Lies Christians Believe (Part 3): The Randomness of Everything

Selected Scriptures

Tom Pennington  •  July 10, 2011
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Well, I want to begin this morning by inviting you to come back and be with us tonight. I'm going to continue my study on "Bible Study for Every Believer: How you can mine the Scriptures to feed your own soul." And tonight, we really get to, I think, the heart of Bible study; and I'm going to teach you a particular tool that I think is really the most helpful tool that you can have in taking apart the Scripture and understanding it. It's something that is a regular part of my own life, and frankly, it has been huge since I first learned it back, now, in my seminary days. And so, I would just encourage you to be with us if you're able to do that tonight.

But this morning I want to return to our study that we're kind of in the middle of. In between our study of the Book of Ephesians and (Lord willing, this fall we'll be beginning) the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7), but in between that there've been a couple of things I really wanted to address with you. And we're in the series right now entitled "Lies Christians Believe:" those ideas that are in the culture around us that end up influencing our own thinking as believers. This morning we come to the third lie, and I've entitled this morning's message "The Randomness of Everything." That's the lie that permeates the culture around us.

Some of you will remember, back in the 1990s, one of the most popular television programs was a television sitcom entitled Seinfeld. It aired on NBC from 1989 to 1998, lasting nine seasons. The characters, by their own description, were 30-something singles with no roots, vague identities, and conscious indifference to morals. Wikipedia describes the sitcom this way: "It was a critical favorite, a commercial blockbuster and cultural phenomenon. The show led the Nielsen ratings in its sixth and ninth seasons, and finished among the top two every year from 1994 to 1998." In 2002, TV Guide named Seinfeld the greatest television program of all time. That's an interesting commentary. "The show, [the article goes on to say] often described as being about nothing, was widely described as Post-Modern."

It was intentionally—understand this—Seinfeld was intentionally about nothing. What happened in each episode was driven by random events, and that wasn't because of randomness. As Francis Schaeffer argued, "Art always reflects the thinking and philosophy of the culture in which it's found." The randomness of Seinfeld was a philosophical statement about the randomness of human life and existence. And although the program itself no longer airs except in syndication, the randomness that it preached is still everywhere. That's because the randomness of human life is one of the great lies of the society in which we live.

When we began this series "Lies Christians Believe," we began by looking at Romans 12. And turn there again just to remind you this is really the foundation for what we're doing in this series. Paul ends his study of the great doctrine of salvation and applies it beginning in Romans 12:1. In verse 1 he says, because of all the mercies you've known in salvation, you owe God your body as a living sacrifice. Your body doesn't belong to you to do whatever you want to with; instead, you are no longer to live for yourself but for Him who loved you and gave Himself for you.

In verse 2 he says your mind also belongs to God by virtue of the mercies you've enjoyed, and in verse 2 he tells us how to use our minds. First of all, he says you need to resist the thinking of the age in which you live. Verse 2 says, "And do not be conformed to this [age or] this world." Literally, don't let the mindset of the age, the prevailing thoughts of the age, force you into its mold; instead, (the second half of the verse) you're to embrace the thinking of God. You are to be transformed. You're to be radically, inwardly changed in your fundamental character by the renewing of your mind. Don't think like the world around you thinks; instead, think the thoughts of God.

The verse ends by saying that you may know "what the will of God is," not what car to buy or where to live, but the will of God as revealed in His Word. Instead of thinking like the culture around you, you think according to the will of God. So, in light of that verse, we're examining some of the dangerous ideas of our times, some of the ideas that are all around us, that can force us into that way of thinking. And then we're countering those by looking at what the Scripture teaches and saying, how should we think? what is the truth? allowing the truth of God, the Spirit of God to use the truth of God to renew our minds and therefore to change us.

So far, we've unmasked two dangerous ideas that are in the world around us. Let me just remind you of them.

Number one, truth is relative. That is, there is no eternal, universal, objective truth. That's a lie of the culture, and we looked at what the Bible says in response to it, that God is a God of truth; He has spoken; and even as Jesus affirmed, not one small tail of a letter will be abolished until it's all fulfilled. It is eternal.

