Our next piece in the series, Tough Stuff, comes to us from our newest contributor, Dan Wolf, youth director at Anglican congregation, Church of the Apostles, in Columbia, SC. Dan takes a look at three critical questions and issues when discussing the sovereignty of God with students. He uses the movie 127 Hours as a vehicle to unpack this heavy topic.
Recently, my wife and I watched Danny Boyle’s newest film, 127 Hours. If you have not watched the movie, I am sure that you are familiar with the true-to-life backstory: A mountain climber named Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) becomes trapped by a boulder crushing his hand in a narrow canyon in Utah. After realizing no one is going to rescue him, he brutally severs his own hand. In the movie, he internally dialogues before commencing on the unthinkable:
“You know, I’ve been thinking, everything is…just comes together. It’s me. I chose this. I chose all of this. This rock…this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. Its entire life. Ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. There in space. It’s been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my whole life. The minute I was born, every breath I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.”
This quote illustrates one of the major tensions of the faith, who is in control of this world we live in? Is it our own choices? Is it the random unfolding of a world devoid of God? Or is it an all-knowing, all-loving God? The Gospel claims the latter, that God is in fact sovereign over all life. To give a full definition, God has ownership, authority, and control over all things. In short, this means that God is in control of the whole universe and nothing happens that is a surprise to Him.
Recently, I taught on this crucial doctrine of the sovereignty of God. And, as I am sure you can imagine (or have experienced yourself), the questions immediately begin to bubble up. The questions were not uniform, but custom fit to each of the different lives of young people whom I serve. Some questions were more intellectual, while some were very poignant and personal.
I think most of us steer clear of ‘tough stuff’ like sovereignty because we don’t want to throw sticks into the spokes of our students’ young faiths. After all, they are still wobbling all over the place and falling down all of the time anyways. Let them wrestle with the hard stuff in college. If they crash and burn, the blood is on some campus minister’s hands (tinge of sarcasm intended). So, I know I have personally tried to stick to the uncontroversial, like God’s love for us (which is controversial in its own way) and our need to reach out to those in need.
But I have come to believe that doubts and questions are a cornerstone of a healthy believing community. If our students don’t feel free to struggle with these issues, then we are building nothing but straw-man beliefs that will be swiftly dismantled by their first philosophy class. Therefore, as Tim Keller aptly puts it in his book The Reason for God, “Faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”
So the issue remains: What of the questions relating to sovereignty? The inquiries are many, so I will just share a few of the more common ones that arose in our study. First of all, there is the more circumstantial questions of, “If a good God is in control of this world, how can it be so screwed up?” As songwriter Patty Griffin succinctly notes, “I must confess, there appears to be a whole lot more darkness than light.” I tend to agree with her. So, how can God be in control and let all of these things happen? The Japan earthquakes are an obvious case in point. How about my friend who ‘left’ the faith? Or my cousin who committed suicide? Or, how could God let my parents get divorced?
These are the questions that arise, and must be handled with both truth and grace. With these more delicate questions, we must first make sure that the person is aware of God’s love for all people and His desire for all people (1 Tim 2:4), before we can talk about the more intellectual answers to their questions (below). How we communicate becomes of the utmost important when addressing the more personal questions. As Eugene Peterson quotes, “We cannot skip the way of Jesus in our hurry to get to the truth of Jesus… Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life.”
The above questions lead to the more theological question of, “If God is in control of the world, isn’t He ultimately responsible for the way things are?” This is a very good and important question; it is vital to give the young people an understanding of sovereignty. In Romans 9, Paul deals with this issue from a number of different directions, revealing that God is not responsible for sin. Another helpful way I have found to process this tough question is distinguishing between foreordination (God’s ordaining of all things) and causality (God did not cause sin, we did). God ordains all things according to His will (Eph 1:11) and God works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). But God’s foreordination does not override or violate the will of His creatures. So, the cause of sin therefore rests solely with man.
In God’s sovereign world our choices do matter. The sin in this world, both actions (murder, genocide, slander, etc) and consequences of our sin (death, natural disasters, accidents, etc), are due to our rebellion against God. But, we have the promise that God, who is not abstract or impersonal but is of the same heart as Jesus of Nazareth, is weaving all things, even our sin, into an unspeakably beautiful plan of redemption and restoration. And, in the midst of the struggles of our youth’s lives, whether it be divorce, death, or sin, they can know that God is ultimately in control and working all things according to His perfect will. In this truth, no matter if one finds themselves stranded in a lonely canyon, one can rest in the peace of the Gospel offered to us in Christ Jesus, that it is God who is in control.
In the movie, as Aron Ralston finally detaches his hand and frees himself for the first time in 127 hours, he looks out of his would-be tomb to the heavens and shouts, “Thank you.”
See Part Two of this piece.