The man we know as St. Patrick was born around 389 AD in England. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest.
The Roman Empire was still in titular control of Britain, but their demoralized armies were unable to protect the island from Irish invaders. Farms were pillaged and teenagers enslaved. Patrick was taken at age sixteen. An Irish farmer bought him as a slave and put him to work tending sheep.
Somehow Patrick came to personal faith in Christ in the midst of his tribulations. He later wrote, “The Lord opened to me a sense of my unbelief, that I might be converted with all my heart unto the Lord.”
Patrick received a vision from God when he was twenty-two, a clear signal to run from Ireland for his home. Risking his life, he was able to evade his captors and return to his family. But his heart was heavy for the spiritual condition of his Irish captors.
Following another vision, Patrick devoted himself for seven years to Bible study, then he returned to Ireland as a missionary. The Irish were almost completely without Christ, worshiping the elements and spirits in trees and stones and engaging in magic and even human sacrifice.
Patrick got to work.
When his career was done, he had established some two hundred churches in Ireland and led more than one hundred thousand people to faith in Christ, despite more than a dozen attempts on his life. He is today the patron saint of Ireland. His death on March 17, 461 is remembered each year as St. Patrick’s Day.
However, there’s even more to his story.
In the following century, Irish Christians who were spiritual descendants of St. Patrick’s ministry sailed back to Britain, where they evangelized the heathen who had overrun the country. They established monasteries and copied books being destroyed elsewhere.
According to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, these men “single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent.”
You could make the argument that St. Patrick deserves to be on anyone’s top-ten list of all-time most influential Christians. But you’d have a hard time getting Patrick to agree.
In his Confessions, Patrick wrote, “I am greatly a debtor to God, who has bestowed his grace so largely upon me, that multitudes were born again to God through me. The Irish, who had never had the knowledge of God and worshiped only idols and unclean things, have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called sons of God.”
He closed his memoirs by explaining the secret to his history-changing ministry: “Do you judge, and let it be most firmly believed, that it was the gift of God. And this is my Confession, before I shall die.”
The Irish and luck
Oddly, the word luck is not Irish in origin.
The term is Middle Dutch in origin, a shortening of gheluc, meaning “happiness” or “good fortune.” It was probably introduced to the English language in the fifteenth century as a gambling term.
“Luck of the Irish” was first associated with Irish miners working in America during the gold and silver rush years of the nineteenth century. However, Irish folklore is famous for its legends with regard to good and bad fortune:
- If you break a looking glass, you will have seven years’ bad luck.
- If the first person you see at a fair is a red-haired woman, you should turn back or you’ll have bad luck that day.
- If you hear ringing in your right ear, you are hearing souls in Purgatory calling for your prayers.
- If you spill salt on the table, you will have a fight.
- If you see a tea leaf floating on top of your tea, you will get a letter.
- If your nose itches, it’s a sign that someone is speaking ill of you.
- If the palm of your hand itches, money is coming to you.
- If you find a horseshoe, spit on it and throw it over your head and you will have good luck.
I am not recommending any of these practices (if you plan to try the last, let the rest of us know so we won’t walk behind you).
Studies indicate that luck does play a significant role in success for some. For example, about half of the differences in income worldwide can be explained by a person’s country of residence and by the income distribution within that country. People with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names. And females in legal careers who have masculine-sounding names are more successful.
What does the Bible say about luck?
The word luck does not appear in Scripture. We do read that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
However, what appears to be “chance” operates under the sovereignty of Almighty God. Solomon noted, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33). The psalmist agreed: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
It has been noted that coincidence is when God prefers to remain anonymous. We find his anonymous sovereignty, for example, throughout the book of Esther. The book nowhere names God, but his providence directs every step, from the dethroning of Queen Vashti to the elevation of Esther and the deliverance of the Jewish people arranged by Mordecai.
We can cite similar examples across God’s word. Jesus taught that God is sovereign over even the sparrows of the sky and the hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:29–31). He rules kings (Proverbs 21:1) and nations (Psalm 47:8).
Everything is determined by God
The implications of divine sovereignty have occupied theologians for centuries. (Note: what follows is a brief summary of a very complex discussion intended for non-specialists in this field. For more, see my Wrestling with God: How Can I Love a God I’m Not Sure I Trust?)
The person most associated with this doctrine is John Calvin (1509–64), whose Institutes of the Christian Religion are still foundational to Reform theology in its various formations. The famous “five points of Calvinism,” as later detailed by the Synod of Dort (1618–19) are typically viewed as summarizing Calvinist theology:
- Total depravity: the fall of Adam and Eve affected every part of our lives, including our minds and our wills.
