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God's Restraining Hand

Hand of God

by Dennis Pollock

One of the most difficult Biblical concepts has to do with God’s taking the credit for disasters, calamities, and tragedies. We would prefer that He didn't. We would like to neatly divide all that occurs on earth into two categories: the good and the bad. The negative stuff we will attribute to the devil and the positive to God. Thus all sickness, tornadoes, birth defects, wars, accidental deaths, floods, famines, and poverty are strictly the devil's domain. God has nothing to do with them whatsoever. But every case of wealth, prosperity, health, good luck, long life, success, fame, skill, and so forth are straight from God, and the devil has nothing to do with these.

All of this seems right and indeed there are Scriptures that appear to support it, but the problem is with all those other Scriptures that show us that things are not quite so simple. Isaiah writes, "I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isaiah 45:6,7). Jeremiah, as he is surveying the terrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, laments, "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed?" (Lamentations 3:38).

The doctrine that all negative things come from the devil, with God having no part in the matter, is contradicted by such a plethora of Scriptures it is a wonder that any preacher or Christian could utter it, if they read the Bible at all. God continually takes credit for things for which we would never want to assign Him any responsibility. After King Saul offended God by his repeated disobedience, God finally rejected him. Saul began to be troubled by an evil spirit which would come and go and produce misery and even murderous rages. So far so good. Most of us can accept that. Saul got what he asked for; he opened himself to the devil and an evil spirit came in. The problem with this story is in the way the Bible describes this evil spirit. We read in 1 Samuel, "Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house…" (1 Samuel 18:10). An evil spirit from God? What's up with that?

Hardening Hearts

And then we have the business of God hardening Pharaoh's heart. Preachers have gone to great lengths to either avoid the subject altogether or else to exert themselves in great linguistic gyrations to try and prove the Bible surely doesn't mean what it clearly says. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. If you go through the entire Bible keeping a pen and a notepad at your side, and jotting down every such reference to God taking the credit for things we think He shouldn't, you will fill up your notepad and use up all the ink in your pen!

In Deuteronomy 28 God gives Israel some pretty strong motivation for doing the right and avoiding the wrong. In the first fourteen verses He promises all sorts of amazing blessings they will experience if they obey His commandments in the promised land. He then spends the next fifty-four verses going into graphic detail about all the miseries that He will bring on them if they walk  in disobedience. God Himself takes the credit for these miseries. Again and again He direly threatens them, starting each threat with the words, "The Lord will…" One example of this is found in verse 22 where we read, "The Lord will strike you with consumption, with fever, with inflammation, with severe burning fever, with the sword, with scorching, and with mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish" (Deuteronomy 28:22).

Some have gamely tried to suggest that all this means is that the Israelites would walk out of God's protective covering by their disobedience and end up with these things – God has nothing to do with it. But that is not how the verses read. Every translation you put your hands on will say nearly the same thing: "The Lord will strike you…" (or smite you or afflict you, depending on your version). To suggest that God has nothing to do with any of this is to go too far!

What about the Devil?

Although these things are indisputable, they still leave us with a need for further explanation. Did not Jesus say that Satan was the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy? And what about Peter declaring that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit to go around and heal all those oppressed by the devil? If every good gift comes from God above, doesn't it follow that all the bad things come from another source, the great enemy of our souls?

The answer to this dilemma is found in Paul's second epistle to the Thessalonians, where he describes the coming of the antichrist in the last days. Paul speaks of this mysterious and sinister character as coming "according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders" (2 Thessalonians 2:9). But just after that he amazingly attributes this man's appearance on the earth to God, saying, "God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thessalonians 2:11). How can the antichrist be "according to the working of Satan" and yet be sent from God?

The key has to do with God's ability to restrain and loose. In the same chapter we read, "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way" (2 Thessalonians 2:6-8). God sends the antichrist not by filling him with the Holy Spirit, not by whispering directions in his ears to go out and deceive and murder, but simply by ceasing to restrain that force that has been pressing for release since the days of the early church.

