By Jack Hoehn, May 18, 2016: Does God really have everything in His control? From where you lost your keys to who had a stroke last week? What if God’s omniscience means God knows whatever can be known, not whatever choices you and everyone else will make? What if God’s omnipotence means He is all powerful to respond to what happens, but not that He is controlling what happens? Do we enhance or diminish our view of God when we wish Him to be responsible for the details of life and history? Can we be safe?
God in Control?
Isaiah 46:8-10, NIV
Remember this, keep it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels.
9 Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, “My purpose will stand and
I will do all that I please.”
“It’s all in God’s plan.” “No matter what happens, God is in control.” God is working out His will, even though I don’t understand it.” “I wonder what God is up to now.”
People I love find great assurance in their understanding of the sovereignty of God. Because God knows the end of history, they assume He controls the means to that end. And some are sure that if God has chosen them, nothing that happens outside to them, and nothing that happens inside of them can ever take them away from their salvation and assurance of eternal life.
They also assume that God knows all the events of the future, as well as we can know the history of the past. God’s omniscience (all-knowing) means to them more than that God knows all that can be known about the present and the past; it may mean to them that God knows what cannot be known, your choices and my choices in the future. So to the all-knowing God of their supposition, everything is determined in the mind of God, and our choices are already known to Him. They balance “free will” with “all-knowing” and assure us that both are true. I am sure both are true, but likely not in a way requiring the suspension of logic or the meaning of words.
There is another way of acknowledging the sovereignty of God, His omniscience, His omnipotence and love, that does not require making up words trying to combine impossibilities.
God Knows the End
To say that God knows the end of all things is to recognize that love will win, and evil will perish, but that does not require God to have control of the way that the end comes.
To know with absolute assurance who will win the war does not require the winner to know before the last battle exactly how each battle will happen on the way to the inevitable victory. How each battle will go depends on the enemy’s choices, attacks, and strategy. The winning general may know well his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and past history, and will have responses ready for every contingency. The victory is never in question, with infinite resources available to God, but the course of the battle depends on the free will of those involved.
All Things Work Together for Good?
Romans 8:28, NIV
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.
The Scriptures are clear that God works for our good through all the circumstances of life. St. Paul was very clear that the bad things that had happened to him could not separate him from the love or the power of God.
But that does not require God to be in control of things, only to be responsible to help us find the best response, the loving and wise reaction to the bad things that have happened to us by chance, by randomness, or by the choice of other creatures created with freedom of will.
John Calvin, in order to emphasize the security a Christian has of salvation due to God’s grace and not our works, interpreted the “preplanned,” “predestined,” “preordained” words in the Bible to mean that since God knows the end and can foretell the future outcome of things, God has to be in charge of all the details of life and to know the unknowable, such as what I will decide to do tomorrow. His many fine followers then have struggled to explain how we can have “freedom of choice” and yet “be predestined to be saved.” I suspect for most it becomes an issue of, “I can’t explain it, but I just believe it.”
Doesn’t God Know What Will Happen?
Psalm 139:1-7, NLT
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!
Yes, God knows what will happen, but that does not mean He controls what will happen. He knows Satan’s character and can predict what Satan will do. He knows my past experience and character and He can predict what I will do. He knows the weather and the plate tectonics and the paths of asteroids and comets as well as any human scientist can and a lot better. So God predicts what will happen.
He also knows what He can do no matter what happens. He knows He will resurrect his fallen saints; He knows He will create a new heaven and a new earth. He knows that Satan and those who align with him will someday be consumed.
God knows us. He knows our thoughts and what we are thinking before we say it. This is wonderful and true, but it does not require God to know what I will think tomorrow. Or what I will choose next year. Knowing all that can be known, God can surely predict that, but while he knows what we have done and are doing, He does not control what a free moral agent will do before it is done, except as an all-wise prediction.
To know the end does not mean God knows exactly when or how that end will come, which may be a disturbing thought to some. So let’s illustrate with a Bible story.
God Knows That the Israelites Will Accept Moses, but Not How
Exodus 3:16-18, NIV
Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, “The Lord, the God of your fathers —
the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said:
I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt.
17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites,
Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.”
18 “The elders of Israel will listen to you.…”
God calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to freedom and self-determination.
God has told him, “The elders of Israel will listen to you….” Well, that should be enough. God, who knows all that can be known, and who can do all that can be done, and who works for His good ends at all times and in all circumstances, has just told him.
Moses, however, has been herding sheep for 40 years. He knows he is out of touch and feels ill prepared for the task, so he asks God for some reassurance.
OK, God, they will listen to You, but how will this happen?
The answer is most instructive.
What, Not How
Exodus 4:1-9, NIV
1 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”
2 Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied.
3 The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”
4 Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.”
So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand.
5 “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers— the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”
6 Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak,
and when he took it out, the skin was leprous —it had become as white as snow.
7 “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak,
and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
8Then the Lord said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign,
they may believe the second.
9 But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you,
take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground.
The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”
The God of all the earth purposes to bring the children of Israel out of bondage into freedom from slavery and freedom from sin, from ignorance to knowledge, from fear to love. And He knows Moses is His man.
He knows the Israelites need to accept Moses’ leadership for His plan to work, and He will see to it that they will accept them. This is God’s purpose and He has the resources to get it done. He knows Moses and He knows the leaders of Israel, so God knows it will happen, but when Moses asks God how it will happen, God reveals that He knows what will happen, but not exactly how. He will do whatever it takes to see that they do accept Moses, but whether the leaders of Israel will respond to plan A or to plan B or to plan C depends upon their choices.
