Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why I Believe in Providence and Free-Will

After some recent political rants, I want to return to some theology. What is my theology of providence? What about suffering? The million dollar question is why do good people suffer? The most consistent challenge to belief in God has been the problem of evil and human suffering. The essential beliefs Christians hold about the nature of God seem incompatible with the evil that is so prevalent in the world. We believe that God is good (omnibenevolent), all knowing (omniscient), and powerful (omnipotent). The difficulties are, therefore, if God is good, and loves humans beings, why doesn’t He always act to deliver those He loves from suffering? And, if God is all-powerful, is it not reasonable to expect Him to deliver His people from suffering? Without dismissing these concerns, a better question for people of faith might be, what can God accomplish by allowing suffering? Human survival is one answer. For example, pain exists as a biological warning system. If I place my hand into a fire, I will recoil, but imagine the horrific result if my hand felt no pain! Pain and suffering often lead to growth in knowledge and power. Athletes know that temporary pain will lead to a stronger body. The world needs a system of ordered regularities – the “laws of nature.” Pain is the price of an ordered universe and human free will. Also, is it true that a good person must necessarily always stop pain when they have the power to do so? For example, when my mother first took me for immunizations, the needle being jabbed into my arm hurt! I was suffering, and my mother did nothing to stop it. So, was she a good mother or a bad mother?

Here are some central questions. Can God be in control of some things without constantly being in control of everything? Do humans have free will in a created order governed by God? What is the nature of divine sovereignty? Is it to alleviate personal suffering on an individual basis, or is there a higher purpose? Scripture provides some answers to these questions. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22, it was to teach Abraham that freedom from suffering is less important than God’s covenant. The story of Joseph, and his rationale to his brothers is Genesis 50, teaches that the suffering of individual people sometimes brings about good for God’s collective people. Job teaches that we are God’s, to do with as He pleases. “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11). God is our Creator. He graciously gives us life, and every breath is a gift from Him. I have no “right” to expect one more breath! In the New Testament, the example of Christ teaches us that freedom from suffering is less important than God’s redemption of the world. In John 9 Jesus’ disciples ask him why a certain man was born blind. Did he sin, or did his parents sin? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).

Can we make deals with God? This question is not often asked as bluntly, but it is asked implicitly. The belief that good people should not suffer because of their own righteousness is rampant in both Jewish and Christian life. Many people of faith believe that they should be able to avoid the calamities that afflict the less pious. This, in essence, is attempting to make a “deal” with God – “I’ll do what you want so that you will do what I want.” Believers, as well as non-believers, seek to reconcile the existence of God with the fact that good people suffer. But an equally appropriate question is, “Why shouldn’t good people suffer?” Rabbi Harold Kushner once asked, in this regard, “Should a pious person be able to go out on a freezing night without a jacket and not get sick?” And yet many Jews and Christians believe that if one observes God’s laws it is therefore unjust for the righteous to suffer. But unjust according to who’s definition of justice? This attitude may help to explain why unjust suffering can be so devastating to people’s faith. For many religious people, the problem of how a just, loving, and powerful Creator can allow terrible injustices is compounded by their belief that if they suffer while doing good, God has reneged on a “deal” with them. But the purpose of religion is to change the behavior of the believer, not God’s behavior. God will reward good and punish evil in the afterlife, not necessarily in this life. If God always rewards the righteous in this life, then the opposite must also be true – suffering is punishment from God. This belief is as prevalent as it is wrongheaded and cruel. I have heard Christians tell people who are suffering that if they prayed more and got closer to God their suffering would be alleviated! This belief renders the question, “Why do good people suffer?” self-contradictory. Those who believe that being righteous will protect them from suffering have already answered the question – if you suffer, you’re not a good person! The answer is not to make deals, but to understand God’s providence. Divine providence is rooted in the character of God, particularly His love. God’s desire to love and to be loved caused Him to create, and His continual desire to love causes Him to interact with that creation. Out of His love, God created humans as moral free agents because virtue cannot be coerced. Divine providence does not imply a tyrannical God who controls the universe at every level. In His great love, God has granted to humanity the power to choose its own destiny through choices. For me, a “puppetmaster” God negates the concept of love (for further guidance watch “Bruce Almighty”). Our understanding of providence provides answers to the tragedies of life by informing the Christian community that love is central to the nature and character of God, and love implies risk since refusal to control another being is a demonstration of love for that being. The outcome of God’s work in the world is not a foregone conclusion since God’s actions are predicated on human decisions. Even His plan for the redemption of humanity had the potential for failure because it depended on choice. In a Christian sense, providence means that God is more concerned with the eternal state of humanity than our temporal level of comfort. This understanding of divine providence is inextricably intertwined with the theology of creation. If God refuses to act as a universal tyrant, determining through foreknowledge, the course of every event, then the world He created necessarily has the potential to evolve freely. In such a system, humans have the intrinsic capacity to commit evil. The dialectic of good and evil is built into creation from the beginning. In a sense, God’s great love makes Him subject to His own creation. He is grieved when evil is committed, He changes His mind when pressed, and He is moved to act when we approach Him in prayer. Believing that God is tied to His creation because of love has implications for how we interact with creation. Any view of providence must dismiss the Deistic view that God has created, and then moved on, never interacting with His creation, but rather watching from afar. On the other end of the theological spectrum, determinism also tends to negate the love of God. In a word, I believe in free will because of LOVE.


