In a society with a pragmatic mindset, any kind of belief is subject only to practical judgments. Effectiveness, usefulness, and utility are the basic criteria by which actions, deeds or beliefs are valued.
In this context, an evaluation of the benefits of religious faith often conflicts with the perspective of God’s sovereignty. How can the image of a sovereign who does as He pleases, when He pleases, and how He pleases, without anyone being able to call Him to account, be integrated into contemporary human life?
At least at first glance, this image of God is a selfish one, and if we add to it the silence that the Sovereign imposes on creatures, who have no right to judge Him, but only to learn and obey His will, the picture becomes unsettling. After all, what does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God? And what conclusions can we draw about human beings in the position of beings who are always striving to discover and fulfil the will of someone greater? Can a creative, happy, rational, independent, critical, and intelligent human being develop in such a relationship between the Sovereign and the human being? If not, what is the point of such faith?
The sovereignty of God
The biblical passages underlying the idea of divine sovereignty require an honest but thorough approaisal. It is impossible, even on the basis of common sense criteria, to regard as unfounded the idea that God is a sovereign with full, unquestionable rights, able to do as He pleases, demanding worship, exclusivity, and obedience.
Many historical figures in the Bible, including its inspired authors, or even God Himself, speak on this subject. “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20-21). “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground” (Isaiah 45:9). “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:35) These statements of divine revelation may justify raising questions about the justice and love of God in relation to the tyranny and dictatorship of a sovereign despot. The Decalogue of the Bible itself is an argument for God’s sovereignty: people must obey each of the Ten Commandments, two of which relate directly to the exclusivity of worship and the prohibition against using His name often, lightly or “in vain” (Exodus 20).
The idea of God’s sovereignty raises two important questions. Is it fair for a sovereign to have demands such as those listed above? Can a sovereign with such demands be loving?
The good Sovereign
What makes God just? His actions and decisions, which are intrinsically just? Or is it His sovereignty in that He cannot be unjust, and so whatever He does is good? If God’s actions are good intrinsically, this would mean that good is an authority to which God is subject, and so He is good because He submits to good as an abstract authority. In this case, God would not be the only God, or even the greatest God. Good would be His higher authority/deity. On the other hand, if God could not be evil, in the sense that even the evil done by God would become good, this would invalidate the concept of biblical judgement, the reason for justice, and ultimately human freedom could only be expressed in terms of submission to an ever-changing will.
As a consequence, the process of revelation would become an ongoing necessity, and humans would become more and more a mechanism for the application of the divine will. God’s will could no longer be intuited, understood or discovered. Thought, having lost its points of reference and its instruments of consistency and conditionality, would lose its raison d’être.
The rationality of the good
God’s behaviour, actions, and decisions are not inherently good, but they are good because God is good and what He does is good. It is He who calls good, good and evil, evil. Moreover, the biblical Decalogue is not only the standard of morality, but above all the description of God’s character. He is not good because He does good deeds, but the Godhead is good, just, and holy (Romans 7:12), and what He does is just and good. This axiom of the inherent goodness of the Godhead does not exclude the nature of goodness as an abstract concept. The divine behaviour is subject to reasons of coherence and consistency that facilitate the observation of its consequences. God thus allows Himself to be judged by creation. This perspective denotes a rationality of goodness.
Through the statements of Scripture, God is presented as the One who can and has the right to do whatever He wishes. These statements about His nature are accompanied by the revelation of divine interventions in human history, and the symbiosis of the two points to a sovereignty in which His omnipotence is consistently manifested for good. Hence the philosophical attacks on God’s omnipotence: either God cannot do evil because He is good, and therefore He is not omnipotent, or evil is created by Him, and therefore He is omnipotent but not good. Without wishing to engage in an exercise in theodicy, it is clear that the passages of Scripture which radically present His sovereignty are legitimising statements about the nature of divine sovereignty. Evil is not a matter of God’s power, but of His consistency and coherence in expressing His good nature.
Texts about God’s sovereignty, together with those about God’s “inability” to do evil, form a dialectic in which many become entangled. While God has the right and can do whatever He wants without anyone being able to hold Him accountable, the biblical book of Titus presents us with a God who cannot lie (Titus 1:1-3). In other words, God is described in human language in various situations. The Bible uses the radical statements describing divine sovereignty to correctly position creation in relation to the Godhead, a positioning which, through the understanding it facilitates, gives man the perfect framework for manifesting faith and trust in God. Specific, timely, and difficult moments in human history cannot be understood in isolation without an overview of the past, present, and future. Therefore, these passages appear rather as a redemptive response to human ambition, pride, and audacity, and are intended to give full confidence in God’s omnipotence.
Omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, justice, and love are divine qualities that make God the measure of people’s faith. At the same time, the sovereign status described by these attributes is one that allows God to do anything without anyone being able to intervene, question, judge or act upon it in any way. The right to do something is given by the power you have or by a higher power giving you that right. How can you question the Almighty? The reality of His omnipotence places us in a position from which we can only watch and observe whether our Sovereign is doing all that He is entitled to do, whether good or evil.
God does not arrogate to Himself all that He has the right to do
According to many theologians, God’s righteousness is justified by His voluntary choice to obey the laws He has given to mankind. Through revelation we see that God does not use His sovereign right to do whatever He pleases, either good or evil. Because God is just, He does only what is right among all that He has the right to do. Because He is love, God does only that which is right and good for us out of all that He has the right to do. Most often, when the Bible speaks of God, it reveals His boundless love for created beings through direct descriptions or stories. “God is love” (1 John 4) is the most accurate and direct description of God’s nature that Scripture gives. Power unaccompanied by love is one of the most destructive and dangerous capacities, while love is selfless, wanting nothing for itself.
Religion must, in the idea of God’s sovereignty, reconcile the many divine demands on human beings on the one hand with divine love on the other. Especially since the emphasis on the fulfilment of God’s will is so obvious that even the Bible seems to offer insufficient details of God’s will, a will that often conditions blessing and always salvation. “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:10). “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Scripture scholars and scribes, when they met Jesus Christ, often asked Him about the way of salvation. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). Both in the days of the apostles and today, Christians were and are so concerned to find out God’s will that not many have wondered and still wonder why. Perhaps that is why there are so few who find it out and even fewer who can fulfil it. Why should I do God’s will?
Does God have the right to be selfish?
From outside the religious sphere, questions about why Christians obey God are not only legitimate, but can easily provide arguments in the lives of religious people to deny God’s loving character. Why does God offer salvation, blessing, or the answer only if the believer obeys Him? Why should we be concerned with discovering God’s will and obeying it? Is it because in His sovereignty He has the right to demand anything of us, or because the Most High has the power to make the rules?
There are fundamentalist currents that offer His pleasure as an argument for obedience to God: let us do what pleases God because it pleases Him, as opposed to doing what displeases Him. A little boy, the child of a pastor in Romania, asked his father before going to bed whether God was allowed to be selfish. If everything we do is for God, if He asks us to worship Him, to obey Him, and to do a multitude of things for His glory, how can such an attitude be defined? If it were human, this attitude would be selfish; if it is God’s, what should we call it? And how do we solve the problem of the divine model for humankind?
Sovereignty, justice, and morality
The theme of sovereignty legitimises a master-servant approach, but then what would be the difference between a despot and God? We could point to the difference in nature between sovereign and subject, to the ontological superiority of the sovereign, to His status as Creator, and to other fundamental differences that cannot be valid in the law of earthly rulers temporarily placed in such positions. However, legitimacy does not always guarantee morality. The quintessence of morality is love, and just as not everything that is just is also moral, so God’s power—which gives Him the right to do what He wills and to demand what He wills without anyone being able to hold Him accountable—is subject to moral judgement. A selfish ruler cannot be an example, nor can he inspire love and selflessness in his subjects.
A priori love begets love
No one can be satisfied with feigned praise or enforced obedience. If He wants people to honour and worship Him, God should let them be free, and freedom can only be absolute, untainted by fear or manipulation. Freedom without love is meaningless. Love is the ultimate expression of freedom. This means that God’s only satisfaction is to receive honour, glory and obedience from love. In fact, love is the greatest honour and glory, but it can only exist as the willing response of a priori love. In this sense, if God were selfish, He could not produce love in human beings. To love is to give, to seek first the good of others (“No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” – 1 Corinthians 10:24) and to do so regardless of gain.
Selfishness is an expression of weakness
Psychology approaches the idea of vulnerability from the perspective of courage, and it is increasingly contrasted with the idea of power. Vulnerabilities and needs that are inherent in human nature can become strengths through the courage to verbalise and communicate them to others. Needs are vulnerabilities intrinsically, and in a competitive environment they are weaknesses that can be exploited by enemies.
It is precisely this dialectic of weakness and vulnerability that is at the heart of the idea of God’s selfish sovereignty. Although vulnerability brings out the good in the bad and the advantage in the disadvantaged, in the presence of God this complicates the situation. If God were in need of our honour and worship, that would be a weakness for Him, and God’s omnipotence takes away any powerlessness or need. Religion identifies God as the One, the Sovereign, with undivided life, from whom everything created, existing, seen or unseen, has its origin. God does not need life; He is life. He needs nothing; He is everything in all. Far too small would be the God who could be flattered by our gifts and obedience, or who would depend on people’s response to His desires or wishes. Any human need, vulnerability or helplessness would disqualify Him from being God. God is by definition perfect, good, loving, all-powerful, and the list goes on, and selfishness is a vulnerability, therefore a weakness. The Godhead has no weaknesses, so it cannot incorporate selfishness.
