July 4, 2017

Can We Really Be Free If God Is In Control?

July 4th is Independence Day in the United States; it’s when we celebrate our nation’s successful struggle to be free from the kingdom of Great Britain. The idea of independence reminds me of one of the great theological conundrums: the notion of mankind’s free will placed against God’s ultimate sovereignty. Certainly, I am neither the first nor the wisest among us to try to figure out how God can be in control of all things, yet still allow for human beings’ true independence of thought and choice.
The problem with unraveling such a complex issue is that we humans tend to like “either/or” situations. We want to be able to separate one thing from another and analyze the two things separately in order to determine which one of the ideas is true and which is false. But approaching this puzzle using such methodology leads to a number of serious problems, as we shall now examine. 

The argument for divine sovereignty alone goes something like this: God is in control of all things, and there is nothing which God does not control. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He knows the future. There is no decision which we will ever make that God does not already know ahead of time. (Obviously, the doctrine of predestination is going to be intertwined with God’s sovereignty.) 

The problem many find with this stance is that it can raise some serious doubts about God’s character. Their logic: if He is in control of everything, and has foreknowledge of everything, then there can be no such thing as free will, because if our decisions are known in advance, they are not ours to make, after all. Our notion of free will is just an illusion, which He must therefore have put in place to begin with. 

Following this line of thinking to its ultimate end leads to some troubling questions and conclusions. How can God be considered loving and just if He gives us no choice whether we will follow Him or not? (You may recognize here the ongoing struggle concerning predestination and election; arguments made for or against the Calvinistic view; theologians arguing with each other in circles until judgment day, never agreeing on an answer.) If God predetermines who will be saved and who will be lost and punished in Hell, and we cannot change our destinies, how can we even know for ourselves if we are one of God’s people or not? Some were created to follow, some were created to burn. In this there is no choice, and if no choice, then no justice, and certainly there is no love. And what’s more, God created within us the lie that we have free will. How can the God of all truth create such a lie? Would such a god even be worthy of our worship? Probably not. 

The argument for free will by itself is no less troublesome: We are all quite aware that we make our own choices. We do so every day of our lives.  We choose whether or not we follow God, so our eternal fate is entirely up to us. We know that we control our own decisions, therefore God is not actually in control of everything; He is not all-powerful. Furthermore, free will (by definition) requires that the choices we make cannot be known ahead of time, but only after we make them. Therefore, God cannot be all-knowing. If God is neither all-powerful nor all-knowing, can one even consider Him to be a god at all? 

Houston, we have a problem. 

So, neither sovereignty-only nor choice-only logical systems are able to account for God as He is described in the Bible. Separating the issues of divine control and human freedom resulted in separate proofs which refute Christianity. If you are a Christian, you may be feeling a bit frustrated right now. Do we have free will or not? Is God sovereign or not? Apparently, both cannot be true. 

Or… can they? 

Fear not, for the problem here is not with our faith, but with the method of analysis used in the two arguments above. As I mentioned before, separating the two issues causes some serious problems. It is impossible to separate divine sovereignty from human free will. It’s not an “either/or” situation, and it never has been. 

Both are true. We do have free will, and God is sovereign. 

But… how? 

The answer begins with an acceptance of the truth of Isaiah 55:8-9… 

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, 
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 
So are My ways higher than your ways, 
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” 

Some will argue that citing these verses as evidence is the same as intellectual suicide – that to believe in such mystical hocus-pocus is a sign of a deplorably weak mind. Quite the opposite is actually the truth: if one is to believe in God, or in any “higher being” at all, one must ascribe to that being certain attributes which surpass normal human characteristics. To consider your own reasoning to be equal to that of the god you claim to worship is surely an oxymoron of the highest order. Thus, the assumption that God understands the realities of this universe (which He created) on a level which is beyond our comprehension is not only logical, it is and must be the starting point for any reasonable discussion of religion. 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. ~ Proverbs 9:10

I have come to view the interaction of human free will and God’s sovereignty as something akin to a chess match. While I rather enjoy a good game, I am certainly no chess-master. I know how all the pieces move, and I understand that successful strategies require advance planning and the ability to anticipate my opponent’s actions ahead of time. I have to be able to look several moves ahead and see numerous possibilities, and that’s something that I don’t do particularly well. 

I have, however, played against a handful of opponents who, compared to my limited ability, might as well be considered grand masters. They excel at looking ahead of the game and planning out long, complex strings of possible scenarios – all of which invariably lead to my defeat. It was while playing with one of the strongest of these competitors that I began to understand how my own free will and God’s sovereignty interact. 

During the game, I am in complete control of my chess pieces. I decide which ones to move and where to place them. I devise my own strategies and implement them to the best of my ability. In other words, I have free will to make my own choices. 

My opponent, let’s call him Fred, has the same free will. But concerning the ability to look ahead into the game, Fred is strong, while I am weak. While I can anticipate maybe three or four moves ahead on my best days, Fred goes way beyond that. Fred dominates the board. One might say he is in complete control from the moment the game starts. You see, Fred and I both go into the match knowing full well who will win. Fred is like a chess god. I cannot beat him. 

That doesn’t make the match futile or frustrating, though. For me, the fun is learning to become a better player, and Fred enjoys teaching me. And I must admit, I am strangely, gleefully amazed during those moments when he lets me play out my own strategy, seeming to gain the upper hand, and then in one or two moves he decimates my plan and wins the game.  While I literally have never beaten Fred at a game of chess, I always learn something which helps me to up my game and succeed when I face opponents of my own skill level. 

God displays His sovereignty in ways which are not unlike Fred’s chess game. He gives us the freedom to choose our actions and follow our own plans, but He never gives up His control of the eventual outcomes. The biggest difference between my analogy and reality, and it’s a huge difference indeed, is that God is not our opponent, unless we choose to make Him so. God does not seek our defeat or destruction, but rather our completion and success. He is always there for us, willing to guide us and teach us, if only we choose to let Him. 

What’s more, God is the one who created the game to begin with. And let’s be clear: the game is chess; not checkers, not backgammon, not baseball. Everything we are allowed to do works within the framework of the reality He has created, and we are invariably bound by the rules of the game – His game. He designed the board and all the pieces. He determined the abilities (and limitations) of every piece on the board. 

How unspeakably beautiful, then, is His invitation for us to play the game! And how can we not emerge victoriously if the ultimate game designer is there with us the whole time, teaching us every move along the way? 

As we celebrate Independence Day this year, let us not forget that true freedom does not lie within any political system or government. As we honor our armed forces and their contributions to securing our nations’ independence, let us not forget that it is God, and God alone, who in His sovereignty gives us the greatest freedom of all. 

And let us pray that we use our freedom wisely.

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