Chris Gillespy said...

This is a great article, however, it leaves me with a couple of questions. First, I will quote you, then ask a question:
1. In a Christian sense, providence means that God is more concerned with the eternal state of humanity than our temporal level of comfort.
Q. Should I not pray then for personal things?

2. ... In a sense, God’s great love makes Him subject to His own creation. He is grieved when evil is committed, He changes His mind when pressed, and He is moved to act when we approach Him in prayer.
Q. Is this why we feel sometimes that God is mans creation, not the other way around?

Charles North said...

Thanks for reading such a long post. Those are good (deep) questions. Sure you should pray for personal things, but the bible always portrays prayer as being something we do within the will of God - even when Paul says "present your requests to God." I do struggle with this question though - two people pray for their loved one to be healed - one makes a full recovery, and the other one dies. What about that? I guess "no" is also an answer to prayer.

About the second question. I know that this open view of providence is not widely held among evangelicals, but there is too much evil in the world for me to believe God controls and predetermines the future. I have to believe in free will. There's a great book out that I have read on this - it's "The God Who Risks" by John Polkinghorne. It is both comforting and scary for me that we collaborate with God in determining our own future.

Ray said...

Brother, you know I love you, but I respectfully disagree (as you knew I would) with some of the assumptions made in this post...

What is interesting is that I could have written this post (albeit probably a little less eloquent then you), a few years ago. However as I examined my faith more deeply, I was moved from this position by the Word of God. I had to challenge many things that I had come to accept as 'givens' in order to come to the understanding that I have now.

Anyway, I was tracking with you for the first portion of the post, but then it seemed to me that you took a right turn... Providence, I am with you on, for the most part, but then we get to this change in direction:

"...Out of His love, God created humans as moral free agents because virtue cannot be coerced..."

Yes, God did create mankind with freewill; Adam had 'freewill', and made a choice. We have therefore been placed into bondage to sin. We are NOT seeking God -- Psalm 14, 53, Romans 3.

So the question is: What would cause us to turn from our 'freewill' to seek God? Is it not the Sovereign God of all working in us to change our wills, such that we become a New Creation?

"...Divine providence does not imply a tyrannical God who controls the universe at every level. In His great love, God has granted to humanity the power to choose its own destiny through choices. For me, a “puppetmaster” God negates the concept of love (for further guidance watch “Bruce Almighty”)..."

Important words that you state above: "For me, a "puppetmaster" God negates the concept of love..."

You used Scriptures to validate your concept of providence, but when it comes to freewill, suddenly it is subjectively stated ("For me..."). While it is your blog, I must admit that using the Bible when proving one point, but switching to subjective clauses when stating another point is illogical, and you are one of the more logical people I know! :-)

Does a loving God offer freedom from sin, but then state; "Hey, it's your choice, take it or leave it", or is a loving God one who says, "Son, you were heading for hell, I CHOSE you to be saved from the flames"? Which one shows grace?

One is a statement of indifference, and one is a statement of love.

Now, I know the argument that God WANTS us to chose but can't affect us in any way; my questions is -- who is God at that point, man or the King of the Universe, The Alpha and Omega, The Almighty God?

Also, you make the statement (pretty strong) that redemption itself was placed in the balance, and could have been thwarted by a rejection of the cross! Certainly you don't believe this, do you?

If that is true, then the sacrifice of the Messiah could have simply been thrown away by a people who rejected the message: A Scripture reference PLEASE!

Well, that is all I have time for now... As always, I enjoy the stimulating discussion!

Charles North said...

Thanks brother. I see the inconsistancy when it comes to the use of scripture in my post. As a conservative "book, chapter, verse" Church of Christ guy that kind of subjectivity should be avoided.