The will of the sovereign God and people’s obedience
In the debates between atheists and Christians, the love of the supposedly sovereign God is trivialised. His sovereignty, say atheists, deprives humans of certain rights and powers acquired through evolution, the right to creativity, free will, freedom, and autonomous thought. Through religion, people lose their identity, their originality, and their right to do what they want. The religious person is concerned with learning the mind of his God and obeying it, rather than thinking for themselves and choosing according to their conscience. If their conscience is not in accordance with the will of God, as they perceived it, they doubt their own conscience and mould it according to the pattern imposed by the deity.
The accusation against these types of religions positions such people as being in a constant search for God’s will and in an effort to conform their behaviour to God’s will. Hence expressions such as: “I did it for God”; “This is God’s will…”; “It doesn’t matter if you like it or understand it, you have to do it because God said so…”. Is this the essence of an authentic religious life and the will of God? Most certainly not.
In order to understand the intention and relationship of the Godhead with mankind, we need to look at the genesis of humanity. Before creating people, God spoke the following words: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26). Because of sin, the divine image in humans was so distorted that it became unrecognisable, with almost no hope of restoration. Only the promise of redemption through God’s sacrifice gave people hope to embark on the path of seeking salvation.
The search for the lost will
The search for God’s will is a cry for good. Usually, the thoughts of people are only evil (Genesis 6:5), their inclinations are destructive; in fact, nothing good dwells in mankind’s sinful nature (Romans 7:18). “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24). Scripture presents humanity in such a corrupt state that it is impossible for it to rehabilitate itself. “Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). The answer is so emphatic that the only hope left to us, aware of our condition and our helplessness, is help from outside.
The Apostle Paul describes the struggle of someone interested in salvation, whose ultimate goal is to find the solution: “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires… The mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace… You…are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you… Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God… The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba’, Father” (Romans 8:5-15). These biblical texts identify the solution outside our nature and within the divine nature—a nature we had at creation and which we have lost through sin. This is why we need someone to teach us how to live and to give us the power to live that way—a parallel to the relationship between parents and their children. The child is in a position where he or she can only learn and survive by being helped.
Within a framework of trust and love, children naturally seek the teaching and help of their fathers. It is their need. As the children grow up and understand the values of the family, they begin to sense the good intentions of the parents and adopt them to such an extent that certain behaviours become part of their habit and nature. It is the same with God. We are taught to distinguish good from evil and, through communion, to learn and assimilate God’s way of thinking. Everything the father does in relation to his child is for the good of the child.
God’s will is our yet undiscovered will
Salvation is a process of restoring the image of God lost in us through sin. This restoration entails the re-establishment of God’s mind, law, character, and nature in us. “‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people'” (Jeremiah 31:33). In other words, seeking God’s will is seeking our good and mature will, a will that we would understand if we were spiritually mature, and that we will fully understand when we return to the state of mature human beings. It is a will that we would accept and choose without hesitation if we, like God, knew the future from the beginning or if we perceived the whole picture of our present.
God’s will is our happiness
The Bible describes God’s will for us in terms such as righteousness, sanctification, love, perfection, obedience and so on, which bring about our good and protect us. The secret of attaining such a state is presented as being in communion with the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Godhead, whose role is to guide, empower and equip us to reach the stature of the mature people defined by God’s will. In other words, the person who is in deep and constant communion with the Holy Spirit bears fruit, or rather, the Spirit produces fruit, an effect, in the person. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness” (Galatians 5:22). God wants us to be happy. This is so natural and understandable, even when we refer to an earthly biological father, but even more so when we refer to the heavenly Father.
God does not need us to obey His will or even to worship Him; we do. If we were to identify any interests of God, it would be in us. It is through love that He seeks our best interests. Our good, through love, is His good. This miracle of love is within the reach of each one of us. In this sense, through the legitimation of love, He needs our good.
The fatherly Sovereign
If God takes upon Himself the prerogative of a father, how can He be less than the ideal of the earthly father? If a father lives for his child, devotes himself to the child and sacrifices himself for the child, the heavenly Father does so all the more. The Bible assures us by saying: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11) Wishing the best for their children, offering unconditional love, and doing selfless good deeds are typical of the human nature of parenthood, and human beings fallen into sin are only a poor copy of God’s parental image.
When He was with the disciples and observed their desire for dominance and power, Jesus Christ affirmed a principle of superiority: the principle of service. Greater is the one who wants to be least (Luke 9:48), and the strong is the one who helps the weak: “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
This primacy through service is offered as an example in Christ: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:3-8) God’s greatness is seen in love and sacrifice rather than in omnipotence. Like parents, the heavenly Father lives for His children.
The only religion where the god is the servant of the creature
Christianity is also unique in that it is the only religion in which the Creator God is the servant of the creature. The strong God lives for the weak human being. This love is carried through to the end, passing from life to death, and to life once more. Jesus loved us to the end. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)—an eternity offered and guaranteed by the fatherly Sovereign!