Secondly, we looked at the lie that there are no moral absolutes. Last week we saw that you don't get to choose your own ethics. Ethics is not a buffet line where you go through and said, and I like this, and I don't like that, and I like that; and so, I'm setting up my own philosophy of what's good and right, and what's wrong and evil. You don't get to do that; instead, God has decided. And God has given us those commands, not capriciously, but instead because they reflect His own personal character. To violate God's revealed Word is to violate God's revealed character. It's to sin personally against Him, because we're violating who He is.

Today, I want to examine a third dangerous lie that just screams at us from the culture, and that we as Christians are tempted to embrace in some form or other. The third lie is this, "Life Is Random." Life is random. Now, as we've done with the other lies, and as we'll continue to do, we're going to sort of follow the outline of Romans 12:2. We're going to look first at the thinking of the culture, the dangerous lie, and then we're going to look at what the Bible says and renew our minds with it. So, let me start with making sure we understand this lie that's in the culture around us, first of all with a basic definition. What does it mean that life is random?

Well, by life, those who hold this view mean three things. They mean the natural history of the physical world, all of the physical things around us, the universe as it exists: its spontaneous beginning by the processes of evolution (as they believe); its origin; the origin and evolution of biological life into that environment, into the planet; and then the evolution and progress of individual species. So, all of natural, physical life, that's part of what they mean by life. They also mean the ebb and flow of human history. That is, the important leaders who've arisen, the big ideas, the great events, the empires, all of the flow of human history they mean by life.

Thirdly, they mean the specific events of each person's life. So, in other words, in this description, life is all encompassing. They mean the existence of all that is. So, everything that exists in the physical world, in human history, and in each person's life is characterized by randomness.

Now what does random mean? Well the Oxford English Dictionary defines random like this: "Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, without method or conscious choice; haphazard." It just happens. So, what are they saying then? They're saying this: the events of our lives, the events of all of human history, and the events that occur to everything that exists in the universe has no design. Those events have absolutely no design. There is no aim, there is no purpose to what happens to me, because there's no designer, there's no creator, there's no sustainer, there's no God; and so, there's no one to design it. And therefore, if all the events that happen to me have no design, then they also have—what? No meaning. No meaning. They're without design and without meaning. That's what this dangerous lie says.

Now, you don't hear it normally presented in those terms. So, what are some of the popular ways this dangerous lie is expressed in the culture around us, the ways you would hear it at school, or over the water cooler at work, or in conversation with friends, or in the news media? How does it come across? Let me- give you a few of the ways it shows up. These are just a few examples. Some event happens and you hear someone say, "That was random," or, "Random!" You heard that? That's funny, but understand that that's coming from a philosophical position that all of the events that happen in life, including the odd one that just happened, are, in fact, random.

Another expression is when good or bad events are attributed either to luck or chance. You know, something good happens and the person says "Uh, you know, I was just lucky," or something bad happens and "Of all the luck!" That is owning the fact that there is no design behind the events that occur to me: it is random, it's by luck, it's by chance.

A couple of popular but more cynical and even vulgar expressions of this idea you can read on the back of bumper stickers on cars: "expletive" happens. What are they saying? They're saying there's no explanation for what happens. Good things, particularly bad things, just happen. They're random.

Another one: life's an "expletive" and then you die. That is a statement of a philosophy that bad things just keep happening and then you die.: There's no aim, there's no purpose, there's no meaning.

Here's one that doesn't immediately seem to connect but it does: if it is to be, it is up to me. If it is to be, it is up to me. Now where does that come from? The idea is life is only what you make it to be. Since there's no design behind any of the events that happen to us, you create your own design, and then you work it out, you make your own reality. You understand this view basically maintains that the only intentionality in the universe is human decisions? There's no other intentionality, there's no other will, there's no other aim, there's no other purpose; so, your design, your will, your choices, set reality. So, if it's to be, it is up to me.

Those are just a few of the sort of popular forms that this lie takes. But how exactly did it become popular? You see, those popular ideas never start just at a popular level, they always filter down from philosophical ideas that have been talked about and embraced at the academic level. So, let's consider, secondly, the philosophical background just briefly. Where'd this come from? Where did this idea originate? Well this lie is an ancient one. Many of the ancient religions, the polytheistic religions of the world, embraced the idea of gods doing things to humans but doing them capriciously, without any meaning, without any significance, just sort of randomly fulfilling their capricious purpose on humankind. Let me show you a biblical example. It's really fascinating.

