Abigail Dodds

Suffering Under an All-Powerful Love

As I sat atop my lofted dorm-room bed and turned the page from Romans 8 to Romans 9 in my small, tattered Bible, I went from a chapter familiar enough to be easily skimmed to a chapter that I had no recollection of ever reading before.

Both chapters emphasized the sovereignty of God — his sovereign love and his sovereign power. At 19 years old, I had not thought much about God’s sovereignty. I believed what I’d been taught as a child — that God was in control, that he knew every hair on my head, that he had the whole world in his hands. But I also believed that salvation was a choice I had made — that God chose me because he knew I’d someday choose him.

When I entered college, however, the issue became inescapable. My college campus swirled with discussions about whether God elected people to salvation and whether he could know the future at all. Even my theology class was getting ready to host a debate between an Open Theist (someone who believes God doesn’t fully know the future until it happens) and a Calvinist (someone who believes God knows and ordains the future, including who will believe and be saved).

It was only by chance that I had been reading Romans 8–9 the night before this debate. Or was it?

God in Control

That night, my beliefs began to change. I read of God’s relationship with his chosen people:

Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)

Could it possibly be true that this foreknowing, predestining God didn’t know the future? It could not.

Or was it conceivable that the God who said, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” was merely looking ahead in the future to see who would and wouldn’t choose him (Romans 9:16)? It was not. And furthermore, God declared that he was working all things together for the good of those he’d called (Romans 8:28). Could God work all things together for good if all things were not genuinely under his control?

My 19-year-old heart began to swell with joy and relief. This God was not back on his heels, trying to figure out what to do, nor was he waiting for me to figure him out. He was bringing his good plans to pass. He called me, he saved me, and he would keep me in every circumstance.

Does God’s Goodness Miscarry?

My understanding of God’s sovereign grace grew as my knowledge of God’s word grew. And I loved his sovereignty — in theory at least. I loved that my God was so powerful and big and in charge. When I saw others go through difficult circumstances, I sympathized with them, but I also had a settled sense that God had a plan born from his love. It wasn’t until I was up against my own difficult circumstance that the thought flashed in my mind: perhaps God was working something not good in my life.

As a young wife and mom, I never considered the possibility of miscarrying. So when it happened, I was shocked that my own womb could become a place of death. All I knew of God flooded my mind, almost as a reproach.

As I faced the loss of our little one, I wasn’t tempted to doubt his power but his love. I knew he could have kept our baby alive, so why didn’t he? Yet Romans 8 was there to keep me grounded, reminding me that not even death could separate us from his love. Paul’s words were an anchor:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

As the years rolled on, God’s sovereignty over all things was the buoy that kept me afloat in every season. I was learning to trust God’s love as he carried us through job loss, babies received and one lost, moves, and new ministry. Yet it was the birth of our youngest son that brought the deepest challenge to my trust in God’s power and plans.

With our son’s arrival, we faced uncertainty regarding his future, a future that, in the best case, would involve disability and health difficulties. During the chronic trials that ensued, including our son’s sleep disorder, seizures, and eating difficulties that involved years of almost daily vomit, a different sort of temptation occasionally crept in — the thought that God might love us, but he maybe couldn’t help us. Night after night after night, year after year after year, we would pray for relief. But relief didn’t come.

Different Sort of Power

I was looking for God’s power to come in the form of physical relief from our trials. I was tired and worn. I wanted to be free of the difficulties of nighttime G-tube feedings and regular vomit clean-up. If God answered those prayers, I reasoned, that would be a sign of his power. Yet which is more difficult: to change someone’s circumstances from hard to easy, or to change the person in the circumstances from floundering to flourishing despite it all?

Would God have shown more of his sovereign power if he had put down all his enemies once and for all, preventing the cross and the resurrection? Or is God’s power more greatly displayed through his planning from before time to crush his Son, defeat sin, and then raise his Son from the dead, so that he could make his enemies his friends? Any tyrant with a large army can squelch his enemies, but only our gracious and powerful God turns enemies into sons through the folly of the cross and the empty tomb.

As Paul testifies, God often manifests his power through our weaknesses. It was Paul’s thorn in the flesh that occasioned God’s sovereign power resting upon him:

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

“The sovereign power of God rests on his people, not to remove their thorns, but to teach them of a stronger power.”

