Sovereignty and human responsibility - Proverbs 16:1-9
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I have a confession to make: I dislike jigsaw puzzles. I really can't cope with them. For me they remain a total no-no. My wife Heather, on the other hand, loves them. She is brilliant. She can take a puzzle of a picture of a plate of baked beans and Hey presto- it is complete. My approach to jig saws is to apply the principle of brawn over brain. You have a piece in your hand and you see a space in the puzzle which more or less looks right and so in it goes. And it is going to go in whether it belongs there or not- force it in-that's my motto, get the hammer if necessary. And so what if, at the end, you have a few pieces left over? Who is to say they ever belonged to this jig saw anyway? Maybe the makers have made a mistake and put the pieces from another puzzle in the wrong box? But I see that you are not wholly convinced by the Melvin Method of doing jig saws- I detect a look of sceptism on some of your faces.
But you know, that is exactly how some people approach the Bible. There are those who want all the gaps in their understanding filled and so they will force bits of the Bible's teaching together in such a way which, to be frank, does violence to the overall picture. On the other hand, there are those, usually called theological liberals, who don't like some parts of the Bible and say they don't belong there, they are part of another puzzle, so put them to oneside. But the Bible itself would urge us to be more cautious and more patient. Knowing the temptation for God's people to do with his revelation what I do with jigsaws, God said this through his prophet Moses: 'The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of his law.' (Dt 29:29). Perfect! You see, in his infinite wisdom God has chosen not to tell us everything we would like to know- some things are secret and known to him alone. However, he has told us just enough that we might trust him, which means doing what he says- 'following the words of the law.' God has spoken not to satisfy our curiosity but to enable us to live with him, his way in his world. This means that the jigsaw of God's word- the Bible- if I may put it like that-will provide a sufficient enough picture for us to trust God and, within limits- understand what he is doing and why- but not so much that there will never be any pieces missing. There will always be some gaps which allow for a good degree of mystery. So, on the basis of what we do know we can trust God for what we don't know. That is called- faith.
Now why is all that so important? Well, because of what we are looking at together this morning in the book of Proverbs- the teaching that the God of the Bible is far bigger than we often imagine him to be in that he is Sovereign over every twist and turn of existence whilst at the same time recognising that human beings are responsible for what they do. Sometimes this is called the mystery of providence. This is the biblical truth that God superintends and overrules all events- including human choices- in order to fulfil a purpose of his own design. This is something the Bible presents us with no explanation as to how God does this, but tells us that he does it, as well as pointing to some of the comforting implications we are to draw from it.
So let us turn to God's Word and think about this under three headings: know the truth; recognise the limits and practice the consequences.
First of all, know the truth. What is that? Well, that God who is infinite and so who is outside space and time and therefore not subject to the limitations we experience, is also personal and intimately involved in space and time with the creatures he has made, sovereignly ruling over all. You see it there in Proverbs 16:4, 'The LORD (Yahweh) works out everything for his own ends- even the wicked for the day of disaster.' This means that even the affairs and plans of men are known to him and will be used by him to serve his good purpose. God is never to be caught napping at any point or found off guard- ever being forced to say, "Whoops I didn't see that one coming. I had better revert to plan B. And if that gets messed up I will go on to plan C and work my way down." No, his plans are never ultimately stymied by our cleverness and cunning, even wicked people come under his sovereign sway. And no matter how powerful a person is, they too do not escape his eternal decrees, Proverbs 21:1 'The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.' Even the hearts of the world's movers and shakers are not 'no go' areas for this God.
What is more, God's meticulous personal superintending covers what some would call chance-Proverbs 16: 33 'The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.' That is why it is nonsense when people try and pit God and chance off against each other as if they were alternatives. Chance is simply a word we use to describe events-like tossing a coin for example- which either has no discernable order or no discernable cause which we know. That doesn't mean such things are not known to God. So chance is not an alternative to God- 'God or Chance'- but what we call chance comes under God's care and design just as much as other things which we can predict more accurately like the rising and setting of the sun. He is Lord of all-that's the message.