- Unconditional divine election: we can do nothing to earn our salvation.
- Limited atonement: Christ died only for those “elected” or chosen by God for salvation.
- Irresistible grace: the “elect” will always accept the grace of God.
- Perseverance of the saints: those who receive salvation can never lose it.
Many who accept these five points argue that God cannot be defeated if he is God. Thus, all those he chooses for salvation must be saved. Calvinists add that if God is sovereign over time, he must know what choice we are going to make with regard to salvation.
Some respond that it’s not fair for God to choose some to go to heaven and the rest to go to hell. Calvinists reply that if God were fair, no one could be in heaven since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). No one deserves to go to heaven; salvation is God’s gift of grace.
Critics reply that while no one deserves heaven, it is unfair for some to be chosen unless all are chosen. One could claim that no one deserves a vaccine for COVID-19, but it is unfair for only some to receive it.
Our choices are our own
By contrast, the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) believed that God made us to worship him, but worship requires a choice. Those who make this choice retain their freedom, which means they can later choose against God. You can choose to be friends with someone and later choose not to be, or choose to read this paper and later change your mind.
This approach accepts “unconditional divine election,” the idea that we don’t deserve for God to forgive our sins and give us salvation. However, it rejects or modifies the other positions stated above.
John Wesley and his followers were greatly influenced by Arminian theology and helped popularize it through their Methodist movement.
What does the Bible say?
Paul stated that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18). The apostle was referring to Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” during Jewish slavery in Egypt.
Exodus quotes God as saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:3–4). Later we read that “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land” (Exodus 11:10).
However, Exodus also reports that “when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them” (Exodus 8:15; see v. 32).
So, did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, or was he responsible for his own sin? Both positions seem to be taught by the text.
Again quoting Exodus, Paul reminds us that God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). He asks, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (v. 21; cf. Ephesians 1:4–6).
At the same time, Paul assured Timothy that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Peter agreed: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
So which is it?
Does God choose only some to be saved, or does he want everyone to be in heaven with him?
The biblical answer seems to be yes.
Antinomies and strawberry ice cream
We are dealing with an apparent contradiction, what logicians call an “antinomy.” If two statements are both true, we must accept them both, even if they appear to contradict each other. It’s actually hard to find a fundamental biblical doctrine which doesn’t qualify. Is God three or one? Was Jesus fully divine or fully human? Is the Bible divinely inspired or humanly written?
It’s possible to ask a question for which there is no answer, what philosophers call a “category mistake.” How much does the color red weigh? What color is the number seven? Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it, or two mountains without a valley in the middle, or a square circle?
There is a way to resolve this dilemma somewhat. The passages which seem to support Calvinistic irresistible grace at least indicate that God knows what we are going to choose before we choose it. He knew how the clay would turn out and who would accept his Son. But knowing is not the same thing as determining. My wife knows that every time we go to an ice cream parlor I’ll get strawberry. She thinks it’s a boring way to live, while I see it as one less problem to solve. The fact that she knows my choice doesn’t mean she makes it.
I know the analogy breaks down—I might order cherry just to confuse her. But it doesn’t break down with God. He created time and transcends it. If time is a line on a page, God is the page. He’s not “looking into” tomorrow so much as he’s already there. You and I are caught in the space-time continuum, but he’s not. He sees tomorrow better than we can see today.
But this doesn’t mean that he’s already chosen what I’ll do when it arrives. I can watch you read these words, but that doesn’t mean I made you read them. Seeing and choosing are not the same. God can see the sermon I’ll preach next Easter, but I still have to write it.
However, we still haven’t solved our problem. If God’s omniscience means that he saw 9/11 before it happened, that’s one thing. If his sovereignty means that he caused it, since nothing can happen outside of his will, that’s something else entirely.
God is so sovereign he can choose not to be
Here’s how I understand God’s sovereignty in relation to our free will: God has chosen to give us freedom so we will choose to worship him. But he knows that freedom isn’t free if it’s determined. So he has chosen to limit himself at the point of our free will.
This decision is in no sense a depreciation of his sovereignty since he made it himself. In my years as a pastor, my pastoral authority was not lessened by my decision not to exercise it over every decision our church made. If our deacons told me I could not choose the hymns we would sing next Sunday, that would be one thing. If I decided of my own volition to allow our worship pastor to make that decision, that’s something else.
