In our home group this week one of the younger members asked the question: “Does God decide everything that is going to happen to us?” He had been wondering since a Christian friend had said that he didn’t need to worry about the future because God had it all planned out for him. The question isn’t a new one, but it certainly is important. Do we have real choices, is ‘free will’ a reality, or is everything already determined? This question isn’t just one for Christian theology, within which there is a rich tradition of debate about how divine sovereignty and human responsibility can coexist. It is also hotly debated in the realms of philosophy and neuroscience, with a significant number of neuroscientists suggesting that we live in a deterministic world – our actions are merely the result of chemical and electrical processes in our brains – and the majority of philosophers insisting that free will must exist. This debate isn’t far removed from questions about whether our personalities, physiology and lifestyles are predominantly decided by nature (our genes) or nurture (our environment and upbringing). On that question it seems fairly certain that the answer is both, although which is more influential in any given trait is less clear.
The implications of this debate are really quite profound. Who is ‘to blame’ for my actions – me or my genes? If it is me, am I really responsible if the ‘me’ that I am now is a result of my parents or others who shaped my formative years? But then if those others are only the product of their upbringing and genes, can they really be responsible? The trail of blame would seem to lead right back to the very beginning of our species, but that sounds faintly familiar… Original sin? Primeval ancestors taking the first fateful steps on a path that would scar all future generations of their kind? Perhaps Genesis has something to offer! When the debate is considered from a Christian perspective, of course, another possible culprit comes into the frame – God. If He created us this way and if He has decided everything that will happen, then isn’t He responsible for our actions? If so, is He responsible for our sins and isn’t it a bit unreasonable for Him to be so annoyed about them?
I have written elsewhere (see the note at the end of this post for a link) about the debate about determinism within neuroscience and philosophy, but here I want simply to consider it from the perspective of Scripture. I should issue a disclaimer – this is a huge issue and not one that I could hope to cover fully in this post or in a lifetime! The old-fashioned word for God’s sovereign oversight of His world and our lives is ‘providence’, which means literally ‘seeing in advance’. It’s closely related as a concept to ‘foreknowledge’. In the first post in this series I described how information ‘written’ by God is foundational to our lives biologically (in DNA) and morally (in the conscience). God wrote the plan for us in creation, but the Bible doesn’t leave it there. It’s not that God set the ball rolling and then stepped back to let the universe tick along under its own steam. The idea of God as the watchmaker who wound the cosmos up is a fallacy that developed in response to Enlightenment rationalism in early modern Europe. This deistic view is contradicted by the testimony of Scripture to a God who is actively involved in history and in the lives of people and who intervenes miraculously at key points, supremely through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God is providentially active in His world.
One of the most beautiful descriptions of God’s knowledge of a human life is found in Psalm 139. In the heart of this amazing poem are the following words (verse 16):
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
The psalmist is describing his absolute confidence that God knows him and that God’s knowledge of him predated his birth. As he was being formed in the womb, God already knew who he would be, what life he would live, the qualities he would have. This view has implications, of course, for our view of the unborn child – not only a potential person, but already a person known and loved by God. The whole psalm is a powerful testimony to God’s concern for each individual human being. As to whether it implies more than God knowing in advance what our lives would hold, we cannot answer on the basis of the psalm alone. To rest any doctrine on statements in the psalms, which are primarily songs about God written by human beings, is questionable, although we believe that God’s Spirit also guided the writers so that these psalms reveal truths from Him. In any case, the whole testimony of the Bible suggests that God is sovereign AND human beings have real choices. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense – God’s pain and anger at sin clearly reflects how he feels about choices he did not control. Moreover, there are clear statements that God does not cause people to sin (James 1:13). God allows us the freedom to make our own choice to obey or reject Him. This freedom is not unlimited – we are constrained by the influence of others (including the tempter, Satan), the physical laws of nature, the sinful nature within us and the limits God sets upon our lives – but we do have real choice that has real consequences.
How does this fit with God’s sovereignty and His providence? Again I cannot discuss fully here, and I have written more elsewhere (see the end note for details), but some points can be made. Firstly, to say that God foreknows or foresees everything we will do (and I am convinced, despite the claims of some who describe an ‘open view of God’ that the Bible says that He does), is not to say that he causes it. This can be hard for us to comprehend, since we do not have foresight, but it is logically true. Secondly, there are clearly some things too important for God to leave them to anyone’s choice but His own. The ultimate destiny of our world is entirely set by Him. We have the kind of freedom a passenger on a plane has – we can move around and choose what we do within the limits God has set, but we cannot change the destination, Thirdly, to say that God has given us some freedom to choose is not to deny His sovereignty. He has devolved this power to us, but it is a gift from Him. It did not have to be so. When we act as if we were our own king, our own god, we are deluding ourselves. We are like fleas in the vastness of God’s eternal purposes. Fourthly, we are meant to take comfort from the fact of God’s sovereignty and providence, not to be unsettled by it. We know that God is utterly good and that He works all things together for good of His people (Romans 8:28) and so we can confidence to face the future. Fifthly, however, we should be carefree (to worry is nonsensical for a Christian in light of God’s tender care – see Matthew 6:25-34), but not careless. We have an amazing opportunity to serve God and walk in loving obedience to Him. He invites us to be part of His great plan, to cooperate willingly with Him in working out His purpose.
This is where the mystery of prayer (why pray when God knows what is going to happen?) makes sense – we pray because by doing so we enter into God’s purpose and become involved with Him in a deeper way. We are watchful and thankful as we seek His leading into future service for Him within His great mission (Colossians 4:2). We trust in Him each moment as we walk into the straight paths He has laid for us (Proverbs 3:5-6). Finally, we know that we can never fall below God’s ability to restore us. He holds us secure – we are inseparable from His love – and even where we falter and wander from His straight paths, He is willing to forgive and to set our feet back on solid ground. With Him, failure is never final.