I. God’s sovereignty, man’s free will
Three Sundays ago, we studied the miracle of Jesus’ walking on water. According to Mark, Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed (6:48-51).
Mark wrote that Jesus “was about to pass by” his disciples, which seems to imply that Jesus did not intend to get into the boat with them — that he only did it in response to their fear. I wondered if the disciples’ terrified outcry really made Jesus change his plans. I wondered if people could change God’s mind.
Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.
“I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please.’
From the east I summon a bird of prey;
from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose.
What I have said, that I will bring about;
what I have planned, that I will do.”
It appears that the answer is no, we can’t change God’s mind. From the beginning of time, God has known that His divine purpose would stand to the end and would ultimately be fulfilled. His purpose is unchangeable (Hebrews 6:17). He Himself is unchangeable (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17). He does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29). So what do we make of Biblical accounts that seem to show people changing God’s mind (e.g., Jonah 3:10)? Some would explain that whatever comes to pass, that is exactly what God had intended to pass, even though it may appear to us that something we did has changed His mind.
One follow-up question to that is: If God’s plan prevails regardless of what we do or say, then what is the point of supplication? The standard reply is that we submit our requests to God to acknowledge that apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). We also lay our plans at His feet to see if they are in accordance with His plans — to check if we are in Him and His words are in us (15:7).
Another follow-up question is: If God’s plan prevails regardless of what we do or say, then what room is there for man’s free will? Indeed, isn’t free will a key point of doctrine? Didn’t God create man with the will to either obey or disobey Him? Don’t we see, all over the Bible and in our world today, people exercising their free will to disobey God even though God urges us to obey Him (Isaiah 48:18)?
I used to think that whatever comes to pass, that is exactly what God had intended to pass. I don’t quite think this any more. Surely it can’t be God’s will for us to disobey Him, right? But we do disobey occasionally, even as His children. So how do I make sense of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will at the same time? Granted, His ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).
I’m sure that other people have their own ways of making sense of this, but what helped me sort it out in my head was a concept in physics called quantum superposition. In quantum physics, the math works out such that everything exists in two states. The physicist Erwin Schrodinger illustrated this concept by describing a hypothetical cat which, according to the math, is simultaneously alive and dead. The problem is that when you look at the cat, it is obviously either alive or dead, not both at once. Schrodinger’s cat illustrates a paradox; nothing can be both alive and dead. It doesn’t matter what the math says; we just can’t look at something and see it in two opposing states at once. But, I think, when God looks at us, He sees us both obeying and disobeying Him at every juncture. And from the beginning of time, He has known that even with all the ways our lives could go, His purpose would be fulfilled. He knows when and how to intervene so that in the end, our lives will have served His purpose. All of our possible choices are subsumed under His plans.
We sort of see this in 1 Samuel 23. (Thanks for pointing this out, G.) David was consulting God about something — not a divine command, so the issue wasn’t about obeying or disobeying God. But David had a choice to make. He asked God, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to [Saul]? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? LORD, God of Israel, tell your servant.”
And the LORD said, “He will.”
Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?”
And the LORD said, “They will.”
So David and his men, about six hundred in number, left Keilah and kept moving from place to place. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he did not go there (1 Samuel 23:11-13).
God knew what would happen if David were to stay in Keilah. But then David chose to leave Keilah, so what God said would happen did not happen. This does not mean that David was able to depart from God’s plans (indeed, David was not in the habit of departing from God’s plans); it means that God’s plans account for multiple possibilities.
It later occurred to me that there’s a simpler analogue than quantum superposition: choose-your-own-adventure novels. Someone reading such a novel can choose among several ways for the story to go, but from the time of publication, the author of the novel has known how each variation of the plot would unfold. Although the reader participates in the story, in the end it’s still the author’s story. We can’t change God’s story. We can’t change His plans. But there is room for us to make choices.
II. God’s sovereignty, God’s goodness
Two Sundays ago, we studied Jesus’ healing of the man who was born blind. According to John, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3).
I took this answer to mean that God made the man blind so that He would later demonstrate His glory by giving the man sight. This idea was fine by me. (After all, God is sovereign.) But D explained that this was wrong.
Ironically, before I came to know Christ, this idea was not fine by me. You see, my ethics were pretty strongly Kantian. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that we are all morally obligated to never treat each other merely as means to an end. For instance, stealing is immoral, because that’s using someone merely as means to enrich oneself. Lying is immoral, because that’s using someone merely as means to, for example, prevent oneself from getting in trouble. With this as my moral standard, I railed against the notion that a god would let me suffer just so he could later use me to demonstrate his kindness by deigning to get me out of my suffering. I rejected the notion that a god would, for instance, allow a child to suffer just so the child’s parents could mature.
Then I encountered God, who is holy and powerful and worthy of worship. He has infinite wisdom, and I trust Him. He freely offers grace, joy and peace, for which I am deeply grateful. I’ve realized that it is a gift to be able to see His mighty hand in all things — more so to be called to participate in His work. Having caught glimpses of His character, I’ve come to surrender my life to Him. He is my sovereign Lord, and I seek to serve His purpose. Which seems to be an appropriate response. But D has prompted me to see that there’s something I’ve been missing.
D has explained that when God created man, there was no death, sickness or suffering. God made man in His own image (Genesis 1:27). His creation was “very good” (1:31). He made mankind upright, but then we began scheming (Ecclesiastes 7:29). When Adam and Eve sinned, that’s when death, sickness and suffering entered the world. The blindness of the man in John 9 was a manifestation of these things that came about as a consequence of mankind’s fallen nature. As Jesus explained, the man’s blindness wasn’t the direct result of any particular sin committed by the man or his parents. But it was a consequence of mankind’s collective sinfulness. God allows such consequences to befall us, because He is holy (Isaiah 6:3) and just (Deuteronomy 32:4). So, God did not make the man blind. He simply allowed the man to bear his share of the consequences of mankind’s collective sinful nature. The difference is subtle, but it belies a significant aspect of God’s character: His goodness. Our good Lord does not cause suffering. He only allows it as a matter of fair consequence. And even then, He sustains us through it (2 Corinthians 12:9), and He uses it for good (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28).
I didn’t realize that I was willing to submit to a god that causes suffering and counts that as a cost of displaying glory. I guess I must’ve figured that that was fair. I think it’s easier for me to accept someone’s authority over me — even tyrannical authority — than it is to accept someone’s goodness towards me. Lately, I’ve been noticing that I can’t quite process the latter. So it turns out that even though I was already acknowledging God’s goodness (for saving me, for providing all my needs etc.), I wasn’t really grasping the implications of that goodness. Sure, it’s easy to recognize goodness in acts of miraculous healing. But it wasn’t as easy for me to see that His goodness underpins His purpose and prevents Him from fulfilling that purpose at the cost of His children’s welfare. (Apparently, God is more of a Kantian than I was. Hehe.)
I’ll end with a quote from Ravi Zacharias: “When God is our Holy Father, sovereignty, holiness, omniscience, and immutability do not terrify us; they leave us full of awe and gratitude. Sovereignty is only tyrannical if it is unbounded by goodness; holiness is only terrifying if it is untempered by grace; omniscience is only taunting if it is unaccompanied by mercy; and immutability is only torturous if there is no guarantee of goodwill.”
M has pointed out that I’m using the term goodness to mean kindness (i.e., goodness that is expressed to others) as opposed to holiness (i.e., goodness that is an internal quality of God). He’s right. I do mean kindness whenever I refer to goodness in this post.
Added eight months later: