Lamentations 3:37 of the New Living Translation reads: “Can anything happen without the Lord’s permission?“1 As a starter, I want to point out that “permission” is different than direction. In a very real sense, “permission” simply means that something is allowed but not necessarily commanded. In other words, to say that nothing happens without God’s permission is, at a minimum, a statement that nothing happens without God’s awareness. This also suggests a potentially inferable consent for if an adverse event were completely intolerable or anathema to God’s plan then one could believe that God would intervene.
One strong argument for this position is the Old Testament story of Job’s trial and suffering.
One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. “Where have you come from?” the Lord asked Satan. Satan answered the Lord, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.” Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.” Satan replied to the Lord, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!” “All right, you may test him,” the Lord said to Satan. “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence. (Job 1:6-12 NLT2)
The point to observe here is that God does not inflict Job’s trial and suffering upon him. But God does ‘permit’ the trial and suffering to take place. Some refer to this as God’s keeping Satan on a (slack) leash. This cycle repeats once more:
One day the members of the heavenly court came again to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. “Where have you come from?” the Lord asked Satan. Satan answered the Lord, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.” Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil. And he has maintained his integrity, even though you urged me to harm him without cause.” Satan replied to the Lord, “Skin for skin! A man will give up everything he has to save his life. But reach out and take away his health, and he will surely curse you to your face!” “All right, do with him as you please,” the Lord said to Satan. “But spare his life.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence, and he struck Job with terrible boils from head to foot. Job scraped his skin with a piece of broken pottery as he sat among the ashes. His wife said to him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong. (Job 2:1-10 NLT2)
Though God later chastises Job for attributing his trial and suffering directly to God, Job’s words establish that God remains sovereign even in the midst of calamity. In other words, Job attributed his trial and suffering to God because Job knew that no entity was more powerful than God and therefore that no entity would have had the power to act against Job had God not permitted it. Stated another way, God could have decreed that nothing calamitous was to befall Job and no entity would have been able to cause calamity to befall Job. So at a minimum, Job assents that at some level, God was aware his calamities and abstained from intervening.
In the New Testament we find Jesus himself echo this sentiment saying that “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above” (John 19:11 NLT2). Later still, Paul the Apostle wrote that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom 8:28 NLT2). So even when calamity befalls a follower of God, God is not unaware of the events and sovereignly reserves the authority to contain, to cure, and to compensate the calamity.
Now it would be easy to (mis)construe these words as an argument for predestination, which they are not intended to be. Throughout Job’s ordeal, he retained his free will. Job could have rebelled against God or remained submitted to God. Job could have committed suicide or blasphemy. God neither compelled nor contrived Job’s responses. If that were not so then it would not have been a ‘test’ of Job’s character but rather proof of God’s ability to act as puppeteer. But here again, these words could be (mis)construed as an argument that God ‘tests’ humans when it is not, nor is it an argument that God does not ‘test’ humans. That is another issue altogether and one, perhaps, for a later post.
1 As appearing in the 1996 edition; the 2004 “NLT2” edition reads slightly differently.