About Free Will

An excerpt from an Email message to a friend

by Kevin Jay North, 17 Jul 99

Well... I had no idea that a simple, innocent question to you would lead to such an in-depth discussion. I don't mind, though. I think it is good for me to periodically re-think what I believe, and either re-confirm it or adjust it. That's the only way to get to the real truth. I don't want to get stuck believing something and then never budging from that position.

You brought up a lot of questions in your message. Here's one for you: What if -- hypothetically -- at some point in the future you were forced to conclude that predestination was true. I am not saying that it is true, I'm just saying, WHAT IF. In this case, would you discard your faith, believing that a loving God would never act that way, or would you swallow hard and trust God anyway? In other words, do you believe in a God that is consistent with your own assumptions about what a loving God can and cannot do, or are you willing to -- gulp -- accept God for whoever he is, and to trust him even if there are things about him that make you very uncomfortable?

There are many other ways to ask this question. A friend of mine has a relative who recently lost her mother. She is going through a crisis of faith right now. She will only believe in and trust God as long as she is sure that God brought her mother safely into heaven. The question to her: Will she believe and trust God even if she finds out that her mother is not there? Or will she reject God, believing that a true, loving God would not be so cruel as to let her mother suffer in hell forever? This is a very tough question.

Ultimately, God is sovereign. It's very humbling to admit that he can do whatever he wants and that I can't do anything about it. Fortunately, God is loving and perfect. We know how much God loves us because he let his favorite son be tortured and killed on a cross. So then our faith should rest on trusting God completely in all things, even if it doesn't seem to make sense to us. (Kind of like Dr. Dobson's recent book, "When God Doesn't Make Sense.") Eventually, we probably will understand, but in the meantime, we have to trust God even when we don't understand.

I am not saying that you should immediately start believing in predestination. Nor do I believe that someone needs to believe in predestination in order to be saved. But my recommendation would be that you keep predestination open as a possibility. Wait for more evidence to come in, then make a reasonable decision.

Now for some words of comfort (hopefully). Not that a good explanation is necessary, but it sure is nice, and it gives us confidence. Even Jesus was nice enough to give us explanations of some of his parables.

Most of your questions relate to man's free will. You imply that if God predestinates people to be saved, then he's controlling our wills and we're just robots.

Now I don't believe we're just robots. A simple scientific experiment can prove it. I will think of a letter in my mind from A to Z, then type that letter right here: W. There, I chose W. I was totally free in my own mind to choose any letter I wanted to, and I chose W, and then I used my finger to type that W on the keyboard. No one bribed me or forced me to choose a particular letter.

On the other hand, we know that God is sovereign, and he has absolute control over everything. He created me (Jer 1:5), and he is continuously holding all of the atoms of my body together (Col 1:17), and he is involved in every single thing that happens so that it works out perfectly good (Rom 8:28).

This is a bit of a paradox. Yes, I have free will, but then I conclude that God controls everything; therefore, I can't do anything without his allowing it. So I'm not free.

I believe the answer is that both are true. Remember in a previous message I stated that perhaps Calvinism and Arminianism could both be true, that it doesn't make sense because we only have a limited, 3-dimensional picture of it, but God can see the whole, 4-dimensional picture, and that from his view it all makes sense and is consistent? I later concluded that Arminianism was not true, but this "both is true" idea could apply to this "free will vs. providence" issue.

In this case, there's no way to explain it fully. We'll just have to trust that "free will" is true and "providence" is true even though we don't understand it. But now I'd like to share with you something special that God has shown to me to give you a taste at how free will and providence works. It's kind of like: We can't explain it, but we can experience it, and that experience kind of says: Yes, I can just begin to see how it all works together. I'll never be able to understand it fully, but I understand just 5%, and that gives me a glimpse as to what the other 95% is like.