To clarify though, my beliefs concerning free-will inform how I see evil in the world. Evil exists because people make bad decisions that impact other people. I believethat God is Almighty and has the capability to control everything, but I belive He chooses not to. I suppose the classic parable of redemption - the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) - is an example of a loving father (God) allowing his son (sinners) to leave and then return with no coercion. I belive in predestination since it is a scriptural term, but I belive that it is always used in a collective sense in the NT. An example would be Romans 8:29. God has chosen a certain outcome for the church, but it is up to individuals to become part of the church. Election in the NT is always collective, never individualistic.

I would also point to 2 Peter 3:9 "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." Should we all be universalist? If God wants everyone to be saved, why doesn't He just will it? It seems that people have a choice. Of course, the Spirit works on people's hearts, but even in Revelation 4:20 Jesus is portrayed as standing outtside the church, knocking on the door to enter. Again, human choice can thwart God's intention. This is true in the OT as well. God chose Israel, but then offered them a choice between life and death (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Thanks for the discussion, and forcing me to do better homework. God bless you (but only if you choose those blessings!!)

Chris Gillespy said...

But the Jews have rejected the message! Even after all this time.

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Ray said...

Some thoughts --

When using the passage out of 2 Peter 3:9, it is important to understand that when the word 'will' is used, it is not always used decretively.

Therefore, while God does not will the fact that men perish in a compassionate way, the truth is that He wills (decretively) that some will perish. And by the same token, He wills some to redemption.

Take if you will, a father (in today's society it helps to add, a GOOD father)-- It is not his will (desire) to punish his child, but it is his will (decretively) if the child has crossed the line.

Now, all men have crossed the line, we all have sinned, and no one seeks God, however while He decress that those who have 'crossed the line' will be judged for that, He takes no pleasure in the damnation of His creation, however He is infinitely Just and Holy, so He cannot be allow unpunished sin, that would be a violation of His character.

Now, out of that situation, He also sovereignly snatches some from judgment and decrees (wills) that they will not suffer damnation, but instead will be drawn to the redemption found in His Son, through the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.

Now, as in all analogies of this type, it breaks down under the infinitely more complex aspect we are talking about. The truth is that if God desired ALL men to be saved, and could do nothing about it this is disheartening. Where do we get comfort from the fact that man has power over God's plan? Other than our pride, where do we find that to be a good thing?

Man can thwart the will of God? That is not the God I serve. He cannot be sovereign and servant to man's will at the same time.

A couple of Scriptures:

2 Timothy 1:8,9 - Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began...

2 Thess. 2:13 - But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.

romans 9:13-18 - As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

None of these are unfamiliar to you, I am sure you have wrestled with them many times, but I am curious how you reconcile these Scriptures (and there are plenty more, as you know) with the idea that God doesn't know the specifics, but just the general ideas of redemption...

Personally, I think that comes frighteningly close to an Open Theistic concept, where God actually does not know the future, but is reacting to man. It is at least the first step down that slope. (IMHO)

As always, I enjoy the discussion, and I believe we can all learn and grow by these types of discussions..

BTW, I do accept the blessings! ;-)

Ray said...

Chris -- I am Jewish, so some of us are in the Kingdom, I believe you may be referring to the nation as a whole...

That is an argument for a different time and post. That all depends upon how you view several key passages and whether or not you have a consistent hermenuetic....

Ryan said...

Great stuff as always boys. I must admit that this is a very difficult question and so hard to try to comprehend with our human minds. I take comfort in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church when he writes "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully". Even he had to admit that he did not have all of the answers. All shall be revealed in glory.

Charles North said...

That is, for me, the saddest thing in the Bible. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, all the prophets, Jesus himself, Paul, and all the apostles were Jews. Paul says in Romans that he would lose his own salvation if all the Jews could be saved! Every Christmas I get a lump in my throat when I hear the lyrics: "Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel shall ransom captive Israel."

Thank you indeed for the good discussion. I have a graduate degree from Baylor, and even there I never had anyone explain and defend reformed theology as well as you have. I will study and wrestle with those texts.

Oh, just so you know, I reject the openness view of God's providence. I agree that it puts God in a box that WE have created.

Charles North said...

Ryan. You are truly wise. Humility and a simple "I don't know" needs to be said way more often in theological discussions.

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Ray said...


I know you are not an open theist, I hope you didn't take it that way, it is just that I have heard this argued down that path before...

You are not anthropocentric enough for that (that IS a compliment!), but you are far too THEOcentric, and that is why I love you brother!

Charles North said...

Right back at ya slick!