Oct 8, 2007

you asked for it: freewill and the power of God

Stephanie was wondering... how can we reconcile a belief in an all-powerful God with our free will?

I am on an email list of someone who recently sent out a prayer that was meant to be "ecumenical." In case you aren't into four dollar words either, this is a fancy term people who do what I do use to sound like our many dollars spent in formal education were worth it.

Basically, though, "ecumenical" is meant to describe a healthy relationship among churches that are different-yet-similar. This is most beautiful, for example, when two people who gather around Jesus Christ from different sides of the same cross choose to connect with each other instead of critique... and it's often inappropriately tense when one or both people believe that their side of the cross is more important than the other side.

Another problem, though, is when someone wants to have a foot in front of the cross of Jesus and also a foot in front of something else. The focus is divided, as neither really gets their full attention and they end up trying to serve two masters.
"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other." (Matthew 6:24a)
This contributes to another kind of issue in ecumenical circles when someone calls themselves "like minded" or "Christian" but is really only partially ecumenical ("on their mother's side"), often throwing in a bunch of stuff outside of the Bible. Sometimes its the elevation of man-made thought and tradition, while other times its simply an alternative belief system that rebels against the purity of following Jesus as He set things up.

Yes... this all has to do with your question, Steph - hang with me.

As I mentioned, an email went out that I received, labeled as a "prayer for peace." Accordingly, it contained this line...
Muslims, Christians, and Jews remember, and profoundly affirm, that they are followers of the one God...
Okay... this bugged me. Maybe if it had been in the form of anything other than a prayer to God, I would have overlooked it... but I received it negatively. It's comparable to saying that because I have friendships with various women in my life that I love them the same as I do my wife... absolutely not. She gets top billing in that way and is the only one to share the relationship dynamics that we do.

Now, I know where the person who sent this to me is coming from in this... by tracking the three faith systems back to Abraham it seemingly ties them all together. You can make a sociological claim on this that in one sense they are truly connected, but for a whole lot of reasons this doesn't fly spiritually (which is ultimately how things will be viewed) and doesn't make sense in a prayer to God. It's an incomplete and incorrect summary of how those relationships work - the Jews and Muslims split away from each other for all the wrong reasons, while Christianity completes Judaism for all the right reasons.

So I wrote back...
Sorry about this, but I'm sure you know that as a Christian I cannot biblically affirm that I follow the same God as everyone else. The goal isn't interfaith, but the right one. I know that's not where you stand, but I wanted you to know where I do.

Thanks for the email nonetheless... may God guide your journey and mine, too.
Then she wrote back... and I wrote back... and so on, and then we sort of finally tied it up.

A point I ended up making in all of this is that whether or not an individual or belief system is right in their opinions of faith they do in one sense "share" the same God... they are under His authority whether they recognize Him or not. However, living under Him in this way versus confessing He is Lord and following Him, though, are different matters.

We see this all the time in political circles when a President is voted in and people who don't care for him say, "He's not my President." The truth is if you are a citizen of that country that person absolutely is your President whether you admit it or not... you may not like that his name ends in Bush or Clinton but the Presidential title is there nonetheless.

Perhaps we get confused by this, though, because we confuse democracy with theology. Maybe because we get to choose the President we transfer into thinking that our ideas about God somehow determine His identity. Throw into the mix a country that values free speech and pretty soon we have become people who miss the point while we think we're making one.

In contrast, all of creation has the fingerprints of the Creator in ways we don't even realize... all of us will one day bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ... hopefully willingly, but even if not of our own freewill we still will.
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

See where we're going with this yet?

There are some things we don't get a choice in when it comes to God, and other things we do. Here's a very, very limited summary...
  • We don't have a choice in: Who God is and how He chooses to define Himself personally and infinitely.
  • We do have a choice in: If we will accept who God is or make up our own version based on what we think or feel.

  • We don't have a choice in: God's love for us, all people, and His desire to fight for us and all people.
  • We do have a choice in: Our love for God, all people, and if we will fight for God so He is more freed up to fight for us and all people.

  • We don't have a choice in: How God chooses to work, even if it surprises our understanding of Him and Christianity.
  • We do have a choice in: How we will choose to work, even if it surprises our understanding of self and Christianity.

  • We don't have a choice in: The ultimate plan of His Story.
  • We don't have a choice in: The details of His story.

  • We don't have a choice in: Who God extends His ultimate grace to.
  • We don't have a choice in: Who we extend His daily grace to.

  • We don't have a choice in: God's sense of justice and mercy.
  • We don't have a choice in: Our sense of justice and mercy.

  • We don't have a choice in: The times when God decides to intervene with a miracle.
  • We don't have a choice in: The times when we decide to intervene as a miracle.

So while God is all-powerful, we are not removed from the equation. He is concerned with eternal matters and yet also concerned with the desires of our heart.

Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. (Proverbs 3:5-7)

I'm an imperfect human dad, for instance, and often I'll be driving my kids somewhere around town that involves a destination I know we need to go to. Along the way, though, I do listen to them... if they want to stop off for a Smoothie or hit the library, I give careful consideration to what they have to share (especially if it's a Smoothie). But if their idea gets in the way of our destination, I won't change things unless it's an emergency - and even then I may have to still do what I originally set out to do but in a different way.

