Monday, May 16, 2011

Does God get what he wants?

Coming to terms with predestination, free will

Is there a Reason?

My wife and I would like to have a baby. Sometimes, especially when we are looking at our budget, enjoying quiet time alone or trying to figure out how to schedule our busy lives, I think I am nuts to want the expense and complication of a child. Sometimes when I watch the news or even walk downtown, I question whether it is really wise to bring a child into this messed up world. Still, it is what we want. It is a desire of our hearts, especially of my wife's heart.

Unfortunately, the heart is not the only anatomical member with a say on the subject. Certain health complications have made conception difficult and we haven't been able to get there. We don't have the money at this point for the expensive treatments that could increase our chances and that financial lack also produces difficulties in adoption. So, for now, we have only our pets for which to care.

This has not been easy for us, but I know people for whom it is worse. We have not been able to conceive. There are a number of couples I have known for whom conception has been relatively easy, but they have been unable to carry a child to term. I witness their pain, but I know it is far beyond my comprehension. The devastation in their lives is really awful. Yet, so often I hear them say, or people say to them, that all this has happened for a reason; that this is somehow all a part of God's plan.

I know how people arrive at this conclusion, but I need to argue against it. God did not kill those babies. He did not do it so that you'd be stronger or be a better parent when He finally let you have a child. He did not do it because he needed a soul (that is a creepy thing I've heard too often). He also is not striking folks with cancer (or even a common cold) to make them better people. He did not make planes fly into the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. Not everything happens "for a reason" and even those things that do happen "for a reason" the reason is not always because God willed it.

Things happen that God doesn't want.

Understanding the basic concept that somethings happen that God doesn't want is the first intellectual hurdle one must jump in order to get to the place where we stop saying "everything happens for a reason." On one hand, it is fairly obvious from scripture. We know that "God is not willing that any should perish" (II Peter 3:9) on one hand, but on the other hand "small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life and only a few find it" (Mat. 7:14). God wants us all to go to Heaven, but we're not all going. We don't even have to go so far as eternal salvation to make this clear, we know that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16, Mark 10:9), yet we have all met divorced people. We know that things happen that God simply does not want to happen. The very existence of sin, which can pretty much be defined as doing what God doesn't like, means that some things happen that God simply does not want to happen.

Yet, it seems almost blasphemous to say: "things happen that God does not want to happen." In fact, it has been said in a way that probably does border on misunderstanding if not outright disrespect for God. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner makes the argument that things happen that God does not want to happen because God is not really omniscient, omnipresent nor, most importantly, omnipotent. Things happen that God does not want to happen simply because God is too weak to do anything about them.

This makes sense from our point of view. If we could do anything we wanted, we would do anything we wanted. If we could stop anything we didn't want from happening, we would stop those things from happening. In fact, in our legal system, if you know about a crime and do nothing to prevent it, you can be charged as an accessory to that crime. If bad things happen and you could stop them but don't, it is seen as the same as if you had done those things. We are so scared of making God and accessory to murder, that we have made him a murderer.

Things happen because there are forces at work in the world.

The Bible is clear that there are evil forces at work in the world. The Devil, Satan, the Bible says, goes about seeking those he can devour (I Peter 5:8). He is a jerk, he is evil, and he literally wants to ruin everything. We know from the Book of Job, among other places, that God has put limits on what Satan can do, but he is still allowed to make his mischief. Mischief might be too casual a word. The Devil is allowed to do evil things. He is allowed to steal, kill and to destroy (John 10:10) and will definitely do it. He is awesomely powerful, older and smarter than anyone on earth and has an army of awesomely powerful demons who are older and smarter than anyone on earth. Some things happen because the Devil does them.

Then there are people. People do things all the time. Some of these things are good. Some of these things are evil. Some of these things are not really good or evil, but are practical or impractical. I don't feel, as I write this blog, that I am experiencing some special leading of the Holy Spirit that compels me to write it. I have felt that before. I have also not felt that before, but gone back and read something and recognized that it was there and I wasn't aware. Right now, I feel like I am writing this blog because I choose to. I think it is a good thing to do, but I think there are other equally good things I could be doing instead. Writing a blog like this which follows a strict Ciceronian structure, often helps me organize my thoughts around a subject, but I can't really say that it is inherently a good or evil thing to do.