Turn back to 1 Samuel. This is a long time ago. This is in the time of the Philistines. We're talking a thousand years before Christ, and this idea permeated even then. First Samuel 6. I wish I had time to take you to the whole story, but let me just summarize it for you. You remember that the Philistines were the arch enemies of Israel. There were five Philistine cities with five kings that had banded together in a united front against Israel, and they had managed to capture a piece of furniture from the Tabernacle that was called the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant was nothing more than a glorified box, but it represented the throne of the living God. God dwelt in the room where that box was, and that box was like His throne. It pictured His throne. And so, the Philistines, by capturing it (because of the sin of the people of Israel) they felt like they'd really done something.

But things started to go bad once they got the ark back to themselves. Disease broke out. And so, they suddenly realize, we don't want this box anymore, we want Israel to have their box back. And so, they, in verse 2, they call for the priests and the diviners saying, so, what do we do with this thing? How do we give it back?

And the priests said, well whatever you do, don't just give it back, you've got to give it back with a guilt offering. You've offended Israel's God, and that's why you've got all these problems. So, here was the idea. Send it back with five gold tumors, which apparently was related to the illness, (We can't be exactly sure what the illness was, but it was related somehow to the illness that was spreading through the Philistine cities.) and five gold mice, one for each of the five Philistine cities. And here's what you do with it. Verse 7, "Take and prepare a new cart and two [milk] cows on which [there's] never been a yoke; and hitch the cows to the cart and take their calves home, away from them. [Then] take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart; put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering [the mice and the tumors] in a box by its side. Then send it away that it may go. [And then] watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory to Beth-shemesh." In other words, if it goes to Israel. Now understand, you got two cows who have calves. The calves have been taken home. So where do you think, normally, milk cows who have calves are going to want to go? Back to their calves.

So, here's the test. OK, if they go to Israel, then we'll know that God, the God of Israel, has done this great evil to us. But, if not, if instead they come back home to their calves, then we will know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us—how? By chance. It was just random. It just happened. So, this is an old idea.

When you come to the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece, the early Greek philosophers believed that chance, in fact, did not exist. One of them writes, "Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity." There were those throughout human history who embraced the idea of randomness and chance: philosophers. But fast forward to modern history and you immediately find that the idea of randomness has gained huge traction in about the last 100 to 150 years, and that's because of Darwin. It's because of his theories of evolution and the embracing of naturalism. Do you understand that the religion of America today is not Christianity, it's naturalism? And naturalism preaches this lie.

James Sire, in his excellent book (I've recommended to you before) called The Universe Next Door (about the prevailing world views in our world today), he describes naturalism in these propositions. Let me briefly read them. See if you hear the culture around us in these propositions. This is what naturalism teaches. This is religion of America.

Number one, "Matter is all that exists, and it has existed eternally." Carl Sagan, the leading proponent of naturalism until his death, used to begin his television series Cosmos with those words. You remember? He said, "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." That's naturalism.

The second proposition that describes naturalism is, "The cosmos is a closed system." In other words, there's nothing supernatural, there's nothing miraculous, there's no god out there, it's closed; and what happens only happens here in this world. There's no intervention from the supernatural outside.

Number three, "Human beings are simply complex machines, and the problems they have are related to the malfunction of the machinery."

Number four, "Death is the extinction of personality and individuality." In other words, death is the end, you're done.

Number five, "Morality is determined solely by the individual and his circumstances." We talked about that last week. That's part of naturalism. That's part—if the world just happened, matter's eternal and the world just happened, there is no divine being to set the standard of right and wrong; so, you get to decide.

Now that brings us to number six. Here's the one I want to get to. Here's how naturalism intersects with what we're talking about today. Naturalism says, history is a linear stream of events linked by cause and effect, but without any overarching purpose. So, there's cause and effect. You respond to someone who does you wrong. There's effect to that cause, but it's random: there's no meaning, there's no purpose, it's an accident. Naturalism teaches that history is linear. It goes from point A to point B, but it's random in how it gets there. There's no design. There's no meaning. It happens according to natural selection. Neo-atheist, Richard Dawkins, writes, "Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view."