However, that is only one aspect of the truth; that God is sovereign, the flip side of the coin is that human beings are also responsible. We think; we make decisions, we take action. Sometimes we don't think and still make choices- some good, some bad- but we make them and we are accountable to God for them. Just because our wills are covered by God's will doesn't make us into puppets- puppets after all don't make decisions, but human beings do. Look at Proverbs 16:27, 'A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is a scorching fire.' Why does he plot evil- using his mind to hatch some wicked scheme- pushing drugs to children, forcing women into prostitution, making a quick buck at someone else's expense? It is because he is a scoundrel-that is his nature. On the other hand, plotting evil makes him a scoundrel. He is responsible for doing such wicked things and he can't shrug his shoulders and say' Well, I can't help it. God made me do it.' No, he didn't. He did it himself and is accountable to God for what he has done. Nonetheless, he is not able to outsmart God or frustrate his purposes which are for the good of his people- no human being has such power.
Sometimes you find both Divine sovereignty and human responsibility placed side by side: Proverbs 16:9, 'In his heart a man plan's his course (human responsibility) but the LORD determines his steps (divine sovereignty). And the Bible is not embarrassed in putting the two together and neither should we be.
Now why is this teaching, which runs throughout Scripture, so important that God wants us to know it (which is not the same as fully understanding it)? Well, let's think of what happens if either of these twin truths are denied- either that God is not sovereign, but can have his plans thwarted or that we are not responsible and are more like machines rather then men. And I want us to think about this by going back to the very first sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:22. This is what the apostle Peter says, 'Men of Israel. Listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 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. But God raised him from the dead There is the balance. The fact is, the Gospel itself is dependent upon this tension being true. Just think about it.
If the initiative to kill Jesus lay solely with the Jewish leaders and the Romans then that means God simply came in at the last minute to snatch triumph from the jaws of defeat. Then the cross was not his plan and purpose, the very reason why he sent his Son into the world. That is totally unthinkable for then Peter could not say it was according to 'God's set purpose.'
If, however, God so manoeuvred events so that all the human agents- Judas, Pilate, the Chief priests and people were nonresponsible puppets, then it makes no sense for Peter to call upon the people to repent for what they have done. How can they repent for what they were forced to do, as a puppet is forced to sit at the bidding of the strings pulled by the puppet master? They can't-unless they made the choices themselves. This would also mean that there was no sin for which Jesus came to die because in order to be accused of sin you have to be responsible for sinning. The Bible will not have that either. Instead, we have the proper balanced picture: God was sovereignly at work in the death of Jesus; human beings were wicked in putting him to death, even as they accomplished the Father's will in doing so, and God remains perfectly good.
But you may want to come back on me and say 'How can this be so?' That brings us to our next point: recognise the limits. Remember the Melvin Method of doing jigsaws- forcing pieces together and leaving other pieces out so we have no gaps? That is what some do at this point. Some so over-emphasise God's sovereignty that we are reduced to being passive chess pieces in a cosmic game; so some have said 'If God wants people converted, he will see to it without any help from us.' But the plain fact is, God has chosen certain means to achieve his designed ends, in this case that we tell people the Gospel if they are to become Christians. But think of it like this. You could say, 'If God wanted us to be clean, then he would ensure we are clean without any help from us.' Well, perhaps God does want us clean and that is why he has given us the means to get clean- water, soap, showers and the like. No we are to take action using the means God has provided.
But then there are those who in wanting to preserve human freedom declare that God cannot know or do anything until after we have acted, so God in effect ceases to be God in that we call all the shots and he comes running along after us trying to do the best he can. That is not the God of the Bible; we do not have that power to reduce God to little more than a cosmic caretaker sweeping up our mess after us.
So how does God's will and purpose relate to our will and purpose in such a way that he overrules and we are still responsible? The short answer is: no one knows. But then again we don't know lots of things. What is the relationship between my brain and my mind? The two are not the same. Is it that my mind is within the brain? Then is it that my thoughts are affected by the chemicals in my brain or is it that the functioning of my brain is effected by my mind? We don't know. I have a theory as to how the two are linked, but that is all it is- a theory. That doesn't stop me making decisions or making sure I don't take in drugs which will damage my brain and so affect my mind. So it is here with God's rule and our responsibility- let the two rest side by side: 16:1 'To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the reply of the tongue.'
So what are some of the implications of this revealed wisdom from God, how he is at work in and through all events and people, great and small to bring about his perfect will for those he loves, or as the Apostle Paul's puts it in Romans 8: 28 'For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.'? Notice the balance again- God is at work in all things-and here is the condition those 'who love him.'
