Book Review: Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God

As I mentioned when I reviewed Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job by Layton Talbert, my husband and I have known Dr. Talbert for years, back before he was a PhD., before he was married….when he still had hair. 🙂 He was one of the adult Sunday School teachers at the church we attended when we were first married, and sitting under his teaching plus reading his columns in Frontline magazine, have caused me to trust his treatment of Scripture. But that trust did not come just from knowing him, but rather because of attitudes such as this:

The Holy Spirit is not capricious or careless in His use of words. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to handle the text of Scripture attentively and accurately. If we are to form a correct understanding of the facts of the story (and, consequently, to arrive at sound theological conclusions), it is vital that we carefully observe the details — and confine our conclusions to the information explicitly communicated by those details (p. 87).

And:

We are not at liberty to draw inferences that contradict other explicit statements of Scripture. And we must be tentative about defending apparently logical inferences that carry us beyond explicit statements of Scripture (p. 252).

Though he would not claim infallibility, nor would I claim it for him, Dr. Talbert’s detailed study and respect for the Word of God and carefulness and balance in teaching it makes his books trustworthy.

I first picked up Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God years ago mainly because it was his with the thought, “Yes, I should read that some time.” I believed in God’s sovereignty and providence and was often comforted by it, so I wasn’t quick to plunge into a book about it, even as much as I respected its author. But like I suspect is the case for many of us, it’s when something bad or seemingly incongruous happens to shake us up that we begin to wonder about God’s providence, not to question it per se, but to wonder how this or that fits into it.

Dr. Talbert begins by discussing what providence means and thoroughly examining Scripture concerning God’s providence over man, creation, weather, opportunities…and multitudes of other things. By the end there is no escaping the fact that God is in control. And while that’s a comfort on one hand, it’s a conundrum on the other: what about the bad things?

Dr. Talbert covers that well, too. Notice I didn’t say he explains it. There are some things about providence that we can’t understand or fully explain, just like we don’t thoroughly understand the Trinity, or the fact that Jesus is both fully God and fully man at the same time, and other mysteries. But he does shed as much light on it from Scripture as he can, and it does help. For instance, in dealing with a mistaken logical inference, he says:

We often assume that all good things come from God and all “bad” things come from Satan. That is a false and unbiblical assumption that gives Satan far too much credit and attributes to him far more power than he actually possesses. Contrary to popular misconception, Satan is not God’s evil counterpart, but Michael’s. Satan, like Michael, is “only” an angel; so he is an evil angel, not an evil God. Jehovah Himself claims that He is the only God and the ultimate ruler over all our circumstances, both the “good” and the “bad” (p. 12).

And here:

God guides and governs all events, including the free acts of men and their external circumstances, and directs all things to their appointed ends for His glory.

Notice that this definition does not say that God initiates or causes all events. If we are to maintain Biblical precision in our understanding and application of Scriptural truth, the terms we choose to state it are vital (p. 62).

And from a study of the life of Joseph:

God also providentially superintends and often uses the unfairnesses of life to accomplish His purposes in and for us and those around us (p. 66).

This is something many of us wrestle over:

Part of the mystery of providence resides in the fact that God rules and reigns over all things according to His will and pleasure (Ephesians 1:11), yet man is still fully responsible and accountable for his choices and actions. In other words, God exercises His providence and accomplishes His will through the free and voluntary choices and attitudes of men and women. Were this fact limited to God’s persuasive working in believers, that would be amazing enough. But it is equally true of the wicked. God never prompts evil men to sin, yet even their rebellion against Him and their hostility against His people is providentially governed and employed by God. (The clearest example of this…[is] found in the events surrounding the Crucifixion) (p. 86).

Sometimes pondering providence can lead us to think that it doesn’t matter what we do since God is in control anyway. But Dr. Talbert reminds us that God has assigned certain duties to us in Scripture and providentially works through them.

The providence of God is never intended to lull us into a lackadaisical attitude of fatalism, as if our actions don’t really matter because God rules and overrules however He wants anyway. It is revealed to maintain a glow of energizing trust that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God is governing for His glory and for my good — a trust that inspires me to stay faithful, obedient, loyal and devoted to Him, and confident in Him…God’s providence, then, encompasses and incorporates the faithfulness and obedience of His children (p. 70).

There are chapters on God’s preserving providence, governing providence, the mystery of providence, the means of providence, silent providence, the problems of providence, providence and prayer (why pray when God is in control? this is an excellent chapter) and case studies from Biblical characters illustrating the truths being taught. Plus there are chapters on God’s providence displayed in the incarnation and passion of Christ and the church. There is a wonderful section in the study of Joseph about why God sometimes allows delays and what He accomplishes through them. There are several appendices, one being the two sides salvation: God’s determination and man’s responsibility.

I marked over 60 quotes that especially stood out to me, so there’s no way I could share all of them here. But here are just a few more:

When we are willing to submit to and practice only what immediately makes sense to us, and ignore what doesn’t (even when it is clearly commanded), we have substituted ourselves — our finite mind — as the sovereign (p. 215).

[God] is the Maestro of providential orchestration, of split-second timing, of perfect point and counterpoint (p. 249).

We dare not construct a system of theology that helps the Holy Spirit by refining or redefining the words He selected or by interposing words He chose to omit so as to tweak out of it, ever so gently, a slightly modified meaning that better fits the system (p. 259)

One of the absolute best statements I’ve ever heard as to why God’s providence allows for hard or painful things was quoted from Steve Estes, in When God Weeps with Joni Eareckson Tada:

“God permits what He hates to achieve what He loves.”

In short (although I guess it is too late to say that, huh? 🙂 ) I do very highly recommend this book.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God

  1. Really excellent review. I think I need to read that book! I loved the quote about Joseph, and the one about exchanging our own will for God was truly profound. I think we can learn from that one. Thank you for taking the time to read, analyze, and share.

  2. All of the quotes you shared here make me want to dash out and buy this book to consume it! I, too, believe in the sovereignty of God and am comforted by it, but as you say – sometimes we just need some good teaching to bring us some clarity of thoughts.

    I especially liked this quote:

    When we are willing to submit to and practice only what immediately makes sense to us, and ignore what doesn’t (even when it is clearly commanded), we have substituted ourselves — our finite mind — as the sovereign (p. 215).

    Sounds like a great book!

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  6. Definitely adding this book to my list. I was hooked by the quote on page 12. I just finished reading Job and would like to do a study of it when I’ve finished Bible in 90 Days (right before Thanksgiving). Thanks for posting this review and your thoughts!

    Cassandra

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