The Sovereignty of God in Wartime

Abraham Lincoln is not known for being a great theologian, but he is known for his intelligence and wisdom. So I quote him here because he comes as close as anyone I’ve read on what it means to say that God is sovereign when the world is in conflict:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same things at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.

Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan  after the Battle of Antietam, 1862 (Wikimedia)

Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam, October 1862

I am almost ready to say this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it should not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Abraham Lincoln (ca. September 1862)

These words must have grated on those in both North and South who were convinced that God was on their side, and who thought that to say otherwise was not only treason but blasphemy.

Ancient Turmoil

It’s something like what Jeremiah the prophet faced two and a half centuries earlier. He’d told the people of Jerusalem that God was going to punish them for their wickedness, and they didn’t believe him because in comparison to some of the nations around them the Israelites were spotless in their righteousness.

Then Jeremiah went a step further. He said God would punish them at the hands of one of the most wicked nations known, the Babylonian Empire. This was too much for King Jehoiakim to take; he ordered his advisors to arrest Jeremiah for treason.

The Israelites soon learned that Jeremiah spoke truly. Babylon conquered Judah and took control of Jerusalem, and Jehoiakim never survived the siege.

The Wars Within

God’s sovereignty in conflict achieves purposes we don’t understand. Yet the conflicts come because people make bad decisions. Even Christians are susceptible to this.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. (James 4:1-2.)

God is sovereign over our struggles and fights, but he is not the cause of them. We are. His purposes will ultimately prevail but people can find themselves in quite a battle along the way, battles of their own making.

There is an answer, though, and like all true answers it is found in Jesus.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5.)

Branches don’t produce fruit; that’s the vine’s job. But branches do bear fruit as long as they abide in the vine. This is where we find freedom from quarrels based on our own selfish desires that battle within us. We are free from such battles as we abide in Jesus, resting in the one who produces abundant fruit for us to bear.

This fruit is not just nourishment for our souls, but is all that Jesus promises: nourishment, riches, everlasting life, the power of the kingdom of God. When you desire and bear such fruit, there is no battle within.

The will of God and the sovereignty of his purposes is then not a conflict for us to endure but a blessing for us to enjoy.

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12 Responses to The Sovereignty of God in Wartime

  1. Laura Droege says:

    So what do we do about the inner battles that aren’t based upon selfish desires? I’m referring to the inner battles that might be the result of mental illness? It certainly feels like a battle to deal with depression or mania or a mixed episode, and it can be bewildering to know that God is sovereign over bipolar disorder (or any other chronic disease) and yet still allows it to affect my mind and body. Add to that the confusion of trying to figure out what role my response to the disease plays within the actual disease: am I inadvertently (or deliberately) selfishly desiring mental wholeness–making me self-reliant and not God-reliant–and this is the actual cause of the inner battle, and not the chemical illness at all?

    (If you have a headache from reading this, I’m sorry! I’m thinking on paper, and sometimes that’s a bit dangerous. . . .)

    • Tim says:

      I think James was talking about a certain type of inner struggle, one that reflects what Paul went into in detail in Romans 7. We also struggle against illness, which is very different from what James was getting at. God’s sovereignty over illness would be a whole ‘nother post – or book for that matter.

      As for struggling through and against illness, I can’t see that as being an issue of selfishness. C.S. Lewis pointed out that we abhor death because it’s unnatural, as in it was not part of the initial created order. I think the same goes for illness of any kind, and it’s right and proper to abhor and struggle against illness wherever it’s found, whether in our limbs or in our brains.

      • Laura Droege says:

        Thanks for clarifying, Tim. God’s sovereignty over the BP baffles me, and it’s hard for me to grasp the “why” of depression when it doesn’t match how Christians are supposed to be, or at least how many people interpret the Scriptures commanding us to have joy, etc. How do we have joy in the middle of depression or mania?!

  2. Jeannie says:

    I love those thoughts from Lincoln: God could have accomplished His purposes without human participation, yet chose somehow to use people, even in conflict, to do that. There’s so much mystery that we must just accept — or at least accept that we can’t fully understand it now, or maybe ever.

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    I thought you would go here:
    “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side;
    my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,
    for God is always right.

    Abraham Lincoln

  4. This is so good, Tim. Thanks for sharing Lincoln’s quote. I had never heard it before and it is so on point. It speaks to my struggle with saying or even trying to understand a “just war.” The reality is that there is most likely some right and much wrong on both sides of any conflict. This piece also made me think of the angel of the Lord coming to speak with Joshua. When Joshua asked, “Whose side are you on?” The angel responded, “Neither. I’m commander of the Lord’s army.” That is a humble reminder to us about the sovereignty of God. God is on his own side. He defends his own causes. Human contest is only right when we stand with him. Thanks for writing and sharing. Blessings

    • Tim says:

      Every time I read that passage in Joshua I’m struck once again by the difference between what we think is right and what is truly right because it is of God. As you said, “The reality is that there is most likely some right and much wrong on both sides of any conflict.” That is good wisdom for me to keep in mind, Natasha.

  5. I think “thus saith the Lord” stmts should be questioned. I just don’t think God brought the Babylonians to Judah to punish them. I think empires do what empires do, and the conquered ones are left to interpret their fortunes in light of their most deeply held beliefs.

    • Tim says:

      It really comes down to a question of causes, coincidences and rationalizations, and how to read the Bible. If Jeremiah is wrong in this prophecy, then he’s not a true prophet at all (Dt. 18:22) and not worth listening to as a prophet at all.

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