Just let me mention two very practical areas where this is seen to work out: prayer and assurance. Prayer in that because God is ruler over all he does hear us and can act for us; and assurance in that knowing that no matter how bad things might get he still loves us and will make sure we get home to heaven in the end.
First, prayer- Proverbs 16: 3 'Commit to the LORD whatever you do; and your plans will succeed.' I don't think this is an unqualified blank cheque that God is expected to honour any more than any request to God is unqualified. But it is an acknowledgement that we are wholly dependent upon him and he is passionately involved in our affairs. Our problem is in trying to see how prayer can 'work' because we view God in relation to his creatures wrongly. So like in the film 'Bruce Almighty' we picture God sitting in a celestial office feverishly dealing with all the prayer requests which come in, 'one at a time.' Mrs G prays that her husband's cancer be cured. Mr Y prays his wife might conquer alcoholism. These and millions more are worthy requests are being made. In principle they are in line with what God wills for his creation, that Mr G be healthy and Mrs Y be sober. But what if both get worse? Does that mean that God doesn't answer the prayer?
The tangled web of human affairs living in a fallen and so broken world like ours makes things a little more complex. Sometimes the goods God desires come out of certain evils. So at one level cancer is an evil, as is all sickness which is part of the curse upon the rebellious world in which we all live. God does sometimes answer those prayers for healing- and all healing is divine. But we do have to recognise that have all to die sometime from something for we are mortal. Also, other prayers may be offered and answered which can only be answered if there is not healing like gaining patience through suffering and an increased focus on the world to come. Maybe Mr G's son has turned his back on God, and that it will be through his father's illness that he will come to his senses and return back. God knows this and so in order to 'answer' one prayer- the return of the son, he doesn't 'answer' the other prayer- complete healing. God alone knows what is best.
You see, because God stands outside time, he, as it were, can hear all the prayers ever made, and ever will be made, in an eternal moment and use each one of them outside time to bring about his good purposes inside time. He is able to view the whole course of human history; past-present and future together in an eternal present and weave all our decisions freely made into a pattern which is his. So we are called to pray- as Jesus prayed. And as a result of those prayers some things will happen which if we had not prayed would not have happened- and we are responsible for whether we pray or don't pray. Because God is a personal God he invites us to share in his work by praying. Because he is transcendent and infinite- he has the power and the wisdom to use those prayers as he sees fit to do things which we could never imagine. If he were not all powerful, then there would be little point in praying. If he were not all wise it would be dangerous to pray, who wants to ask of an all powerful but foolish Being to do things? That could be like letting a child play with a hand grenade-it would be disastrous. But God is both perfectly wise and infinitely powerful. So we pray. Pray each day as a Christian. Pray for those you love. Pray for those not yet converted. Get to the central prayer meetings and let's pray as a church, for prayer in the hands of this God literally makes all the difference in the world.
And because God has the hearts of Kings in his hands, as well as lesser mortals- 16:9, and we are not subject to the whim of chance or fate-v 33, that gives the believer tremendous assurance that we are cared for by an almighty God. This is the way Dr Broughton Knox-the one time Principal of Moore Theological college in Sydney, where Dave and Elsa Lynch are now studying- puts it: ' The doctrine of God's absolute and complete providence and control over every event is a ground for banishing fear from the hearts of the people of God. Thus Jesus reminded his disciples, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; for you are of more value than many sparrows." The creative power of God which brought all things into being is the guarantee that he is able to sustain us in every detail of lifeThe infinite power and infinite mind of God, to which the marvels of creation bear witness, mean that he is able to give full attention, care and protection to every person in the world with the same intensity of concern that he would give if he were related to a single individual only. The infinity of God is not overwhelmed by numbers, nor stupefied by detail. God is able to comprehend, and provide for at the same time, the needs of the whole creation. Our heavenly Father gives each of us his undivided attention and his full friendship as though we were his only friend. (D. Broughton Knox- Selected Works, Vol 1, p 57).
Now isn't that a wonderful thought? But it is only a wonderful thought because it is so wonderfully true, for God has told us it is so. And that calls for our total surrender in adoring worship. Let us pray.
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