When something bad happens, Christians often respond by saying, "All is well. God is still on the throne."
It is true that God reigns. The scriptures confirm it, but we need to think a little bit more about what that means.
Was God reigning when Pol Pot was killing millions of people in Cambodia. Clearly, God did not control what Pol Pot was doing. God was not reigning directly over him. So when we say that God reigns, it does not mean that he is controlling evil men.
When someone they love is having surgery, Christians will often pray that God will guide the surgeons hands. That makes sense, if the surgeon is a Christian, but what if the surgeon is not a Christian. Can God guide his hands? God cannot make me do things against my will, so I presume that he cannot control a surgeon either. What the Holy Spirit can do is put thoughts in the mind of the surgeon that might help him do his work. If the surgeon receives these ideas and acts on them, he might do better surgery. However, he is free to ignore the Holy Spirit's prompting, if he chooses.
So God was not reigning over Pol Pot and his does not totally reign over the surgeon either. The nature of God's reign needs to be clarify further.
The Bible often describes God as a King reigning over the earth.
God is the King of all the earth; God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne (Ps 47:7-8).These passages are a description of the way things were, and the way they should be, not the way they are now. God created the entire creation, so he owns it all and is entitled to sovereignty over it. However, he gave authority over the earth to humans and many people now refuse to acknowledge his sovereignty. The scriptures also look forward to the time when his sovereignty will be restored, so they declare it prophetically, as if it is already real.
Christians often speak about God's sovereignty as if he directs events on earth by remote control. That is a mistake, because it would be a breach of his gift of authority to humans and would turn us into puppets. God has the power to control people, but he limits himself to influencing people into freely choosing to do his will. He uses a variety of means to get people who do not want to obey him to do what he wants.
- The Holy Spirit can put thoughts into the minds of hostile people. If they accept his ideas, they voluntarily do God's will without understanding that they are being guided by him.
- He will often give the same thought to several people, so they spur each other on. The Holy Spirit makes his suggestions well in advance, at a time when the person is receptive. He often repeats the thought until it is accepted.
- The Holy Spirit presents his thoughts in a way that appeals to people, so they think it is their own idea.
- When dealing with kings, he takes advantage of their pride. God was able to use King Cyrus to accomplish his purposes, because Cyrus accepted the suggestions of the Holy Spirit. He was led by God without realising it (Is 45:1).
- When dealing with ordinary people, the Holy Spirit often stirs up emotions like fear or anger (Deut 2:25). Many Canaanites fled their land when they accepted the fear that he stirred up.
- God sometimes uses evil spirits to deceive evil people (1 Kings 22:19-20). These spirits do not want to do his will, but if he makes a suggestion, they will often do it, because they do not have many original ideas. Unlike humans, angels were created to obey another person, so they are not very creative.
- God uses physical events to prevent powerful people from doing evil things. He used the Red Sea to destroy Pharaoh's army (Ex 14:27-28).
If God directly controlled every living being in creation, like a puppet master manipulates his puppets that would be amazing capability. Keeping track of each person and making them act according to a coordinated plan would be an amazing achievement.
However, God does something even more amazing. He sets the puppets free to their own thing. He limits himself to influencing them by making suggestions. A few are committed to doing his will, but most are openly hostile. Worse still, many angels who have rebelled, have the ability to control some of those who are hostile. This looks like an impossible situation, but God is able to accomplish his purposes on earth, without needing to control people.
God is able to achieve this through his amazing wisdom an power.
God's wisdom is perfect and complete.
He knows what is happening everywhere all the time.
God totally understands human behaviour, because he created us. He knows how we will respond and behave in various situations.
The Holy Spirit is active throughout creation. He can speak simultaneously to every human on earth at the same time.
Everything he does moves people and events towards the fulfilment of God's purposes.
The Holy Spirit can influence people who are hostile to God, because he knows what suggestions they will respond to.
Humans have limited imagination and often do not know what they want to do. They are open to the Spirit's suggestions.
The powers of evil are pathetic and feeble by comparison. They can only be in one place at a time. They can only influence one person at a time, unless they get hold a political leader.
The powers of evil are disunited, so the often work against each other.
They often do not know what is going on, so they do things that hinder their cause.
Making a god of sovereignty results in weak theology. God is sovereign, but it is only one aspect of his character. Sovereignty is not a concept representing philosophical perfection. It must mean something in terms of the character and activities of God.
God is constrained by his character. He is constrained by his choices about how he will operate that flow out of his character. If God is sovereign, he can choose to constrain his activity. That does not limit his freedom or omnipotence. Once God created a finite world and finite people to live within it, and committed himself to working with them, he constrained himself to working within time. He is beyond time, so he can still move across time, but if he intervened on earth outside the order of time, his interventions would not make sense to those living within time. God has a strategy for restoring the earth. This involves a sequence of interventions on earth that makes sense in terms of finite time.
When God created people and spirits and gave them real freedom, he constrained himself. He could have kept them under his control, but he decided against that, because the wanted them to be free to do things that are contrary to his will. Having made that choice, it was almost inevitable that spirits or people would do things that are contrary to his will. This allows them to constrain his ability to accomplish in purpose in various ways. Every time I resist his will, I hold back his plans.
I wonder how many people the Holy Spirit spoke to before Abraham heeded the call to move to the land he was called. I presume he had spoken to many people, but was ignored. I presume some heard, but chose to disobey. Abraham was the first to hear and obey, so he received the promise of blessing.
Some will say that God knew in advance, the people who refused the call would refuse. That is playing games. Does it mean that he was not calling those peple seriously, but just speaking to prove that they were rebellious? That would be insincere. If God's will is limited to what actually happens, it becomes a bit meaningless.