Sovereign Sabotage: The Life of J.C. Ryle

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J.C. Ryle was a champion of God’s grace, encouraging steadfast obedience in an unholy age embattled with theological deterioration. To this end, Ryle pursued unity within an extremely diverse, theologically-segregated body.[1] Murray records him saying of this venture, “I go into a nest of hornets and shall stand alone.”[2] Ryle’s teachings and testimony give an everlasting encouragement to stand solely on the Word of God, regardless of the rejection and mockery that often follows from rival and mutual denominational streams. He was a man bent on God’s will, and it all began with God’s “sovereign sabotage.”

This “sovereign sabotage”—when the Divine interrupts the plans of human hearts, thus sending them down a different path; a path of His choosing, a path for His own glory—is perfectly exemplified in the story of J.C. Ryle. Without the Lord’s provision and intervention, Ryle would never have been able to fight as diligently or pen such enduring works. Ryle was from wealthy family, and invested years of his early adulthood into academia, preparing to pursue the business he would inevitably inherit from his father. This was the designated path for his life from birth. Yet wealth would not prevail, and in one night, all his expectations and plans would come to nothing. Without warning, his father’s businesses, the family mansion, possessions, and future security were all lost. Ryle himself said of that fateful day, “We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that same evening completely and entirely ruined.”[3]

He later reflected:

“I never had any particular desire to become a clergyman, and those that fancied my self-will, and natural taste were gratified by it, were totally and entirely mistaken. I became a clergyman because I felt shut up to it, and saw no other course of life open to me… I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered, and I had never been ruined, my life of course would have been a very different one…and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul.”[4] 

Cornered by this holy ruin, Ryle was left with no other alternative than to follow the will of God. Without this crucible of God’s pride-breaking measures, Ryle would have never graced the Church with what became an enduring legacy, wholly surrendered to the Lord. 

We are told in Proverbs 16, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the Lord directs his steps.” Ryle expressed the humiliation and grieving soul-affliction that followed the loss of wealth and future ambitions. He later wrote to his children, saying, “Submission to God’s will is perfectly compatible with intense and keen suffering under the chastisements of that will.”[5] Because circumstances left him with few alternatives, Ryle’s story is not the heroic surrender of wealth and power. It is instead the story of God interrupting a life bent upon its own will, thus learning through trials and affliction to put God’s will above all else. 

While the idea of this “sovereign sabotage” can seem to be a radical concept, biblical testimony conveys it more as normalcy, rather than anomaly. Sovereign sabotage has been an instrumental tool of the Lord throughout biblical history. By His will, families are uprooted: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”[6] The Lord sets young Joseph up through dreams to incite jealousy, leading to his eventual slavery. No dream from God, no jealousy of his brothers, no enslavement, no promotion, no preparation to save thousands of lives during the great famine.[7] Sovereign sabotage left the descendants of Abraham in Egypt for 430 years, held captive in slavery, for the purpose of revealing the glory of God.[8] The Lord chooses David, the youngest of several well-abled brothers. Had there been no divine disruption of the destiny of this sheep herder, there would have been no King David.[9] Sovereign sabotage sends the genealogical line of Jesus through Rahab the prostitute;[10] sovereign sabotage calls fisherman and tax-collectors as disciples;[11] sovereign sabotage interferes with the rise of a young zealous Pharisee named, Saul of Tarsus. Had not his young man had a divine encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, half the New Testament would not exist.[12] Without Stephen’s martyrdom, there would have been no mass persecution, and therefore no immediate spreading of the Gospel into the surrounding regions.[13] Had there been no violent persecution and exile of John to Patmos, there would be no book of Revelation. Had there been no death on the cross, there could be no resurrection of Christ, no salvation for the world. 

Too many this day and age have embraced a doctrine which associates blessing, safety, and happiness as a sign of being in God’s will. Too often hardship, failure, and suffering are seen as signs of disobedience. The pattern of scripture and the testimony of J.C. Ryle suggest otherwise. Ryle was utterly ruined, yet eternally secure. Ryle’s life, work, and heart was a response toward God’s sovereign agenda which sabotages even good dreams and desires of the hearts of humankind. In an age which idolizes personal calling and purpose, the idea of sovereign sabotage encourages the twenty-first century Church to embrace God’s direction rather than their own. Sovereign sabotage calls the heart of the Church to stand firm, confident, and happy with God’s perfect leadership. Sovereign sabotage ruins worldly dreams and ambitions, and agonizing pain often occurs. However, one can turn to and agree with Paul’s powerful anthem, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”[14]


Britton Gail and his family serve in a Muslim-majority country, living to give a witness of Jesus to the unreached and unengaged. He is a contributing writer to FAI Publishing, endeavoring to encourage those with access to the Gospel to share their treasure with those who don’t.


[1] Murray, Ian H. J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016. Print. p. 162.
[2] ibid. p.126
[3] ibid. p. 66    
[4] ibid. pp. 56, 57
[5] ibid. pp. 56, 57
[6] Genesis 12:1
[7] Genesis 37, 39-47
[8] Exodus 12:40
[9] 1 Samuel 16:1-13
[10] Matthew 1:1-18
[11] Matthew 4:18-22; Mk. 1:16-20; Lk. 1:5-11, Jn. 1:35-51
[12] Acts 9
[13] Acts 7:1-8:1-7
[14] Romans 8:18