How Free Are We Really?
Feb 3, 2010 1328
Shane Smith writes: I have many evangelical friends, especially in the charismatic arena, who are foremost in promulgating the idea that God is constantly ‘twiddling the knobs’ in some celestial control room, managing every circumstance of our lives so that we do not need to make any decisions. They say that ‘God has a plan for our lives’, and that he ‘opens this door’ for them, and ‘closes that door’. I object strongly to the idea that God controls every aspect of our lives, rather than giving us the freedom to make our own decisions within the principles outlined in his word. I would like to see an article on this subject because I see it as a huge issue in the modern Church.
The question is: Are we robots or free agents, or somewhere in between? If God controls every circumstance of our lives, if he is always at work opening the right doors and closing the wrong doors for us, why do some committed Christians have so many problems? If God has a plan for our lives, why is it that some dedicated Christians can’t get work, and why have some Christians lost their retirement savings in investments that have gone bad? If God has the right partner for us in marriage, why do so many Christian marriages go wrong?
There are Christians whose children have been taken from them by accident or disease, and Christians who have been so overwhelmed by negative circumstances in their lives that they have sunk into depression. There are Christian parents who are traumatised by the discovery that their son is homosexual, and Christian girls and women who have been brutally raped. Can we honestly say that God is the author of all these things?
On the other hand, there are people like Moses and Joseph whose negative experiences worked for their good. It appears that God had his hand over the events of their lives. And the story of Esther and Mordecai seems to vindicate the belief that God works on behalf of his people, even from the shadows.
THE WITNESS OF JESUS
What can we learn from the witness of Jesus in his thirty-three years on Earth? Jesus’ life—from his exile in Egypt to his scourging and crucifixion in Jerusalem—must be regarded as part of God’s plan, simply because Jesus was ‘God with us’. Even so, there appears to be occasions when Jesus did not have full control over events in his life. For example, on one occasion Jesus invited his tired disciples to come with him to a solitary place where they could get some rest (Mark 6:31-32). But that journey across the lake took them to one of the busiest events they would ever experience (Mark 6:33-44).
Was it God’s will that they get some rest? Yes, it was. Was it God’s will that they minister grace to ten thousand people instead? Yes, it was. So there was a conflict of wills here? No, there was no conflict; both needs were important, but there was a hierarchy of needs and they had to be catered for in the order of their importance. Or perhaps the disciples’ experience of feeding the great multitude was, itself, refreshing to them.
Throughout his life Jesus walked only in the will of his Father, and did nothing without his Father’s approval (John 5:19, 30). Does this mean that Jesus’ life was rigidly regimented? What if his earthly ‘father’, Joseph, had been an olive grower rather than a carpenter? Would Jesus still have been a carpenter? I think not. Working with living trees might have been an even better occupation than working with dead ones.
Did Jesus have a personal choice about the food he ate, the clothing he wore and the house he lived in at Capernaum? I would think so. There would have been many areas in his life where he had the freedom to choose either this or that good thing.
ADAM’S FREEDOM TO CHOOSE
To understand the freedom of choice given to mankind by the Lord, we need to go back to the archetype, Adam. What choices did God give him? What was his will for him?
The Scriptures say, ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”’
So what was right for Adam, and what was wrong for him? It was wrong for him to eat from the forbidden tree (Gen. 2:17). He was given the choice to eat from that tree, otherwise it would not have been growing in Paradise, but it was a choice that conflicted with God’s will because that choice would ultimately rob Adam of the freedom to choose. God, however, did give Adam the freedom to choose to eat from any other tree in the garden.
God told Adam that he was ‘free to eat from any [other] tree in the garden.’ So Adam could choose whether he ate mangos, or oranges, or apples, or plums or peaches, etc. Adam did not have to check to see if it was God’s will before he ate an apricot or pear because God had granted him that freedom; it was God’s will. It was not God’s will, however, that he eat from the forbidden tree. So, within the constraints of God’s will, Adam was given the freedom of making his own choices.
Is the same true today? Is a man free, within the constraints of God’s will, to choose his own vocation, his own life’s partner, his place of residence, and how many children he might have? Why, for example, should anyone be limited to a single vocation? Most people today have several different vocations in their lifetime. I started life working on a dairy farm. I then became an engineer, and then a missionary, and then a church pastor, and finally an editor. I felt that each one was God’s will, because each fell within the boundaries of God’s will. However, it would not have been God’s will for me to be employed within the gambling, tobacco, alcohol or recreational drug industries. For me any of these would have been a forbidden tree.
Having the freedom to choose a vocation or a life’s partner doesn’t obviate the need to seek God’s guidance in these matters. I have the freedom to choose, but before committing myself to that choice I seek God’s will to ensure that my choice does not result in me treading underfoot the principles in God’s word. In other words, guided by God’s Spirit I make my choice, then check that I have God’s blessing on that choice.
FATHER AND CHILD
Raising children gives an insight as to how God might work with his children. As our children grew up so their freedom to choose also increased. It was important to us to guide them in their choices until they were mature enough to make all their choices for themselves. For example, in their early years we would take them to a clothing shop and choose a wide selection of clothing from which they could make their own choice. Some items of clothing were, as you might suspect, not included in that collection. I expect that is how God works with us.
But should I see my child heading into unperceived danger—as Ruth did at two years of age when she untied a canoe and climbed in as it was swept away from the bank in a fast flowing river—I will take unilateral action to save her. I suspect that is what God has done for me several times over the years.
GOD USES EVEN OUR BAD CHOICES
As I have grown in understanding, I have come to believe that our personal choices fit into God’s plan anyway—even when our choices are not the best choices we could have made. Consider, for example, the story of Esther. She won the King’s favour in a questionable contest (Est. 2:13-17) and married that Gentile without disclosing that she was a Jewess (Est. 2:10). We can hardly accuse God of opening those two doors for Esther. Yet, in spite of Esther’s choices, God still used her to protect the people who would be the progenitors of the Messiah.
If God used only our righteous choices in fulfilling his will, very little would ever get done. God’s plan will be fulfilled even if he has to work with hay, straw and stubble, rather than with gold, silver and precious stones. In spite of the fact that Jesus loved Judas right up to the end, Judas, of his own free volition, turned against his Lord. But Judas’s bad choice did not upset God’s plan for Jesus; instead it became part of that plan.
We have the freedom to choose our own way, but even the wrath of man will be made to praise God in the end. How much more satisfying would it be in the end if we were rewarded for our good choices, rather than see that God accomplished his will, even though our choices were the choices of Judas?
Perhaps you have another view on this subject. If you do, please send it to me in an email addressed to: [email protected]