Now, there are many illustrations of this idea of randomness that are throughout our culture. Let me just give you one. A popular author who died recently but wrote over sixty books before her death—some of you have probably read her books—Madeleine L'Engle. In one of her more autobiographical books, this is what she writes. Listen, she really puts it well for the culture around us.

"Western man has tried for too many centuries to fool himself that he lives in a rational world. No. [She says.] There's a story about a man who, while walking across the street, was almost hit on the head and killed by an enormous falling beam. This was his moment of realization that he did not live in a rational world but a world in which men's lives can be cut off by a random blow on the head, and the discovery shook him so deeply that he was compelled to leave his wife and children, who were the major part of his old, rational world. [Then she says] My own response to the wild unpredictability of the universe has to been to write stories, to play the piano, to read, listen to music, look at paintings [And here's the key.] —not that the world may become explainable and reasonable but that I may rejoice in the freedom which such unaccountability brings."

That's the issue; that's the point. It's a lie that has absolutely permeated the culture around us. Life is random so you might as well enjoy the freedom that such unaccountability brings.

Unfortunately, that lie has not stayed outside the walls of the church. It has permeated the thinking of believers. It has infiltrated in big ways. Let me just, very briefly, ask you to consider a few of the lethal consequences of this idea in the church.

The lethal consequences. Again, just briefly mention them.

Number one, it has undermined our confidence in the character of God. When you embrace any of the idea that the events that happen to me are random, then immediately you're questioning the goodness of God, you're questioning the power of God to intervene in the world He made and His wisdom to allow all this to happen after all. I've seen this happen in up close and personal ways with people who don't understand God's sovereignty in their lives. And when bad things happen, their faith wrecks; and it goes back to their doubting of God's character. You see it in, for example, the charismatic church.

When I was out in California at Grace Community Church, there was a large charismatic church down the street from us with a nationally known speaker, on radio, etc. And there were folks who would come from that church to ours, and almost universally they would say the great relief they experienced in understanding that God was sovereign, because before that, they lived under this cloud of thinking that the devil was sovereign, and all of their troubles were coming at them from the devil. So that, anything from a terrible trial to a bad hair day was Satan. Listen, when you substitute anything for the sovereignty of God, it undermines the character of God.

A second thing I think this has done, a second lethal consequence, is it has stolen the Christian's joy in trials. Listen, if you believe that what happens to you is from the good hand of a good God, you can have joy even in the middle of trials and difficulties; but if you believe what happens to you is random, it'll tear you up, it'll destroy you, it'll remove your joy.

Number three, it has eroded confidence in God's control of human history. If God's not in charge, then He's not in charge of what's happening in history. By the way, this is part of the reason for the church's foray into politics over the last fifty years. It's because we've lost confidence that God's in charge of history. It's weakened our faith in God's providence in our personal lives. We don't really believe that God is involved in all the details of our lives. It has undermined God's sovereignty in salvation. If God's not in control of everything, then maybe He's not as in control of salvation as we thought either. And lastly, it has encouraged personal autonomy. If God's not in charge, then maybe I should be. Those are just a few of the ways this idea has influenced the church.

So, let's go to the biblical teaching. What does the Bible say? What exactly does the Bible teach in place of the lie that life is random? Well, the Bible teaches that history is under God's control. You know, eastern mystic religions, paganism, teach that history is cyclical: it just cycles over and over and over again. Naturalism teaches that history is linear (It starts at point A and goes to point B.) but it's totally random. It has no meaning or design.

The Bible teaches that history is linear (It goes from A to B.) and intentional. God has a plan. It starts with creation. It reaches its center in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it will reach its finality at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and all of the events that transpire as a result of His establishing His kingdom.

But let me reduce what the Bible teaches in response to this lie to two basic truths. Two basic truths. Here's what the Bible teaches.

Number one, God rules over everything, and He has a plan. God rules over everything, and He has a plan. Scripture absolutely thunders against all pagan philosophies with the declaration that there is a God in heaven who rules over the affairs of men. It's not nature, it's not fate, it's not my own will, and it's not chance. The Scripture teaches that the events and circumstances of human history, as well as those of my life, come by order from the throne of God. In other words, in biblical terms, God is sovereign. Now that's a great word.

