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Sovereignty // Jake Bouma

This post is a part of the Sovereignty of God Blog Series going on throughout the months of July and August. You can read about the series and see a schedule of the posts here. You can subscribe to all the posts here.

Today’s post is from Jake Bouma. Jake currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa, where he works as both the director of youth and family ministries and contemporary worship leader at St. Mark Lutheran Church. If for nothing else, Jake demands respect because he was one of the earliest adopters to this thing called blogging.

If you read my Twitter profile, you’ll notice that one of the descriptors is “Amateur theologian”. I’m not really sure what it takes to be a “professional” theologian, but I can tell you that I have very little seminary training; most of my theological aptitude comes from several years of reading – both analog (books, journals) and digital (blogs, webzines).  Until I complete some graduate theological education, I’ll just stick with the label of autodidact.

Why the caveat? Because today I’m not going to attempt any grand theological statements about the sovereignty of God. I’ll try my best to avoid theological jargon, especially words beginning with “omni-“. You see, for me the issue of God’s sovereignty is less about theo-logy and more about anthropo-logy, that is, the posture I take as a disciple-in-response to God’s sovereignty is in some ways more important than any named attributes of our God.

But let’s get to the point here. I find it extremely discouraging that the oft-used phrase “everything happens for a reason” has been so watered down, wrung out, and muddied that it has little if any actual meaning anymore. It’s unfortunate, because that phrase is loaded with gooey theological goodness (even words beginning with “omni-“). I believe, along with Paul and countless Christians, that everything does happen for a reason, or as Paul says in Romans 8:28, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Sometimes I can see with vibrant clarity how God works to make all things work together for good in my life, but most of the time (let’s say… 95%) I find myself asking “why?” To get rather personal, when I was three and a half years into my undergraduate studies, I received a letter informing me that I was to pack my things and go home. I struggled with severe depression in school and my grades quickly swirled their way down the commode. Fortunately – unbelievably – I was able to appeal my way back in, and graduated only one year behind my classmates.

An experience like that wreaks havoc on one’s perception of God’s sovereignty. A thousand whys and a thousand silences make “everything happens for a reason” a trigger for anger rather than comfort. But the fact of the matter is this: graduating a year later has been an incredible blessing in my life. I interviewed and accepted an offer for my dream job right after graduation; who knows where I would be now had I graduated “on time”? That and countless other things, when viewed from where I stand now, years later, are slowly painting a more vivid picture of the truth in Romans 8:28.

Most importantly, my life experiences have taught me what it means to be a disciple-in-response to God’s sovereignty. For me, it means at times an almost unbearable amount of patience to recognize God’s sovereign hand in and around my life. It means that when I confront God with a thousand whys, I know there is hope, even in the silence. And it means that “everything happens for a reason” isn’t just a stale platitude.

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  • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    This is a great post, Jake. I particularly like this phrase, “disciple-in-response to God’s sovereignty,” and how it shifts my understanding of God in subtle but important ways.

    “Everything happens for a reason” is a very sticky, often-frustrating Christianese phrase–one that I approach very cautiously. I’d like to hear more about this “gooey theological goodness” you’re talking about.

    From my perspective (which doesn’t include *any* seminary training, just lots of reading and messy life scenarios), not all trials happen for a reason. I feel like most of them happen because we’re imperfect, selfish, confused people.

    What I do believe though—and will spend the rest of my life proclaiming—is that God can take any mess we end up in and redeem it for good. He can take those broken pieces and create something new and beautiful. I witnessed that very process through my divorce, which I don’t think is something God *wanted*, but is certainly something he was able produce a new creation out of.

    Do you think we’re saying the same thing in different ways, or are we working with different understandings of God?

    • Jake Bouma

      Thanks, Kristin. I’m with you on the stickiness of “everything happens for a reason”. In fact, I believe we’re on the same page; I just didn’t go into as much theological detail.

      I don’t think “everything happens for a reason” equals “God produces/condones everything that happens.” Instead, it’s that there is nothing in our lives that escapes God’s redemptive touch. This places me outside of the John Piper school of thought, in which everything actually is caused by God, whether we like it or not.