God created natural laws yet He Himself is supernatural and supranatual... He is the author of time yet lives within our time and outside of our time... somehow He invented communication and listens to us while simultaneously listens to everyone who has lived before us and will live after us.

So I'm not sure if we can reconcile all of that... but we can still reach for it. We can try to fake a complete understanding through some theology that sounds real good for a while, but ultimately we will come to questions we don't have answers for... curveballs in Scripture and life that stretch apart our man-sized God cages. When that happens we will either admit that our theological umbrella falls short or have to compensate the tension by increasing the volume of our voice (so that our point becomes believable even to ourselves).

Personally, I'd rather live in the tension than manufacture an understanding of it. This always comes back to a few things we can't dispute:

  • God defines who He is in ways we can and can't understand.

  • God reveals who He is in ways we can and can't understand.

  • God offers who He is in ways we can and can't understand.

It's easy for us in each of those statements to accept part of it and ignore the rest. In the end we have to decide how much we get to decide... and how much we will allow God to surprise us. I find that while He has given us a glimpse of some things we can bank on, in the end He has a much better sense about these matters than I do... and in my freewill that is godly power I don't mind so much.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1
Corinthians 2:6-7)


eddie g said...

I just found your blog. Please, please tell me that you live close by to where I am. Your stuff is amazing and challenges me and is the kind of teaching I absolutely need to be under.

Heather said...

great post about how the two work in tandem. i love democracy, but i think it has affected our theology at times in negative ways. i was with a group not too long ago that sang a song about us crowning Christ. how democratic of us. isn't it God who crowns Christ, Christ who crowns us, and then us who turn around and offer our crowns at his feet in a symbol of submission? sorry to go off on a only semi-related subject. fresh on my mind!
but back to you--great post. good way of thinking through these issues.

David Malouf -- said...

Good stuff as always!

I'm curious, though: why do we assume the existence of "free will."

[Seems like the way you describe God means even HE doesn't have free will, for example] Perhaps part of the problem is the assumption?

Tony Myles said...

I'm not sure that it's an assumption... rather, we are told we have opportunities to choose or reject God. To me this is free will, at least on this level.

You could argue that it really isn't free will, though, I suppose. For instance, today I gave my kids a choice of salad or oranges with their lunch. I didn't give them the choice of brownies, but those two only. Was this free will or was it choice?

Here's the kicker - the fact that you have an opinion about that answer? That's free will. ;)


Or you pay for the sin of another, that's a consequence of free will. (The Israelites that died as a result of David's census)

Ed G. said...

At one point, Bruce asks God, "How can you make someone love you if you can't affect free will?" And God says, "Welcome to my world, son. When you figure that out let me know."

If our free will were limited to a single choice -- whether to love God or not -- oh what a choice that would be! Could there be any greater definition of free will? What other decision could be more meaningful or life-changing? Will I love God today? Only I can choose.

Thanks again for another thoughful post.

The Momma said...

"Maybe because we get to choose the President we transfer into thinking that our ideas about God somehow determine His identity."

Ding! Ding! Ding!
Lightbulb moment for me. Thanks!

As always, your blog is one my absolute favorite. Truly "iron sharpens iron" when I come here.


Tony Myles said...

Love that lightbulb, Lisa!

Tony Myles said...

Just realized there are two "Ed/Eddie G" people posting - you guys related to each other?

Eddie g: I live in Medina, Ohio - anywhere close by?

Ed g: Bruce who? I got lost.

David Malouf -- said...

My point was more that we take the emotional weight of the phrase "free will" but degrade the phrase rationally to be "varied choice." The frustration with the question is that it IS an EMOTIONAL question that isn't answerable rationally. By choosing to phrase it as "free will" we are setting up our emotional response to be both binary and exhaustive - anything "less" is to be rejected. That is, anything less than 100% free self-determination is a rejection of feeling "free."

So I find it a difficult question as phrased in that it is not fairly/faithfully presented by the inquirer. And is thereby unable to be "answered" satisfactorily.


Tony Myles said...

Gotcha... now we're walking into some Kierkegaard territory. We could argue, for instance, that free will is as you describe it simply because that's how you describe it. In this case it's the language that carries the greater weight, for when you say "free will" you internally assign a concept to it (as do I and Steph who asked the question) - whether or not we all agree on the concept, though, is another matter.

That said, you may think "free will" as "100% self-determination," whereas I or another might say "100% self-determination in the context of..." (and in this case, it was the context of an all powerful God).

I share that to say that I agree with you that it is a difficult question to answer, but not impossible if you allow for the context to be assigned.

stephanie said...

David - I'm not sure if I should be offended by your words or not. I guess I'm not understanding why an emotional question is a bad thing, or why an emotional question can't be answered rationally. Because I think it can.

That said, how else would you suggest I ask it? And if I had asked it different, are you saying it could be answered in a more satisfactory way?

Tony, thank you for this post. I've read it several times and appreciated it more each time.