You've heard me many times use that word. You've perhaps loved that word. But like with all words that we use often, it's very easy for use to get a little fuzzy around the edges of what it actually means. So, what is it that we mean? When we say, God is sovereign, we mean that God exercises absolute control over everything. That's what we mean. God's control of His creation is total, comprehensive, exhaustive; it is unqualified and unlimited. He is the King of everything that exists. This is what the Bible teaches. Now get your thumbs ready, because I want to show you some passages where this point is made unequivocally clear.

Turn to Psalm 33 to start with. (This passage was put up on the screen last week for us.) The Psalmist recounts that God is Creator in Psalm 33:6-9. Notice in verse 9, "… He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast." But He continues to interact with the world He made. Verse 10, "The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever." The decisions of the Lord stand forever. "The plans of His heart from generation to generation."

Now those two verses are affirming two things. One, no creature of God or groups of creatures of God can undermine His purpose. The nations can get together and counsel against God, and as Psalm 2 records, God sits in the heavens, and what? He laughs. It's ridiculous. The other point these two verses make is that God has a plan. Do you see that? The counsel of the LORD, the plans of His heart. He has a plan, and it will be done "from generation to generation."

Turn over to Psalm 103. Psalm 103's one of my favorites, perhaps one of yours. The Psalmist recounts the grace of God in our lives, but then he ends on a note of God's sovereignty. Look at what he says in verse nineteen. Psalm 103:19: "The LORD has established His throne in the heavens," Notice, nobody crowned God king. Nobody made God king. There wasn't a vote to decide that God got to be in that role. "[He] established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over"—what? "over all." There is nothing outside of the sovereign control of God.

Look over at Psalm 115:3. Contrasting idols to the true God, verse 3, "… our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He"—what? "Whatever He pleases." Now God isn't capricious. He doesn't just do things willy-nilly. He has a plan. He has a purpose. We just learned that. But whatever it is He decides to do, He does. He does as He pleases.

Psalm 135:6, makes the same point. Psalm 135:6. Verse 5 says, "I know the LORD is great … that our Lord is above all gods." [The gods of the nations are idols; they aren't even real. And here's what distinguishes the true God.] Verse 6, "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does."

And there's no limitation on it. He does it "in heaven." He does it "in earth." He does it "in the seas and all [the] deeps. You can't go somewhere and find a place God isn't in control. It doesn't exist. He does as He pleases.

Isaiah 46:10. God says, "… My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure. … Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it." [God says I have a plan, and I will do My plan. I will carry out My purpose.]

One last passage. Look over at Ephesians 1. A few years ago, we worked our way through this passage. (I hear those chuckles.) Ephesians 1:11. Right in the middle of Paul describing our inheritance, what we receive from God, it occurs to him that some of us reading it might think, well, is it for sure? is it a real thing? is it really going to happen? And so, he inserts this little jewel in the middle of verse 11: "[We were] predestined according to [God's] … purpose." And notice how he describes God: "who works all things after the counsel of His will." God has a plan, and He works His plan. God rules this world in absolute control of all that happens, and He does so to accomplish His great plan.

You say, what's His plan? His plan is really the theme of the Bible: God is redeeming a people by His son, for His Son, to His Own glory. That's God's plan. That's the plan He's working out. It's the theme of the Bible. That He has a plan becomes clear in Genesis 3 right after the fall. You remember? God says to the man and the woman and to the serpent, He (that is, a person I will raise up) will bruise your head. In other words, a person will come who will deal with the effects of the sin you've just committed and who will defeat Satan. He'll deal with sin; He'll defeat Satan; He's coming.

That was God's plan, and the rest of the Bible is simply the out-working of that plan. God rules over everything, and He does so to accomplish His eternal, unchanging plan of giving a redeemed humanity as a love gift to His Son. That's what this is all about. That's why you're here. That's why I'm here. That's why the world exists.

There's a second basic truth that summarizes what the Scriptures teach in response to this lie that life is random, and it's this: God is working out His plan in every detail of every life. You see, it's not just this huge plan that you and I are too small to even figure into, it's very personal. God is working out that plan He has in every detail of every human life. Now we're talking about providence, which is closely related to sovereignty, but it's different. Sovereign is what God is; providence is what He does. Sovereignty argues that He's absolutely in control. Providence is how God's absolute control works itself out in the details of life.