And so we can understand the issue of sovereignty and freedom as it relates to choices we make. God wants us all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) and salvation (1 Timothy 2:4), but not all choose to accept his love. He chooses to honor the free will he has given us so that we can make this decision in complete freedom.
But what about events which occur without human choice? Hurricanes and earthquakes are obviously not chosen by those they victimize. We can say that natural disasters are the result of Adam’s sin, and we’d be right (Romans 8:22). But they are not the result of your sin and mine. Has God also limited himself regarding the consequences of Adam’s free choice to sin? In other words, has he decided to honor Adam’s freedom by allowing the natural disasters and diseases which it still causes?
If so, why does he sometimes intervene when they occur? He clearly manipulated nature at the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, and his Son’s resurrection from the dead. Jesus healed blind eyes and diseased bodies. According to James, he still does (James 5:13–16).
In addition, he clearly caused the Flood to devastate the human population and the Red Sea to collapse on the Egyptian armies. He causes the plagues and destruction recorded in the book of Revelation.
When is suffering an expression of divine judgment?
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, one of the most frequent questions I was asked focused on whether this disease was God’s judgment on the world. As we have seen, God does sometimes bring judgment against sin. Other suffering is clearly not the result of sin (see the sufferings of Job and of Jesus).
How do we know which is which?
Whenever God causes natural calamity or personal disease in the Bible, he explains why. He brought about the Flood because of the rampant sinfulness of humanity and gave Noah a century to warn the people before the rains came (cf. Genesis 5:32; 7:6). He initiated the plagues of the Exodus in response to Pharaoh’s sin and to show his people their God’s miraculous power over the mightiest nation on earth.
He sent Joshua to destroy the Canaanites not only to give his people a land but also in response to the wicked sins of those who inhabited it (cf. Genesis 15:16). He raised up oppressors to persecute his people when their sins demanded such justice (cf. Judges 2:10–15).
He brought about the demise of the houses of Eli and Saul because of their sins against him (1 Samuel 2:30–36; 13:13–14). Each time, they were warned before judgment fell. His people were captured by Assyria and Babylon, but not before his prophets had predicted such doom if they did not repent.
A good father does not punish his children without explaining why. When my sons were teenagers, I would not take their car keys from them and expect them to figure things out on their own. Jesus taught us, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). So we can assume that our Father would not initiate physical death or pain to punish his children without telling us so.
But what of suffering caused by God for the sake of spiritual growth? God required Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, not because God wanted the boy to die but because he wanted Abraham to trust him unconditionally (Genesis 22). God required his priests to step into the flooded Jordan River so he could show them the results of complete trust in his word and will (Joshua 3).
However, it seems again in Scripture that God does not initiate such tests without making clear his intention. He can use anything which happens for our spiritual good (Romans 8:28). But when he intentionally causes suffering for such a purpose, it seems that he notifies those who are to grow as a result.
So, we can know that suffering is initiated by God as punishment for sin or impetus for spiritual growth, but only when he says so. He will not allow us to plead ignorance before him on Judgment Day. If we were to repent or grow as a result of something he caused in our lives, we’ll know it.
Every time I’ve experienced conviction and even punishment for sin, the reasons for my suffering were very clear to me. Those times when it seemed obvious that God led me into difficult circumstances for the sake of spiritual growth, I knew what was happening. When I spent a college summer serving as a missionary in East Malaysia, I encountered the loneliest days of my entire life. But I knew going in that it would be so and that my Father wanted me to learn to depend more fully on him.
In the case of my father’s death, God gave me no word then or since that this tragedy was the result of my father’s sins or anyone else’s. Nor did he indicate that he had caused this death for the sake of our spiritual growth. Our family has most definitely experienced such growth as a result of his death, in ways too personal to describe here. But our Father has never caused us to know that he initiated this tragedy for that reason.
So I’m left to conclude that God permits natural suffering and death, but only causes it when he tells us so. And that he redeems all he allows, for his greatest glory and our greatest good.
Let’s close by making this paper personal. Why do you need to trust God’s sovereignty today? What about your circumstances makes such faith difficult?
For many years after my father’s death in 1979, I said that losing him at such a young age was the greatest pain of my life. Then our oldest son was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. Watching him go through surgery and radiation was more difficult than I can express in words. I would have changed places with him without a moment’s hesitation.
Imagine a world in which I could choose for my son to endure such suffering so that you would not have to suffer. I could even send him to be executed so that you could live.
If I were to permit my son’s death for your sake, would you ever need to wonder if I love you?
The next time you see a cross, hear your Father asking the same question of you.