God’s sovereignty should never be seen as unilaterally determining or decreeing the evil actions or intentions of free agents (human or demonic) before the foundation of the world. Rather God’s sovereignty is best understood as exploiting the evil actions and intentions of free agents. The following is a good example of how this can break down. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 we read: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself!” A couple of critical points emerge from this text. Paul said a “thorn in the flesh” was “given” to him to keep him from falling into pride and conceit. He qualifies it as a “messenger of Satan.” Now the question that presents itself is, did Satan not want Paul to be conceited? No. Satan would have loved to have seen Paul become conceited. But his hatred of Paul had blinded him in seeing how his evil desire and intention to hurt Paul through a “thorn in the flesh” was being used and exploited by God to actually love Paul and keep him from pride.
Scholars differ on what exactly the “thorn in the flesh” refers to, but we can be assured it wasn’t some moral issue–as if Paul kept sleeping with prostitutes and couldn’t stop. Most scholars believe it was a physical ailment or irritation of persecution from antagonists, but a specific identification is largely irrelevant to the point I want to make, which is that God’s sovereign allowance for affliction to come to Paul was not evidence that God hated Paul, but loved Paul and did not want him to become disqualified by pride–which is no doubt what the devil wanted. So God gives, through a sovereign allowance, a “thorn” that the devil intended to use to hurt Paul because he hated Paul. But God will exploit the devil’s hatred and usurp it for his own purposes. Sovereignty by exploitation is a critical facet of God’s providential power and grace. When we choose to trust God during affliction, like Paul, rather than become embittered against God, like Cain, we release ourselves into God’s sovereign wisdom in allowing us to go through disappointment and hard times.
In part it is one way God can “cause all things to work together for the good to those that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Moreover this little snippet of a window into Paul’s life reveals that sometimes in allowing affliction God may not be giving what we want, but what he knows is best. The scriptures do indeed teach us that God “gives good gifts” to his children (Mt. 7:11), but we also discover that what is “good” in God’s sight may not always be to our personal liking or preference. Sometimes God gives, through his sovereign permission, “thorns,” not because he hates us, but rather because he loves us and knows what is best.* This does not mean every affliction of life can be so categorized, for indeed many afflictions and agonies in life are self-afflicted and stem from our own rebellion against God. But it is worth considering that some troubles and disappointment in life may be God’s means to preserve us and protect us, rather than torment us and oppress us. So the next time an irritation or an affliction comes your way, instead of immediately entrenching oneself in faith-quenching bitterness and resentment, first go before the Lord and ask, “Lord what does this mean? What must I do?” *I am indebted to my pastor, Craig Mclaughlin, for this insight.