      If I may be so bold as to make a heinous generalization, I don’t think many Christians, if pressed, would actually stand up for the Piper position when they say “Everything happens for a reason”. I believe what people mean when they say that phrase is closer to what you and I (and Paul) are driving at: redemption, i.e. Romans 8:28.

      The “gooey theological goodness” is essentially the redemptive power of the cross and the continued activity of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther differentiated between a theologian of glory, who calls evil things good (e.g., Piper… I’m not trying to pick a fight, it’s just an easy example), and a theologian of the cross, who “calls the thing what it actually is”. I can name the evil things in my life, but I don’t have to say that God caused them in order to view them through the cross and its redemptive power.

      At this point I’m just rambling, so I hope what I said makes sense. :)

      • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

        Jake, thanks so much for taking the time to write Part II of your post. :)

        You’re right—we’re on the same page with this: “…there is nothing in our lives that escapes God’s redemptive touch.”

        What’s interesting to me, is that we are so often better off *because of* the so-called bad things that happen in our lives. I believe God is working to redeem me every day, through the hundreds of little things I do, but in those little moments I am often too dense and distracted to take note of the bigger work being done in and around me. When something devastating happens, like my divorce, I’m suddenly paying attention, even if it’s in brokenness and anger.

        As a result, I think it’s fair to say that I am more whole in God and more at peace in my life because of my divorce, than I would have been had the divorce never happened and I had continued on content with mediocrity and all things lukewarm. But I don’t believe God caused my divorce as a way to get my attention.

        It starts to get really sticky, doesn’t it?

  • Tyler

    Do you ever think that those who doubt God’s sovereignty lack faith? I’m not saying this is true, because generally people who come to that conclusion do so based on Biblical/theological convictions…but the person who trusts God in the midst of strife (to me) has more faith than the person who blames the crap of life on something else.

  • dennarr

    Great post! “Amateur theologian” – I like it & I have even less seminary training!

    I was reading Jeremiah last week and 29:4-11 really popped this time. I think most of us focus on verse 11 in this passage – God knows the plans and they are for our Good, our hope, and future – AMEN! The interesting part is to take this verse in the context of Jeremiah’s letter – particularly verses 4-10. These passed over verses put verse 11 in a completely different light (maybe its just me…where I’m at right now).

    God is telling Israel to live their lives (build homes, plant gardens, get married, have children) while they are in exile (where He has sovereignly placed them a that time). It wasn’t the place THEY wanted to be or the place they wanted to “build homes, plant gardens, get married, have children”, but it was where GOD had them.

    How often we (I) second guess God in His sovereign direction…in the margin of my bible, I wrote, “In exile, find contentment. God is in control.”


    • Jake Bouma

      Thanks, dennarr. Wonderful reflection… I love that passage from Jeremiah for the very same reasons you outlined. We do a whole lot of whining only to later realize God is a much better party planner than we are.

  • Kirk

    My own view is that we’re dealing with a mix of both God’s sovereignty, and our own free will. When it comes to large, systemic issues such as the Israelites and their struggles, or the direction of our world, then the hand of God is clear. On a more personal basis, God does indeed have a plan for us, and a flow/direction to where our lives should be heading, if we’re to follow His guidance. But at the same time, how can God’s divine gift of free will exist if “everything is planned ahead of time” by some grand and detailed scheme? Furthermore, we quickly start banging our head into a wall if we believe this, and try to rectify something like evil, or bad breaks that befall a clearly rightous person. I think that’s a quick way to lose faith, and is probably a major reason why people give up on their faith.. it simply doesn’t compute that a good God would include so much bad in his plans.

    I’m of the belief that nothing about God and His nature is irrational. Everything makes perfect sense, even if we don’t see that sense clearly in our lives. Therefore, what makes sense is that God has allowed free will, and as a consequence…even if God does see it coming ahead of time, we have the capacity to make a mess of things. Nature has a way of ruining our day, and as we know, commonly does. When the little girl walks across the street and is hit and killed by a car, God is crying His eyes out right along with us, and feels our pain. There’s no use trying to make sense of it.. asking, “God, why did this happen? Why did you allow this?” He didn’t, and probably did everything in His power to alert someone to the impending danger.

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