In a world where almost everyone seems obsessed with power — whether they have it, how they can get it — God’s word shows us the deeper power: the power of his Spirit.

God’s power is ours when we entrust ourselves to him amid weakness. We need not demand power from the world. We need not seek position or platform. The sovereign power of God rests on his people, not to remove their thorns, but to teach them of a stronger power — the power of God that contents us with trials, so long as we have Christ’s Spirit.

No Trite Slogan

All those years ago as a college sophomore, Romans 8 and 9 showed me the sovereign love and sovereign power of God.

In Romans 9, I met a God to whom back talk was not permitted:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:19–20)

In Romans 8, that same fearfully powerful God was also utterly committed to my good in all things, so much so, that his Spirit intercedes for me as he works on my behalf (Romans 8:26–28).

Some believe that Romans 8:28 is a trite way to comfort the afflicted — that it shuts up the grief of the hurting, as though telling a suffering saint that God is working their hardship for good makes a mockery of the pain. As we are imperfect people, we should consider that possibility. But for me, no truth is as precious.

“God is good. God is strong. Not one thing happens to us apart from his perfect plan.”

Knowing that God is working all things for my good has been the dearest and deepest comfort, even, and especially, in the darkest of seasons. God is working all things for my good when our son is in the hospital (again), or when my husband is dealing with chronic pain (still), or when betrayal and slander touch my life or the lives of those I love. It’s a reality that keeps my heart whole even as it’s breaking, and my mind clear even in the fog of confusion.

He is good. He is strong. Not one thing happens to us apart from his perfect plan. God’s sovereign love and power mean that we can trust him — now and forever.

More Than Mom Can Bear

When God pushes us past our limits with circumstances that have us sprinting and gasping, it is his grace to us. He’s driving us toward his goodness. He’s pressing us beyond ourselves to new vistas of himself. He’s moving us away from the things that would really harm us by putting distance between us and our old enemies — the world, our flesh, and the devil.

And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out.
The old cliché “God will never give you more than you can handle” has taunted me over the years. I can remember several times in life when it has seemed evident that God was giving more than I could handle.
Would anyone claim the ability to handle the sudden, near-death experience of their son due to life-threatening seizures? What about loved ones walking away from God? Disability? Chronic pain? You likely have much worse trials to add to my list. We endure these circumstances because we have no choice, even as we endeavor to walk through them trusting that God is for us in Christ.
Still, as I was lying facedown on the bathroom floor, drenched in a sweaty fainting spell while paramedics worked on my seizing son in the next room, I certainly didn’t feel like I had been given a situation that was within my ability to handle.
A Lion and Our Limits
“Gallop, Bree, gallop. Remember you’re a war-horse” (The Horse and His Boy, 270). Aravis, a young princess escaping the evils of her country, Calormen, urged the talking horse named Bree to run as fast as he could away from the enemies that pursued them. C.S. Lewis tells us this story in A Horse and His Boy, one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. Bree and his friend Hwin appear, by their own reckoning, to be running all-out. “And certainly both Horses were doing, if not all they could, all they thought they could; which,” as Lewis tells us, “is not quite the same thing.”
This desperate sprint across the countryside by two talking horses — and the unlikely boy and girl on their backs — would quickly reach a peak of terror none of them could have anticipated. For not only were they chased by a terrible army of Calormene soldiers, but a much nearer and more dangerous enemy roared at their backs: a great lion.
“And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out” (271). This simple scene in the midst of a children’s story profoundly changed my perspective in three ways over the past decade and beyond: (1) it has changed how I understand my “limits” in the midst of difficulty, (2) it has reminded me of Who it is that bears down on me in those difficult times, and (3) it has helped me glimpse the goodness of God in how much he chooses to bear down on us.
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More Than Mom Can Bear: How to Love Beyond Our Limits

And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out.

The old cliché “God will never give you more than you can handle” has taunted me over the years. I can remember several times in life when it has seemed evident that God was giving more than I could handle.

Would anyone claim the ability to handle the sudden, near-death experience of their son due to life-threatening seizures? What about loved ones walking away from God? Disability? Chronic pain? You likely have much worse trials to add to my list. We endure these circumstances because we have no choice, even as we endeavor to walk through them trusting that God is for us in Christ.