How? I’ll turn your rod into a snake for them, and show you can handle the snake.
But if that doesn’t work, I’ll give you a severe skin rash of leukoplakia and then give you back your skin color again.
But if the first two signs don’t awe and amaze them enough, then take some water from the Nile and show them the Nile turns into blood.
God will see that they accept Moses as the divinely appointed and gifted leader. God knows they will accept him; He knows they are influenced by miracles and in awe of magic, and will use this to influence them to do what he wants.
But the Israelites are still free moral agents, and must make up their minds based on what they see and experience; so although God knows what will happen, He is open to just how it will happen.
Exodus 3:8 shows the conditionality of God’s knowledge of the future, “If they do not believe…the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs,” then here is our third plan to bring them on board to their only hope for salvation from slavery.
God, knowing the future He is planning and knowing us perfectly, does not know exactly what will happen or just how that future will be obtained. It will be done, but it may be done this way, or it may be done that way, or it may be done another way, depending on the choices of these free moral agents.
God Controls What He Does,
but Not What I Do
Freedom of choice in the creation of free moral agents is God’s choice for this universe. Love in the form of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit willed together to make mankind in their image, after their likeness. As God the Father and God the Spirit are not material, being made in the “image of God” is not a physical description but a moral and intellectual likeness. Mankind was made able to think and to do, and to choose. So the entire Bible presents a picture of a universe where created intelligences interact with their Creator based on freedom of choice. We are, of course, not free to choose everything and anything. Many choices we have to live with were made by other agents.
I am not free to choose not to be born in Canada, or to come from German, English, Scot, and Indian heritage. I am not free to choose to have white, black, brown skin. I can’t choose to not have brown eyes. But within the limits of what is possible, I do choose many things, and those choices are not controlled by God, except as God offers me wonderful possibilities that I can choose.
I Can’t Choose Not to Be in the Great Controversy,
but I Can Choose Which Side to Be on
I can’t choose to not be subjected to others’ choices. If Hitler decides to invade Poland, I can’t choose for this not to happen, but I can choose to become a collaborator or part of the resistance. I can’t choose to not be hurt with natural disasters. Prayer doesn’t stop volcanos from erupting or rain from falling or dams from breaking. But I can choose to build better dams and dikes to control flooding, and to try to prevent environmental denigration from worsening natural disasters. I can’t escape the devil’s manipulation of life to introduce cancers and pestilences and plagues, but I can work to make vaccines and hygiene to modify those things.
We Are not Safe Because God Is in Control;
We Are Safe Because God Is with Us
We err to teach our children that we should pray so that nothing bad ever happens to us, or that if we do everything right we will be safe from wrong. For every guardian angel story there are many terrible tragedies that rip away the false assurance that believers are safe from tragedy and catastrophe. Pastor Troy Fitzgerald, a fit and able young pastor, is not safe from a stroke. Your children are not protected from autism. Your mother is not safe from automobile accidents. Your grandfather is not safe from being killed by a freak tree branch breaking and falling on him.
We live on a battlefield, and no one is safe from the results of the war of good with evil.
We cannot hide behind a fence of tithe-paying, vegan diet, and strict Bible study schedule to avoid the dangers of life on a fallen planet with both humans and angelic beings in rebellion against God’s rule, and nature subject to both chance and randomness. I believe nature also is subjected to Satanic manipulations just as it is to human interference with DNA, destruction of species, and degradation of the environment with dirt, filth, toxins, greed, selfishness, criminality, or simple neglect.
God Promises Us Trouble, but Also Promises Us Remedy and Rescue Plans
John 16:33, NIV
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I don’t find that the Bible promises me safety or security; I find God offers me help, healing, and life after death. God offers me rules to improve my chances, and principles to lessen the dangers. He told the Israelites to put fences on their roofs for the same reason we buckle our seat belts in our cars. He suggested some things were unclean for food and recommended others. He taught simple hygiene and morality as a safeguard from plague, disease, contamination and STDs.
Jesus is not God “in control of the world”; Jesus is God “with us.” He can still the storm and may do so for us, but mostly He asks, “Why were you afraid during the storm, when I was with you?”
Thy Kingdom Has Not yet Come and
Thy Will Is Certainly Not yet Being Done
Matthew 6:10, NLT
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done [soon] on earth,
as it is [now being done] in heaven.
Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that they were all safe now, and nothing bad would happen to them, for He told us to pray every day for God’s kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done on earth (where it is not being done at present.) This was a plea for victory, not thanks for a state already attained.
We don’t need to pray to be safe; we need to pray to be brave, resourceful, and faithful no matter what happens to us during this battle called life. God is not in control of who will run for president of the USA or who will win; we are. God is not in control of who will run the Catholic church or the Adventist church; we are. But God will work with whomever we choose to work with for the advancement of His kingdom, and will work with us to make better choices next time! His will will be done, and His kingdom will come, but when and how really are up to the choices all His children must and do make.
FOOTNOTE: A 16th century view of God the Father as a ruling king, complete with crown and scepter. Is this view of God adequate for today? God the Father as a King, from a beautifully carved wooden altarpiece in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Breisach, Germany along the Rhine. It was completed in 1526 by an unknown artist with initials H.L.
Image Credit: By Taxiarchos228 at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4032878