Learning the truth about the sovereignty of God was another portion of theology that helped shave away a good portion of my Fundamentalist heterodoxy. I think most Fundamentalists would say that they believe God has control over everything, but everyday Fundamentalist practice usually belies that stated belief. For example, when I was in Fundamentalism, I was frequently taught that God needed my “complete surrender” in order to work – if I were not, He couldn’t use me. I was unable to make any major (or even minor) decision without agonizing over whether it was “God’s perfect will” or not - because if I made the wrong decision, God’s ability to use me was seriously in jeopardy. I had to be very careful about my standards and who I associated with or whose advice I listened to, because if I wasn’t vigilantly keeping myself from those “sins”, then I might not hear God’s voice. Subsequently, I would fall out of His will and protection with no way to regain it.
What a nutty system, eh? What a weak and wimpy being I thought God was. How powerful and in control I thought I was. I know. It’s shameful.
The truth is, God is much more powerful than I am. My decisions, even (especially?) bad ones, cannot frustrate His goals. His actions do not depend on my ability to soul-search, agonize, and confess every tiny thing – he overrules the decisions and actions of all, and accomplishes His will.
The latest correction to my theological compass with respect to this doctrine occurred recently when I was in a relatively minor car accident. Intellectually, I knew that this accident wasn’t a surprise to God, and that He was in control. My struggle, however, was guilt over the event. It was crushing, and frankly, I was nearly suicidal afterwards. Nobody died or was seriously injured – why was this guilt so intense? I finally realized that the cause was another vestige of my heterodox fundamentalist theology working its way out.
Let me explain.
I am normally a very safe driver. I am obsessive about not tailgating, about paying attention to the cars in front of me, and braking early. Yet I, the good driver, rear-ended someone. Me!! I, of course, felt so sorry for the person in front of me, but this guilt was overwhelmingly out of proportion to the relatively minor nature of the accident.
My difficulty was that I found it easy to believe that God is sovereign when I have little or no control over a catastrophic event. When a tornado or a flood or a hurricane comes through, it’s not your fault. It just is. But when an accident is your fault – where is God’s sovereignty and goodness then? And most of all, where is His forgiveness? How can he forgive me when it was something I caused? I found myself hung up on the fact that I didn’t deserve to be forgiven for this.
Wait a minute. What? What did I just say?
When is forgiveness *ever* deserved?
How weak I thought God was. How cheaply I was treating Christ’s atonement. I thought I could accept (and even deserve) God’s forgiveness for sins that resulted from my selfishness or pride or any number of other issues yet couldn’t accept His forgiveness for a brief moment of inattention that just happened to have significant consequences this particular time.
In Fundamentalism, since I was working so hard to not sin, when I did sin I was devastated and had difficulty accepting the forgiveness of God. Why? Because deep down, I really felt I deserved God’s love and forgiveness because I was working so hard. And when I failed, then my reason for getting God’s forgiveness and love failed also.
Yes, the accident was my fault. I was a distracted, inattentive driver, and it was wrong of me. I have been distracted and inattentive before without running into someone, however. That long line of cars is unusual at that intersection, especially on a Saturday. God’s sovereignty used my distraction to accomplish what was for me that day. I am responsible. But God is sovereign. And God forgives because it is His nature to do so and He has provided the means to do so. So when He opens my eyes to my sin and I cry out to Him, he freely applies atonement. He does all the work, and I can rest in that.
Outside of Fundamentalism, I am no longer worshipping my ability, I am worshipping God; only outside have I begun to hear teaching that spends more time on what God does than what I do. And the changes that come from learning correct theology are dramatic.