Still, as I was lying facedown on the bathroom floor, drenched in a sweaty fainting spell while paramedics worked on my seizing son in the next room, I certainly didn’t feel like I had been given a situation that was within my ability to handle.

A Lion and Our Limits

“Gallop, Bree, gallop. Remember you’re a war-horse” (The Horse and His Boy, 270). Aravis, a young princess escaping the evils of her country, Calormen, urged the talking horse named Bree to run as fast as he could away from the enemies that pursued them. C.S. Lewis tells us this story in A Horse and His Boy, one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. Bree and his friend Hwin appear, by their own reckoning, to be running all-out. “And certainly both Horses were doing, if not all they could, all they thought they could; which,” as Lewis tells us, “is not quite the same thing.”

This desperate sprint across the countryside by two talking horses — and the unlikely boy and girl on their backs — would quickly reach a peak of terror none of them could have anticipated. For not only were they chased by a terrible army of Calormene soldiers, but a much nearer and more dangerous enemy roared at their backs: a great lion.

“And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out” (271). This simple scene in the midst of a children’s story profoundly changed my perspective in three ways over the past decade and beyond: (1) it has changed how I understand my “limits” in the midst of difficulty, (2) it has reminded me of Who it is that bears down on me in those difficult times, and (3) it has helped me glimpse the goodness of God in how much he chooses to bear down on us.

Applying on the Bathroom Floor

I suppose there is some irony that while Bree found new speed with the Great Lion Aslan at his back, my story involves barely moving at all, having blacked out during a moment when I desperately wanted to be present for my son’s crisis. How is the horrible physiological response to stress (blacking out) in any way parallel to Bree finding a new gear with the Lion at his back?

“When you’re under the pressure of the Great Lion, never, ever let yourself forget: all his paths are steadfast love.”

Well, as unlikely as it sounds, I found my own new gear, facedown on the floor. As I lay there, I cried out to God, asking him to save my son, while I was forced to find a new gear of trust in my Lord. I wasn’t there to watch over my son every second, but God was. I couldn’t make the seizure stop, but God could. I wouldn’t go with him if he died, but God would be there. I, like Bree, found that I had not been trusting as much — not quite as much — as I could. I had not been enduring as much — not quite as much — as I could. There was new speed to discover with the Great Lion in pursuit.

Have you learned this yet? That what you consider your limits aren’t your limits? That you don’t actually know what your limits are because you aren’t the Maker and Sustainer?

Beyond My Limits

We think we’ve given our all, we think the reserves are gone, but actually, we have never had our limits truly tested. When my mind says, I can’t do that; it’s beyond my limits — I can’t endure that loss, I can’t live with that trial, I can’t face that outcome — God is perfectly capable of applying the kind of pressure that will prove me wrong.

Paul tells the Corinthians,

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)

You see, the new gear that we find in the midst of hardship is not a testament to our strong constitution. It is a Spirit-empowered gear that blows faith and hope into the hearts of those who are burdened beyond their own strength. It is a testament to his strength at work in us, even when we are weak and sweaty on the bathroom floor.

Paths of Steadfast Love

God often shows us, then, that we most certainly can do what we think we can’t (by relying on him). And as counterintuitive as it sounds, he doesn’t get us there merely by encouragement or through positive thinking or by pouring on the affirmation, but, as with Bree, by bearing down and increasing the trial that drives us to him.

“When God pushes us past our limits, it is his grace to us. He’s driving us toward his goodness.”

You see, as Bree quickened his pace beyond what he thought he could, the Great Lion was increasing the distance between them and the true enemies that were coming after them. Aslan did terrify them, but for the sake of their own safety and well-being in the end. We can trust that even if we, like Paul, feel we have received the sentence of death, God is subjecting us only to what is right and good in the end, and not a drop more or less. He really does work all things together for the good of those who love him — and in so doing, conforms us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:28–29).

When God pushes us past our limits with circumstances that have us sprinting and gasping, it is his grace to us. He’s driving us toward his goodness. He’s pressing us beyond ourselves to new vistas of himself. He’s moving us away from the things that would really harm us by putting distance between us and our old enemies — the world, our flesh, and the devil.

And when you’re under the pressure of the Great Lion, never, ever let yourself forget: all his paths are steadfast love (Psalm 25:10). You can trust him, even facedown on the bathroom floor.

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