Dog on a Leash

dog on leash

Let's imagine I am walking a snarling, vicious dog down the street. The dog is so fierce he would be a danger to everyone we meet, except for the fact that I am holding him by an iron chain. He lunges at everyone we pass, but I refuse to allow him the freedom to harm. Finally I see a burglar breaking into Mrs. Brown's house. The dog snarls at the man, not because he is a burglar or because the dog wants to protect Mrs. Brown's property, but simply because he is so vicious he hates everybody and will attack anyone and everyone that he can. In this case I decide to release the chain and let the dog do what he wants. The dog tears into the burglar and bites him all over, putting him in the hospital. When I decide the man has had enough I grab the dog and put the chain leash back on him (I am tougher than the dog in this illustration!)

While in the hospital the hapless burglar is visited by one of his burglar friends, who asks him, "Who did this to you?" He retorts, "Dennis did it!" Is he right or wrong? Well, technically I didn't do it  at all. I didn't sink my teeth into the man's legs or arms. But in another sense he is not wrong. I am responsible. By ceasing to retrain the dog, I made sure the man ended up in the hospital. In the same manner God will sometimes lift His restraining hand and bring about things we would consider very negative. This explains why the Bible can call King Saul's evil spirit an "evil spirit from God." The demon wasn't in God's employ; he wasn't hanging around heaven and waiting for a job. God lifted His normal restraints that keep men and women from being demon possessed, and Saul fell under the sway of this evil spirit.

This also explains how God could have hardened Pharaoh's heart. This was not the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no hardening anointing God gives men and women. Consider a loaf of bread. How can you turn the bread from soft and pliant into hardened and entirely inedible? You could use some form of liquid hardener. Inject the hardener all through the bread with a hypodermic needle and wait an hour. The job will be done. But there is another, simpler way to harden bread. You can take it out of its wrapper and do… nothing! That's right, nothing. Once out of its protective plastic, the bread will harden of itself with no outside agent needed. There was no need for God to do anything special to Pharaoh to harden his heart, other than to simply cease to employ His natural protective, restraining grace that keeps all men from becoming spiritually hardened. When God's restraining hand lifted, when His heart-softening grace was withdrawn, Pharaoh's heart quickly hardened and all his natural stubbornness and arrogance did the rest.

Another example of God lifting His restraining hand is found in Romans, where Paul writes, "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting" (Romans 1:28). The ungodly people being described didn't want to think about God; they were determined to live immorally. They tugged and tugged at the leash of God's restraining grace in their lives until at last He gave them over. Their conscience was hardened and they found they could now live wicked lives without any guilt whatsoever. They had been given up.

Upheld by Christ

The opposite of being given up is to be kept, preserved, and upheld. Jude begins his epistle: "To those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ" (Jude 1:1). And he concludes it with this marvelous benediction: "Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy…" (Jude 1:24).

God's restraining hand is our friend! The best protection we have in this world is the restraining hand of God, manifest through the Holy Spirit. Every day of our lives we are exposed to germs, viruses, and parasites that have the potential to destroy us. Our wise Creator has given us a marvelous immune system that detects these enemies and goes after them with a vengeance! They no sooner invade our bodies than the immune system triggers a speedy response through white blood cells and other disease-fighting agents that neutralize the danger and bring everything under control. While we go through our day doing our work, joking with friends, and enjoying nice meals, all of this is going on behind the scenes and giving us another day of good health.

Divine Immunity

Wouldn't it be nice is there were a spiritual immune system to protect God's children from the snares of the evil one? The good new is – there is! Life is a dangerous business. We are all dodging bullets continually. And sooner or later, apart from the shield of the grace of Jesus Christ, we will be fatally hit. We will collapse, we will fall, we will fail. But God is the great Upholder of all who trust in Him. In Isaiah God tells Israel, "Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand" (Isaiah 41:10). In Job we read: "If He should set His heart on it, if He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust" (Job 34:14,15). It is God who upholds us and keeps us from collapse, not only physically, but spiritually, morally, emotionally, and in every other way

God's spiritual immune system is working every day, by the Holy Spirit, to preserve and keep us from the evil one. The only thing between you and disaster is the grace of God. And this restraining grace is reserved exclusively for those who are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. All God's preserving grace has been placed in His Son Jesus. It is Jesus who is the Keeper of our souls – we are not able to keep ourselves. We are not strong enough, we are not wise enough, we are not clever enough. But Jesus is enough. The Psalms declare, "He that dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty" (Psalm 91:1). Jesus is that secret place!

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