is God in Control?

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Today I received an email which contained this request:

“Our youth have asked me to email you for your thoughts on an area of discussion we somehow wandered into last Wednesday at the young peoples group.  We began discussing Jesus the Son of Man and using Mark 14:53-64 .  We went off at a tangent, always fun when planning goes out of the window.  We engaged in discussion developing from – did the Sanhedrin and High Priest have a choice to condemn Jesus to death or was God in control?  I’m sure you’ve guessed where the discussion then went – pre-determination and free will.  It was a highly engaging discussion, bringing in even the quietest members of the group.  Both sides of the argument we aired, people finding Bible passages to support their thought – they left very excited about the discussion and some continued the discussion in MacDonalds!!  I shared my understanding and they were keen to ask others for their thoughts too.  They requested that I ask you (and some others).  If you are able to email your thoughts I will share them this week, but fully understand if you are currently busy juggling.”

So, I thought I would write something here about that and then they could use it, but it might also be useful to others.

As you know, loads has already been written on this subject so this will not be a major theological thesis but just a few illustrations, pertinent thoughts and key ideas. I hope you find them interesting.

The main subjects will be:

  • a discussion of whether and in what way the Bible says that God is “in control”. Whether that is predeterminism or not? If not, then …
  • to what degree are humans responsible for their actions and how come God seems to know what they will do before they do it.
  • I will then flag up a few bits of the Bible that have been translated with determinism (ie: the belief that God makes us do what we eventually do) as a bias and explain how I think they could be translated better. Then I’ll explore …
  • what types of things the Bible says God praises (or criticises) in humans and whether they should be described as choices, acts of free will or whether it is a bit more complex than that.

So here goes!

In control?

Imagine a football match. One team is a bit ropey but the player manager is amazing. He has started the match playing and during the first half scored 6 goals. In the second half he continues his brilliance and scores 4 more. It is now 10 minutes before the end of the match and he has just substituted himself off the field of play. Even though the eleven players on the field for his side are not as good as the opposing team I think you’ll agree that he can be pretty sure that his side is in control of the final outcome of the game. He is neither manipulating the players on the opposing side nor is he predetermining like puppets those on his side, but his actions have been enough for the win to be secure. In this context he can watch how his players perform, consider if they are worth picking for future games and prepare his pep talks for the future, while remaining “in control” of this game.

Imagine a chess match. You are playing a friend. But you are also on the phone to my friend Andy. Andy is a brilliant chess player. He doesn’t need to see the board. He doesn’t need to be in the room. Just tell him where your opponent moved; he’ll tell you where to move; you’ll win! Well, almost certainly. He can predict what his opponent will do and then adjust to what he actually does. As long as you do what he says, you’ll win. From the moment you decide (choose) that you will trust (believe in) Andy you are in control of the game.

There’s only one problem. Andy is not controlling you. He is not controlling your opponent. So you could say he is not in control. If you don’t do what Andy commands (suggests?) then all the benefits of Andy’s expertise and advice will no longer work for you. Trust him. You win. Stop trusting him and think you know better. Then the outcome is far from certain.

Imagine you start doing well, doing what Andy says, beginning to see his strategy work out. He can see your future and it is good. But then you decide you know better and throw in a couple of moves without taking Andy’s advice. What happens then? Firstly, Andy is likely to be a bit frustrated with you. He might say, “Why didn’t you believe in me?” You may still win. You may not. The way to maximise that possibility is to go back to trusting Andy. You never know, he may have a way to get you out of the mess you have got into.

So, those are just illustrations. They both have the same problem: real life is very much not a game! Real life is devastating when you don’t go with God’s plan – both for you and for those who will be influenced by your decisions.

The question for you is do these illustrations tell us the truth about the way God is, the way people are and the way God works in this world and in our lives? Is this way of thinking in line with the Bible’s revelation of God, us, the world and history?

Many of us Christian have been told we need to believe that God has orchestrated, predetermined and is in control of every detail of our lives, every outcome and in every action of those forces in the world that are working against his purposes too. This teaching is often summed up by saying that we should believe in “the sovereignty of God”.

