Some Christians are “Big God” people; others believe God’s a bit smaller and a little less powerful. “Smaller God” folks acknowledge, often with a hint of resignation, that sometimes things do happen that even God himself wishes hadn’t. “Big God” folks, however, claim—they sing!—with courage and trust, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
John Calvin ranks among Christian history’s biggest “Big God” thinkers. The same sovereign hand that once created the world, Calvin says, now guides and controls its every last detail. “To make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren. . . . [Thus] we see the presence of the divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as at its inception” (Institutes I.xvi.1).
In his Treatise Against the Libertines (1545), Calvin makes three bold claims:
- In his wisdom God has fashioned a plan to run the entire universe in its every detail.
- Though humans cannot understand that plan, we can learn to trust that through it God will secure both his own glory and also the welfare of those who put their trust in him.
- Providence is God’s work in history, the means God uses to accomplish his plan.
All that exists, therefore—Calvin insists upon the word all—never exists independent of its Creator. “Even if for a single moment [God] withdrew his supportive hand, the universe would collapse,” Calvin writes.
Pretty heady and bold stuff, to be sure. And, let’s be honest, for some devout and faithful Christians, it’s more than they can honestly affirm about God—to say nothing about placing trust in God. For Calvinists, however, the knowledge that God’s children are held fast by a big God, whose power over them is shaped by God’s love for them, provides patience when the winds of life blow in their faces, gratitude when those winds are at their backs, and confidence for uncertain tomorrows.
Great saints, by God’s grace, often embody great Christian truths. Their daily living exemplifies what their hearts and mouths affirm. As a pastor, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the difference that belief in a big God can make in people’s lives. I’ve seen people receive extraordinary strength to endure trying circumstances by relying daily—even hourly and by the minute—on a big God.
My mother was one of those saints. Paralyzed completely (except for her face) by a dread disease at age 26, she spent the rest of her life—nearly 40 years—lying on her back in an iron lung, which carried out her breathing. Her demeanor, however, was seemingly out of sync with her circumstances: She was life-affirming, peaceable, kind, and gentle in spirit. Never, never did she complain. To me she seemed to take the very breath of God into her paralyzed lungs.
My mom’s thoughts about what had happened to her? She once told me: “I would not have chosen this course for my life; but I believe I was chosen by God for it. So, Dale, I aim to be a defender of our Lord’s honor.” She added: “There are things far worse than not knowing why some things happen. One is not being able to be confident that God is in control of them.” She lived by these words:
Though God’s wise and loving purpose
Clearly now I may not see,
Yet I believe, by grace through faith,
All will work for good to me.
I’ve had a front-row seat to see how trust in a big God can shape the way people go at their lives. My mother and countless saints with her felt themselves not as victims of their circumstances but as victors over them. They knew—for sure—that God was not abandoning them to face their life’s circumstances alone.
That’s why I so much want my spiritual children to know in their minds and hearts that same big God in whom my Calvinist ancestors taught me to place my trust.
Why is a “big God” view comforting and encouraging rather than fatalistic and disheartening?
How can a “big God” view keep us from blaming God for all the sin, evil, and brokenness in this world?
If God is in control of everything and has everything planned, does that mean that what I do or don’t do is irrelevant?
Does a loving, all-powerful God ever want to see us suffer? Does God ever will us to suffer? Is there a difference?
Does God work grace and salvation through our bad decisions and actions or in spite of them?