Sometimes, we do evil things, and God lets us. When I was a child, I enjoyed hitting my sister. It helped me deal with the rage I was feeling and gave me a sense of satisfaction. It was also an evil thing to do. I was not obeying the will of God, in fact, I was sinning, and knew it. God did not allow me to hit my sister so that I could be better or she could be better. He allowed me to make a choice, on choice he approved and one he disapproved. I chose the one He did not approve, sometimes. I could hit my sister, some men rape their children, some men fly airplanes into buildings and others throw their bodies on grenades to save their friends' lives. God has given us the choice to serve him, or not, because service is not slavery. There is always a choice.

Besides the Devil and people, there are principles at work that God simply allows to work and rarely violates. These include natural principles: if I jump from my office window to the parking lot below and break a bone, this is not a punishment from God. It is a natural combination of gravity, bone density, velocity, weight, hardness, etc. It also includes social principles. If I talk trash about my boss, she may hear and fire me. If I cannot pay my bills this month, it might not be God punishing me. It might be because I blew my wad of dough at the movie theater. There are also spiritual principles, like the concept of sowing and reaping(Galations 6:7). If I sow corn, sunflower seeds, love, anger, money or negativity, I will generally get back more than I put in of the same. I guess maybe one can say "everything happens for a reason" if sometimes that "reason" is something like, "if I throw a baseball at a window, it will break."

Why do people say that, then.

It is not because they are crazy. The fact is that there really does seem to be some implication in the scripture Romans 8:28-30 says:
  • 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Ephesians 1:11 says "we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will." Furthermore, Hebrews 4:13 says that God is not surprised. In exclusion, that really does make it sound like God planned everything. These people, millions of them over the history of Christendom, are not crazy.

The assumption they're making is that since God knows everything, and everything that happens is allowed by him, that he planned it. That is not the case.

God is a planner.

One thing that God and I have in common is that we are both planners. I make shopping lists, budgets, weekly menus and put my short term goals up on the wall of my office at work, checking them off as they get done. My fun is very much spontaneous, but happens at the time and within the budget I set aside for spontaneity. Sometimes, I do something that seems very spontaneous, like buy my wife flowers or something, but the truth is that I have found a way to work it into the budget.

God is the same, just way better at it. He makes plans and they always happen (Psalm 115:3). That does not mean that He plans everything that happens. Let's go back to my listing habit. On Tuesdays, the advertisements come in our newspaper. On Wednesday, I create the menu for the next week and do the grocery shopping. Perhaps one day during the next week, someone invites us over for a meal. In that case, I did not plan the event. The one who invites us planned it, I just planned around it.

That is what God does too, for the most part. He does not plan for us to sin, but he knows we will. Because of this, he plans around it, by preparing a way for our salvation. God even knows what the Devil is going to do. While God often allows the Devil to do what the Devil wants to do, God plans around it. God does not do evil to people, but he knows evil will be done and bad things will happen and he plans around them.

God does not plan evil, he plans around evil, to accomplish good.

And then there are miracles.

God does not just plan around things. It is true that sometimes he just bulldozes through them too. Sometimes, the principles, natural or spiritual, are suspended. Sometimes the Demons are driven out. Sometimes people are thwarted in their evil plans. These things really do happen and when they do, they are confusing. Why doesn't God always do this?

I might deal with this more in a future blog, but I want to be careful here. I can deal with generalities, but cannot deal with particulars. There are two answers. The first is, that God will. In the end, evil will be dealt with (Revelation 20:14).

The second answer is that God loves us and gives us a choice. A person who forces others to love them does not experience love. God wants us to love Him but if He forced it, it would not be love. A choice has to be a real choice.

To be a real choice, there have to be real consequences. That means if I do evil, there has to be an evil ripple effect that hurts and hurts and hurts. If I do good, there also has to be a real ripple effect, that helps and helps and helps. If I behave unwisely, like not getting adequate vitamins or having good hygiene, I will get sick. Not only will I get sick, but my body becomes a germ factory for others. I made a real choice, and there are real consequences, not just for me. God can heal me and heal the others affected by my choice. Even if he doesn't, however, he will plan around the sickness and still accomplish his will.

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