So, just to be clear: I believe that Jesus/God is the King/Sovereign of the whole universe and all of time and space. I believe he is very great, very powerful and has remarkable forces which will respond directly to his command. I believe he created all things and all things hold together by his word. BUT… I do not believe he does or instigates evil, rebellion or any of the terrible suffering and darkness that the forces of evil and rebellion have caused in this creation. I believe these evil things are against God, are working against God and out to destroy all the good that God wants to see exist and happen. I believe God is trying, thinking, planning and working in the world and in/through our lives to stop that destruction and to reverse its effects. I believe the Bible teaches that reversing these effects is not easy. It is not possible by simply doing something powerful – like destroy the destroyers. It may seem like a good idea but, even for God, two wrongs do not make a right.

 

The Basis of True Christian thinking?

At one point in history the philosophers of Europe came up with what they considered to be some logical definitions of what God must be like. They said for God to be God he had to be:

  1. All powerful – omnipotent
  2. All seeing and knowing – omniscient
  3. Be everywhere, equally all the time – omnipresent

Because of the influence of these philosophers those who were studying the Bible (theologians) started to try to interpret the text to fit the definition. The logic being that if God in the Bible did not fit the definition of the philosophers then the God in the Bible could not be God.

A few theologians realised the flaw in the argument. The problem is that the God in the Bible does not fit the definition very well and yet he still is God. He also tells us that although nobody has seen God, when he became Jesus he made himself known. Jesus was wholly God. Wholly God wholly being a human being. And to be be truly human he had to let go of all three of those definitions for a season. And, even while he was truly and completely human he remained truly and completely God. So… the philosophers must be wrong.

Jesus is the centre of all of this. Look at the way he lived. He did not pursue coercive power – neither political coercive power nor supernatural coercive power. In order to express the way gets tings to work his way he does not become a dictator, controller or magician. He does not force people to do what he wants, because if he had he would not have got what he wanted. Love! Love cannot be forced on another being. If it tried, it is no longer love. So Jesus does not make people obey him, he asks them to. He does not destroy those who disagree or do not get him, he is patient and goes on trying to persuade and explain and demonstrate. The consequence of this is that the forces against Jesus (of human ignorance/pride and the world and devil?) do not do what Jesus wants resulting in even more terrible destruction and even Jesus’ own death. And even then, after he has risen from the dead, he does not lose his temper and just crush all those who have acted against him.

What’s more  even the LORD in the Old Testament does not seem to act as if everything is going his way, everybody is doing what he wants or that he is happy about everything that is going down. He seems to need to work subversively, getting people to believe in him, getting a plan in motion to rescue the human race and the earth itself from forces that are his enemies.

Some theologians who realised that the philosophers’ definitions and the revelation of Scripture and Jesus could not be synced came up with a simple statement that summed it all up. They said, “We do not believe in the God of the philosophers. We believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

By this they are not saying that God is not ultimately powerful, ultimately knowledgeable or ultimately present. They are simply saying that what we know about God is limited to what he has revealed of himself. He has done this through creation (Romans 1v20), through all that is recorded in the Bible (2 Timothy 3v16) and through the life and Spirit of Jesus (John 1v18 & John 14v26). To whatever degree the philosophers agree with this revelation they should be trusted. But if what God says and does in Scripture gives the impression there is a flaw in the philosophers’ ideas then they need to get new ideas rather than start trying to fit God into their boxes.

 

But what about?

At this point you are probably thinking of bits of the Bible that don’t quite fit, in your thinking, with what I have written so far.

You may be right. That is why so many words have been written on this subject over the years. But I want to suggest that part of the reason why the Bible’s we read in English seem to reflect the philosophers’ ideas is that those translating the Bible into English were very influenced by those ideas and wanted the text to fit. And when it didn’t, they changed it!

For example:

  1. Many times in the Old Testament you will read “the LORD God Almighty” or “The LORD Almighty”. Whenever you read those words you need to know that the original Hebrew would better be translated “The LORD of hosts”. Hosts means armies. The translators wanted us to get that the LORD was all powerful – in line with the philosophers’ ideas. Being the God of armies did not quite do that. After all, if you have an army or even many armies (either physical or spiritual armies), that does not stop there being an army or two against you. You may be very powerful and have power to defeat the armies against you. But you are not controlling the armies against you.
  2. The Bible describes God as predicting the future. Some would say that that presupposes that the future is therefore set and cannot be changed – the subject of multiple scifi TV series and films! But predicting the future does not presuppose you make it happen the way you describe it. A good chess player can predict the next moves of their opponent and the result of the game, but that does not force their opponent to do as they have been predicted. Even if God is viewing the future from outside time (aaagh!) that does not make those things happen. What’s more, in the Bible, those who do terrible things that have been predicted (eg: Judas Iscariot) are clearly regarded by God has responsible for their own actions (Matthew 26v24) and that would not be just if they had been made to do them.
  3. In Ephesians 1 (and elsewhere) Paul appears to use the word “predestined” about those who are “in Christ”. But this word does not mean predetermined to be in Christ. The Greek word has not exact English word but could be expressed as “pre-horizoned”. In other words those who get into Christ (“by Grace through faith”) have a horizon that is now set. This is the equivalent of getting on a cruise ship (or in a bus… or train … or whatever). Assuming you stay on the ship (or bus or train or whatever…) your horizon (destination) is already set in advance. This says nothing of the route you will take to get there. It says nothing of whether you will do well or badly. It saying nothing of who will be coming with you. It simply says that if you are in Christ you will eventually reach the final destination “in Christ” that all Christians will reach.
  4. Then there is the word “foreknew” (Romans 8v28 & 11v2). Some say this proves God knows who he will choose and knows who he will not choose to forgive and make become a Christian. But the words do not say that. They simply say those who God knew before he also gave a horizon before to be conformed to the image of his son. So those he knew before would believe (because he can predict the future or see the future – as described in b above) he has given a way to be put “in Christ”, and those “in Christ” can be certain that will be transform to be like Christ. At no point is there any necessity to understand that as predetermination.
  5. Chosen & Elected. These words turn up over and over again in Scripture and have been used by those committed to the idea that we either are predetermined to be or predetermined to not be Christians. I have studied every one and I think every one refers to being chosen for a particular role in life or in some form of Christian ministry – eg: Jesus chose the 12 to be apostles. At no point does Scripture (in the original text … although some translations give a different impression) say that some are chosen to be forgiven and other chosen for destruction. … but there are quite a few of these texts so you will either have to study that yourselves or take my word for it!

I think that is enough of examining specific texts for now as this is getting long. If you want to go into this in more detail I recommend Roger Forster’s book – God’s Strategy in Human History.

 

And Finally – is whether we become a Christian and experience salvation then just down to our own choice?

The reason I think I need to write about this is that so many take about “free will” or “choice” as the opposite of predetermination. In fact there is far more to human responsibility, autonomy,  freedom, liberty, love and faith than mere choice. In fact, the amount we can choose is very limited. We cannot choose our parents, date of birth, original colour of our hair or eyes, height, colour of skin, original culture…. and so many other things. We cannot choose to not have been born. We cannot choose to be able to leap 100 ms into the air. We cannot choose to not be mortal. In fact, the degree to which we can make choices, whether directional or moral, is so tiny in comparison to the vastness of creation, that it is amazing how important it is to us emotionally. It is also reasonable to say that when we do have the ability or opportunity to make choices we find it very stressful and often make bad ones. This may be because many choices are hard to make because it is almost impossible to gather and hold all the relevant data needed to make an informed choice. We are so aware of this ourselves that most of us avoid making choices that are rational and make most decisions based on “our gut”.

This being the case it would be unjust of God to hold us responsible (and “responsible” is the key word for whether we should be praised or condemned) for those things we choose or fail to choose. The real question is to ask each of us how good is our “gut”. When the rubber meets the road and you have to resort to trusting or not trusting God, what do you do?

When Abraham was in those situations the Bible says he “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4v3). This is the description of the faith that pleases God enough for God to treat the person as good (Hebrews 11v6).

Faith. Trust. These things are not a mere choice. These are not products of free will. They are far more fundamental to the human psyche.

To not trust God is a flaw in a human being. It is a major problem. It is bigger than not being able to trust your parents.

I don’t mean not believing God exists. That is a simple failure in logic. No, I mean to meet God, and then to fail to trust him.

For some of us who have become so trained in not trusting God, to the point where we have even convinced ourselves he doesn’t exist… then I appeal to you to use your choosing muscles. Choose to look again. Choose to turn. Use your free will. Examine the facts. Saturate in what he has done, what he is like, what the human race knows of him. Inform yourself. You can choose to do that.

Having done that, trusting him should become easy. Trusting him should become a gut reaction. Trusting him will not be something you have to do. It will become who you are.

 

(Please forgive any typos. I am still editing this. Let me know in a comment if you spot a glaring error. This is a work in progress. I’m also thinking about adding some pictures. If you have suggestions for what pictures to use to illustrate this stuff then let me know. Thanks 🙂 )

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