The doctrine of God's providence is absolutely foundational, because if God isn't in charge, He isn't what? He isn't God. By definition, God is a King, He's in charge. And Christians through the centuries have understood this. Go to the great confessions; in fact, look at the West Minister Confession of Faith and its partner the Second London Baptist Confession. So, you've got the Presbyterians and the Baptists. Together, this is what they say. Both of the documents say this: "God, from all eternity, did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass." God ordained whatsoever happens, all the details of life. Is that what the Bible teaches? Absolutely.

You say, well in what areas does God's providence intersect with my life? Let me give you a few areas to consider. Here's how God's working out His plan in every detail of your life and mine. First of all, God's providence determines our birth, the circumstances of our lives, and our death. Our birth, the circumstances in which we live, and our death.

Let me give you just a few references. I'm not going to have you turn to all these. But Exodus 4:11, the context: Moses has just said, God, I don't think I can do what You're calling me to do because I'm not eloquent, I don't speak well. Here's what God says to him. Exodus 4:11: "The LORD said to … [Moses], 'Who … made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?'" God takes full responsibility. Even though human illness and deafness and blindness are ultimately effects of the fall, God takes full responsibility for the assigning of those things to us as individuals as He did to Moses.

Job understood this. Job 23:13. In the middle of all he was dealing with in his trials, he says,

"… [God] is unique and who can turn Him?" [That is, who can change God.] "And what His soul desires, that He does." [You say OK, that's the same point we've seen in several other passages. But Job makes it very personal. He says,] "For [God] … performs what is appointed for me." [In other words, God has a plan for me, and God is carrying out that plan, and you can't change that plan.]

Look at Psalm 139. This is one of the favorite Psalms of many. It rehearses God's knowledge of everything. It also rehearses His presence everywhere: His omniscience and His omnipresence. Psalm 139, though, talks about us in our mother's wombs; and he talks about how God is the one who made us, and made us who we are. Verse 16, "Your eyes have seen my unformed substance." [That is, when I was in embryonic form in my mother's womb.] "And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them."

It's not that God has a physical book somewhere in heaven. The point is to help us understand that God has a plan, just as if He'd written it down in a book for my life: the day I would be born, how I would look, how I would live, the day I would die. All "the days that were ordained for me," they were written in "Your book" before "as yet there was … one of them." God mapped out your life before you were born.

Proverbs 20:24, says, "Man's steps are ordained by the LORD, How then can man understand his way?" [God has a providential plan that's working its way out in your life. And we look back and see something of it, but we can't see it—in it or ahead.]

Even the tragic circumstances beyond our control are directed by God: the trials we encounter, our own death, the death of those we love. In Deuteronomy 32:39, God says this about Himself: "See now that I, I am He … there is no god besides Me; it is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, And there is no one who can deliver from My hand."

Job, again, makes it very personal in Job 23. Remember what he'd encountered, all the trials that'd come upon him? He says, "[God] … knows the way I take; When He has tried me." [In other words, these trials are not impersonal, they're not random, they came to me from God.] "When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold."

What about our successes and failures? Do you realize your successes are the expression of God's purpose in your life? Look back at Genesis 39. The life of Joseph is such a clear indication of this. He ultimately becomes the prime mister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh,. an amazing position, the greatest empire on earth at the time. How did God do that? Genesis 39:2, "The LORD was with Joseph, so he became a successful man." [Do you see the cause and effect?] "The LORD was with … [him], so he became a successful man. … [When the] master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand." Look down at verse 21. "The LORD was with Joseph … extended kindness to him, … gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer." [So, he got a high level of responsibility, but notice the end of verse 23.] "the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper."

Fast forward to Moses talking to the children of Israel on the plains outside of Jericho. He says to them, when you have cities and houses and all of these things, understand that it's God who gave the power to make wealth. Listen, we live in a successful area. A lot of folks in our church have had a great measure of success. Don't you for a moment think that that's because you are so intelligent, or you're so capable. God is the One behind your successes. On the other hand, you can expend the maximum effort, you can do your best, you can use all the skills and talents you have, and fail. That too is in the hand of God.

