Sparks, Stones, and the Sovereign God
Oh, boy…2021 is off to quite a start!
Many of us hoped for a smoother ride in the shiny new year, but the changing of the calendar did not level out the roller coaster of life. Maybe it’s time we consider that it isn’t supposed to.
Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7 NIV)
We live in a world that is broken, corrupted by sin, cursed because of that sin, and hostile to the God that created it. Because of sin, the existence we know here is one of striving against reality itself.
Sin is a missing of the mark, a falling short of a standard. It is all our error, failing, rebellion, disobedience, and more. Ultimately, sin is living as if we make the rules—as if we are God. When we trust our own understanding over what God has declared to be true, that is sin. When we fail to acknowledge our Creator and our purpose as His creation, that is sin. Sin separates us permanently and irreparably from the source of all life; sin keeps us from our very reason for existing.
The effect of sin on all of Creation is devastating. The trouble and hardship we face in this life is part of the judgment (or curse) God proclaimed against the human race in Genesis 3 because of sin, but it is also the simple reality that our sin (in Adam) broke the system. The harmony of the created order was disrupted. What formerly all worked together in a beautiful symphony of God’s glory became discordant and cacophonous, as the various parts began to compete for prominence.
When two stones strike against one another, sparks fly. When the stony human heart runs at cross-purposes with the solid rock of reality as the Creator designed it, sparks fly. In this sinful world, where the realities of everyday life strike hard against the reality of God, we are born to trouble, as naturally as sparks fly. It is inevitable.
And it is even good. Yes…good.
Throughout the entire story of Scripture, we see God’s hand in hardship. He is present and active in our difficulties. He does not shy away from His responsibility for calamity. Nor is He compelled to explain Himself. In Isaiah 45:5-7, the Lord says:
I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. [emphasis added]
The book of Job presents the issue of God’s role in disaster throughout its narrative, neither denying God’s active role, nor neglecting the role of secondary agents such as Satan, human evildoers, etc. At the outset of the book, Job 1:8-2:10, God authorizes Satan to torment Job (with restrictions), but even then, we see the Lord presented as the causative force by both Satan and Job. At the book’s conclusion, the Lord makes no effort to absolve Himself from responsibility for the evil actions of the devil, the robbers, the storm, or the ravaging skin disease. To the contrary, He confronts Job for looking through the lens of human understanding rather than acknowledging God’s sovereignty (Job 40:7-8).
Jesus went out of His way to remind us that we will most certainly have trouble in this world. No writer of Scripture gave any contradiction of any form in any book to that truth. The examples of Israel, the Messiah, and the Apostles all bear this out. All the New Testament writings affirm it, speaking of both the general troubles of this world and the specific persecution of Christ’s church. Yet in John 16:33, Jesus assures us that while tribulations are inevitable, we ought rightly to be encouraged, knowing that He has already overcome this world. Paul reminds us in Romans 5 that we glory even in our sufferings, knowing that the Lord is using them to build us. James goes so far as to say in chapter one of his letter that we should choose to see all our various trials as pure joy, because they are necessary to the process of our maturing in the faith.
Some troubles come as God’s judgment on this sinful world (Romans 1:18), some as a consequence of individual sin and folly (as in Proverbs 19:3), some as attacks from the devil and his forces (as we saw in Job), and many—perhaps most—as the natural consequence of living in a world where friction from conflict with reality causes sparks to fly. Still, as much as it pains our human philosophy and sense of fairness to consider it, there are times when God specifically, intentionally, and actively ordains hardship for us.
We can often wave it away as God’s passive (or “permissive”) will. We can accept that God may allow hardship and turn it into something good, but we cannot abide by the counterintuitive idea that a loving God would actually cause or plan such things. In this, we create God in our own image, forcing the sovereign Creator of all things, who rules with absolute authority as well as with perfect love and justice, to conform to our small, sin-darkened understanding of what such a being may be “allowed” to do.
To us God says, as He did when He answered His servant’s lament in Job 40:7-8, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”
To which we must respond, if we are able to speak at all, as Job did in 42:1-6.
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
The reality of pain, suffering, and evil can break us. Indeed, it needs to break us. The chisel must wound the stone in order for the Artist to bring out the masterpiece only He can see. When the troubles of life drive us to our knees, it is there—on our knees, humbled and despairing—that we recognize our deep need and discover the kindness and grace of the Lord. It is Christ alone who can repair the breach of sin. The permanent and irreparable separation from God is removed by God Himself through the grace He gave us in His own beloved Son.
As I write this, much later than I should be, due to the trials and tribulations that create upheaval in life, I have just buried a dear friend who died unexpectedly just prior to his 50th birthday, and my sister is facing professional and personal turmoil that is impacting many other lives as well. The pandemic continues to upend our sense of normalcy, and our nation is no less divided than it was throughout 2020. Persecution of Christians is increasing worldwide, not decreasing, and the church in America is fighting the internal cancers that come from neglecting God’s Word, holiness, and love. I am profoundly aware of the sparks of trouble we cannot escape. Yet our loving God chooses to bruise us in order to restore us. He uses the difficulties—He actually ordains them—specifically to shape and mold us into the holy people He has chosen and called us to be.
May we surrender our clay to the Potter’s painful but masterful sculpting…to the praise of His glorious grace.