that God is sovereignly bringing about His good purposes through them.
These are just two examples of God being sovereign over sin and suffering, but it’s important that we realise that these are just two examples of many. The Bible’s teaching that God is sovereign and in control even amidst sin and suffering is pervasive, and can be found all throughout Scripture (Job 1-2, Lam 3:37-8, Amos 3:6, Acts 4:27-8, Rom 8:28, 1 Cor 2:7-8, et al.).
The Bible consistently affirms two things: 1) God is sovereign even while people are sinning and doing wrong, and 2) those who sin are held accountable for their actions.
God is not some puppet-master who makes people sin to bring about His purposes. People willingly choose to sin, and God works out His own purposes through their actions without their knowing. Did Joseph’s brothers know that their cruel jealousy would bring about the saving of many lives? Did Judas know that his deceitful betrayal would bring about the salvation of all who would call on a resurrected Jesus?
When people sin, they willingly do so of their own volition. God never makes people sin. But God does have perfect foreknowledge (Isaiah 46:10), and He knows the sins that people will commit even before they do (Psalm 139:4,16). And not only does He know that they will sin (Acts 4:28), but He also knows what good purpose He will bring out of it (Romans 8:28) before it even happens.
God is not surprised by sin, and it does not thwart His plans and purposes (Isaiah 46:10b). People sin and rebel, and although it might seem for a time like they have the upper hand, God is still sovereign. He is working His purposes through their rebellion without their even knowing it. I can’t put it better than John Piper:
People lift up their hand to rebel against the Most High only to find that their rebellion is unwitting service in the wonderful designs of God. Even sin cannot frustrate the purposes of the Almighty.
The Bible clearly teaches that even when wicked people commit heinous acts, God is still sovereign and working about His good purposes. Most of the time, we won’t know what those purpose are. But we can trust that God is sovereign, and know that He will bring about His great purposes in the best possible way.
The topic of God’s sovereignty is too big to cover in one blog post, especially as it relates to sin and suffering. I hope to write up some dedicated posts in future on some of the specific implications of God’s sovereignty, and also common objections to and misunderstandings of the biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty explained above.
But hopefully this has been a helpful broad-sweep look at what the Bible shows us – that God is indeed sovereign and in control, even amidst sin and suffering.