Proverbs 21:30, says, "There is no wisdom … no understanding … no counsel against the LORD. The horse is prepared for the day of battle." [In other words, you can get prepared, you can be ready, you can be everything you ought to be,] "but victory belongs to the LORD."

What about the decisions we make, our free decisions and actions? Is God's providence even connected to those? Absolutely. Proverbs 16:9: "The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps." [You make your plans, and God directs your steps.]

Proverbs 19:21, "Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand."

I love Proverbs 21:1. It describes how this works. It says, "The [heart of the king] is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; and He turns it wherever He … [chooses.]" The picture is of that arid part of the world were you had to have irrigation canals to water crops. And you have gates on the irrigation canals that you would flip to move the water a different direction. God says that's what I do to the heart of the king. I just flip the gate, and it goes down a different channel. That's true for us as well.

Even things that seem accidental or insignificant are in God's control. Have you ever thought about that? Accidental or insignificant. I love Esther 6:1 You don't have to turn there, but that's the story of when the king couldn't sleep. And he got up, and sort of in the ancient version of Sominex, he said bring the records and read them to me. You know, maybe that'll put me back to sleep. And in the process of having the records read to him, he heard about how Mordecai had thwarted a plot to kill him.

Read Esther, and what you'll understand is that God sovereignly used something as insignificant as the insomnia of a king on one night of his life to save the entire nation. Proverbs 16:33, says, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD." [It's like drawing straws. They would take a stone and pitch it in people's laps, and there was one stone that was the dark stone that you would throw in the lap and that person was then the one selected, the ancient version of drawing straws.]

Do you understand what the writer of Proverbs is saying? Even when man tries to be random (which is what casting lots is), he can't really be random because God even directs that.

First Kings 22 is another one of my favorite examples of God being involved even with the smallest of things. You remember the story of Jehoshaphat and Ahab, two kings who decide to go into battle together? And Ahab knows he's going to be a target, and so he says I'm going to disguise myself so they won't know it's me. I'll have all my armor, but I'll disguise myself. They won't know I'm the king; you dress up as king, Jehoshaphat.

I've always thought, you know, what was Jehoshaphat thinking? Was he just stupid or what? I mean—but anyway, they went along and did it, and the Bible says that a certain man drew a bow at random. You can picture sort of in the throw of the battle: this guy's got an arrow, and everybody else is shooting, and he doesn't even aim, he just shoots his arrow.

And God guides the flight of that arrow so that it finds Ahab, who's in disguise. It finds the one spot in his armor that's unprotected. It sinks into his body, and he dies in the very spot where God said 20 years before he would die. God guided the flight of that arrow in the air, shot at random. No, there's nothing random. The clear teaching of Scripture's that God in His providence is even involved in small things that seem accidental.

What about our sins? Is God's providence involved with our sins? It's hard for us to understand and accept, but that's exactly what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that God determined to permit our sinful choices. Understand, God doesn't cause us to sin. He doesn't act upon or in our wills to sin. We want to sin and therefore we sin. James 1:14 says God doesn't tempt any man to sin. God takes no responsibility for our sin. But, here's where His providence intersects: He determined to direct and control the results of our sinful choices to accomplish His own purposes.

In a miracle of divine providence, God directs evil acts to ends unforeseen and unintended by the sinner. The clearest example of that is Genesis 50:20. You remember? Joseph, now prime minister of Egypt, says to his brothers who sinfully sold him into slavery, you meant it for—what? "evil … but God meant it for good…" God took the sin of those brothers and used it, directed it, to accomplish His purposes. He wasn't responsible for their sin. He wasn't responsible for their evil, but He can even work in and through our sins to accomplish His purposes. Amazing.

One last category, our salvation. God is sovereign in our salvation. The Bible is so clear in this. Acts 13:48: "As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." Ephesians 1:4 "[God] … choose us in … [Christ] before the foundation of the world." Second Thessalonians 2:13, "… God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation…." [So, you see, everything in our lives is under God's control.]

Now very briefly, how does this work? How does God's sovereign providence intersect with our human wills and choices? Well, we can never work that out perfectly, but Herbert Butterfield, a professor of history who once taught at Cambridge, explained it with an illustration that I think's helpful. He said,

"Imagine that you're on a trip, that you took a trip on a train. And you get to your destination at the end of the journey, and somebody comes up to you and says, why are you here? There are three answers you could give. You could say, because I wanted to come. You could also say, because the train brought me here. And you could also say, because it is God's will." [And Butterfield said,] "All of these things may be true at the same time, but on different levels. That's how it all intersects."

You see, I make real choices. I will certain things. Other people act upon me, but in and through it all, God is acting to accomplish His purposes in my life.

If you're here this morning and you find the whole idea of God's sovereign control of your life distasteful, offensive, perhaps even repulsive, that's not surprising. Those who have not yet recognized God's authority in their lives usually find this truth offensive.

Charles Spurgeon, back more than a hundred years ago wrote,

"No doctrine is more hated by those who don't believe, no truth of which they have made such a football, as the great, stupendous, yet most certain doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Men will allow God to be everywhere, except on His throne."

Understand that your resistance to what God clearly says about Himself and the world is really an act of personal rebellion against your Creator. Like it or not, God is on His throne. Like it or not, there is not a stray molecule in His universe. The only right response for you, therefore, is to humble yourself before that sovereign God and seek His mercy and grace in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

But what if you've already done that? How should you response to what the Bible teaches about God's absolute sovereignty in His providence? Let me just give you a couple of thoughts as we conclude our time together, some application. What do you do as a believer? How do you respond to this truth as opposed to the lie?

Number one, submit to God's providence in your life. Don't fight God's purpose in your life. A few weeks ago we studied 1 Peter, where Peter told those believers that were about to face persecution from the Roman empire, he said, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God." Accept God's providence in your life. Don't fight Him.

Number two, don't assume your plans are part of God's sovereign plan. You want to frustrate yourself? Just think that God's got to go along with the plans you make. There'll be many times that doesn't happen, so don't assume your plans are His plans. Just be prepared for God to veto your plans. He has that right. Read James 4:13-15, where James says, don't say, tomorrow I'm going to go here and do this, and the next day I'm going to go do this; instead, say—what? "If the Lord wills." That's more than a statement, that's an attitude of heart.

Number three, (this is so important) believe that God's providence is always for your good. If you're in Christ, then whatever comes into your life, however bad it looks, God will use for your good. He's promised, and God doesn't lie. We quote Romans 8:28 a lot, rightfully so, but it's still true. "God causes [what?] all things to work together for [the] good [of] … those who love God, [and] … who are called according to His purpose." Trust Him. It may not look good, but you don't know what God's doing.

Recently, I've been listening to a song on my iPod written by Laura Story, after her husband was severely injured and incapacitated both physically and mentally. She called the called the song "Blessings." Here are the lyrics:

"We pray for blessings. We pray for peace, comfort for family, protection while we sleep. We pray for healing, for prosperity. We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering. All the while You hear each spoken need, yet love us way too much to give us lesser things. 'Cause what if Your blessings come through rain drops? What if Your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near? What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?"

That's the attitude we must have toward God. He's good; His plans are good. Don't fear the future. Because God's sovereign, you don't have to worry about what's ahead. Nothing will happen to you that's not in His plan. That's why Stonewall Jackson could go into battle and say, "I'm as safe on the battle field as I am at home in bed." It's true. Isn't that what Psalm 91 says?: A thousand may fall at your one hand and ten thousand at your right hand, but it's not going to come to you unless that's God plan and purpose. Don't fear the future.

And finally, be deeply grateful. Listen, you have a God who has owned you as His child, who sits on His throne and works out every detail of your life in accordance with His eternal plan, and He does it for your good and His glory. Thank God. As 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, therefore "in everything" we can "give thanks."

Let's pray together.

Father, we adore You and bless You, that You are sovereign, that You are on Your throne and there isn't a stray molecule anywhere in Your universe, that You have a plan, a wise, perfect, eternal plan that You are working out in the universe You've made, in all of human history, and in each of our individual lives in every single detail. Father, we thank You and bless You.

Help us to trust You. Father, help us to believe that You're good and wise, that You're powerful, that You do as You please, and it's always good. Father, even when it doesn't look good, help us to trust You, because You promised.

Father, I pray for the person here today who's never humbled himself or herself to You. May this be the day, before this day is done, may they find themselves on their knees, acknowledging Your sovereignty and pleading for Your mercy and grace through Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And we pray in Jesus name, Amen.