Tuesday, May 14, 2013

If God wills...

In a country where I lived and worked for several years one often heard the phrase “Khudo khohad,” which equates to the Arabic phrase “Insh Allah.” We could translate this phrase along the lines of “If it is God's will.” In the culture where I lived, this phrase was frequently used to absolve oneself of responsibility for planning or for the outcome of one's actions. After all, the individual is not really in control, so what does it matter what one does? If God wants it to happen it will. If he doesn't, it won't. End of story.

This attitude permeated the culture in many ways, resulting in a fatalistic worldview. Why should one plan or work toward a better tomorrow when the future lies beyond one's control anyway? Why feel accountable for one's actions when we know that all things are really in God's control and not our own. If something happened, it must be God's will. If it doesn't happen, it obviously wasn't. Other factors come into play in this particular cultural context which only sharpen the fatalism, because in many ways people really do lack control over their world. One man had worked hard to build a couple rooms on his house for his family, only to have the whole property taken from him by the government overnight and bulldozed to make way for a prestigious government project. Although he received some minor compensation, all his efforts to plan, work and save for his family were reduced to naught without any opportunity for him to counteract it. In such a world fatalism seems to be a realistic worldview, but it isn't a very helpful one.

This mindset is quite contrary to the Western worldview in which I was raised. American culture teaches us that we can change our lives, that we are in control of our destinies, that we can make a difference in the world. This mentality runs through many Protestant churches as well. But does it sync with the teachings of Scripture? What do we do with a passage like James 4:13-17.

Instead you ought to say: “If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.”

This sounds a lot like saying “Khudo khohad” to me. Should we as Christians in fact be fatalistic? Does the sovereignty of God render our activity pointless?

I have wrestled with the question a lot in my life, at times actively, at other times passively. I come from a Reformed theological background, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God. But I look at the world and find that God exercises this sovereignty in baffling ways, allowing things to occur that must surely grieve God's heart. Other Christians claim to see God's sovereign hand in natural disasters and other tragedies, claiming that they are God's punishment for certain sins. This mentality stems from an Old Testament worldview, but isn't entirely incompatible with a strong view of God's sovereignty. However, I cannot accept that God acts in this way. It strikes me as far to capricious and arbitrary (especially since these claims always seem to relate to certain types of sin. I've never heard anyone say that hurricane Katrina was the punishment for the greed and consumerism of Americans, for example.)

If we adopt too strong a view of sovereignty, we become passive chess pieces in some divine game. We may think we have a say in the course of the game, but we don't really. Or if we allow for some individual freedom but insist on God having a clear and decisive plan for each person's life, we can spend our energy worrying constantly whether we are in or out of God's will. I grew up with this mindset. I understood that my goal in life was to fulfill God's plan for it. I understood that this plan would be clear to me if I simply prayed and sought wisdom. But experience has shown that sometimes God's will is rather unclear. In fact, God's plan seems to me more like a broad directive than a specific agenda for each day, week, month or year. Before I worried that if I stepped outside of God's will, if I moved off that clearly defined path he had laid out for me, I would basically be trashing my life. Now I see God's will more like the markers that illuminate the edge of the highway. Yes, there are areas I don't want to go, but there is a broad swath of possibilities that are fully within “God's will.” And don't even get me going on the idea that God has a “perfect someone” for each of us to marry.

I keep running up against this question of God's sovereignty and the extent to which what I do really matters. I don't think Scripture teaches us to our actions and decisions have no real meaning. But can we change the course of events, or are all things so completely determined that our choices have no real significance? I would not want to live in such a world, nor would I consider such a God particularly worthy of worship. I don't think God wants us to be mere automatons.

Interestingly, I found a new way to think of this after watching the movie MiB3. (I must say that I never imagined having my theology influenced by Men in Black!) In that movie, agents K and J meet Griffin, a fifth-dimensional being who sees multiple timelines simultaneously. To Griffin, all futures are possible until the point that an event occurs which then eliminates some of them, while opening up new alternatives. Because Griffin exists multi-dimensionally, none of the outcomes is fixed or determined, but he can see all of them as real because he can see what would happen should any particular event occur. What if God is in some manner like Griffin, only more so? What if God's sovereignty doesn't mean that an exact course is already fixed for each of us, but that God knows the ultimate outcome (the full restoration and redemption of the creation) and in God's multi-dimensional existence can simultaneously see all possible paths to that endpoint, without dictating that any particular one of them should occur?

I find that I need room in my theology for my actions and decisions to count, so that my life has meaning beyond simply preparing me for some heavenly future. I don't believe that God created me and placed me in this world simply so I could learn some lessons in preparation for eternity. I believe God calls me, and all people, to be co-creators, or at least co-workers in the process of bringing the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. If one emphasizes too strongly God's sovereignty one can eliminate this element of human cooperation and render human life as a fully pre-determined set of events without real significance. One can also end up with a God who is distant and unmoved by the events of this world. Otherwise, surely God would act to rectify the injustices and sufferings of God's creation. If we believe that God does act, but through God's people without specifically compelling them to act, then we must allow room for flexibility in the working out of the divine will.

In a blog such as this I can only begin to touch on this deep topic. I have on my shelf a book I first read many years ago in seminary by Clark Pinnock and others entitled The Openness of God. This book caught my attention the first time I read it and it may be time for a second read. I know that it was not well received by many evangelical theologians because it directly challenges some long-held theological positions, but the questions the authors raise and the suggestions they make offer an alternative way to understand this tension between divine sovereignty and human action. If only Pinnock had had MiB3 to watch!

I have no nice conclusion to this post, because the issue remains open for me. I do not reject God's sovereignty, but I need to understand it in a way that allows for real, meaningful human action and freedom. I don't want to be reduced to saying “If God wills” and absolving myself from responsibility or action. On the other hand, I do want to recognize that my actions and plans still rest within the larger framework of God's actions in the world. That provides, as it were, a safety net, because I can have confidence that God remains in control even when I make the mistakes that I inevitably will.


  1. "God is in control" is one of the most destructive pieces of theological short-hand that I know. When will we understand that sovereignty and control have little resemblance to each other? God is sovereign. He is not "in control."

    1. I think we have a difficult time distinguishing the two. In fact, I wonder whether we (myself included) really understand sovereignty as anything other than control.

  2. I guess I don't see it as a hard distinction to make. To use a metaphor, "in control" suggests that I am at the wheel of the car. "Sovereign" means I own the car - and perhaps can wrest back control of it when and if I choose to do so.

    Another example from scripture: Jesus gave us the parable of the absentee landowner. Isn't that a case of sovereignty without direct control?