Let's look at the well-known and much-loved comic strip character Charlie Brown. He's a fictional character. He has no life of his own. His existence depends entirely on his creator, Mr. Schulz. If Mr. Schulz decides not to draw the strip, then Charlie Brown doesn't have life. So Mr. Schulz is totally sovereign over the Peanuts universe, and nothing happens in it that isn't under his direct control.

Now here's the amazing thing. We know that Charlie Brown is imaginary, and yet he seems so much alive to us, largely because the Peanuts comic strip has been around for years and years, and over that time Charlie Brown has done many, many things, and through all of this he's really developed a personality. If he were to come to life and we met him, we'd know who he is, and his actions and reactions would not surprise us. He's seen on lunchboxes and Metropolitan Life advertisements and TV shows and many other things. He's much-loved by millions of Americans. He's supposed to be imaginary, and yet he's really demonstrated an existence.

When we think of Charlie Brown, we treat him (almost) as if he were a real person. We can put himself in our own shoes and think like he must think. We can think of him as someone who can make his own choices. And yet, all this time, he is still controlled completely by Mr. Schulz.

So, if Mr. Schulz is "God" over the Peanuts universe, let's say one day he decides that Charlie Brown says to himself, "Well, I've put it off too long, I'm going to visit the little red-haired girl." And he takes a deep breath, walks over to her house, confidently rings the bell, and the door opens, and she appears, and he smiles. What is wrong with this picture? It is totally against Charlie's personality. One could almost say it can't happen. Can't? Hey, Mr. Schulz is God, he can force Charlie Brown to do whatever he wants!

But he won't, he just won't. As soon as Mr. Schulz does this, he destroys the personality of Charlie Brown. A Charlie Brown that has the guts to talk to the little red-haired girl is a very different Charlie Brown from the one that is way too shy. If Charlie Brown can be shy one day and bold the next, we cease to know him because he's unpredictable. He's no longer Charlie Brown but Mr. Schulz's puppet.

So let's suppose that Mr. Schulz, sensibly, keeps Charlie Brown shy. Now what's amazing is that Charlie Brown is not only alive with his own personality, but he's demonstrating free will. He chooses to shy away from the little red-haired girl, and this is what actually happens. He is not forced to see her; he decides not to, and he doesn't. So what happens is not the result of Mr. Schulz's whims but the result of Charlie Brown's shy personality. This is the amazing paradox: Charlie Brown is completely controlled by Mr. Schulz, yet he demonstrates his own free will because he can't act in a way he doesn't want to act.

In the same way, God has created us, and he completely controls us, yet we are somehow independent and can make free choices. God's world is not unlike Mr. Schulz's world, but God does it on a much grander scale. Plus, God is perfectly good, and he also lives forever, so we're not just an idea of God that's just going to be scrapped at some point. Now, as I said earlier, this is only an imperfect explanation -- it still doesn't all make sense. But hopefully, you can say in your heart, "yeah, I can kind of see how it works."

My metaphor is independently confirmed by the Westminster Confession: "Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of the second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. God's providence includes the permission of all ... sins of angels and men, and that not a bare permission, but such permission as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his holy ends; yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God; who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin" (Chapter 5, paragraphs II and IV). My Bible Dictionary goes on to add: "'Second causes' are the ordinary forces and events of nature that God usually employs to accomplish his purposes."

You asked a lot of other questions. I don't have explanations or even metaphors for most of them. But I trust my God. What he does may not make sense, but I don't want to argue with him. If I think that he shouldn't act in a certain way, then I'm claiming to be better than God -- to have a better plan for working all things out than he does. In reality it is his world, and he can do whatever he wants, and I'm just a sinner who doesn't deserve anything from God. Hypothetically, he could still say, "I'm not pleased with you," and cast me into hell for eternity, and there would be nothing I could do about it.

I am willing to accept that, but I also have every reason to believe that God will welcome me as a loving Father and give me incalculable blessings in eternity. All I have to do is go along with his plan. What an incredible offer! So I say, God, whatever you want to do, go for it! It took me four years after I was saved to get to that point, though; that is, to where I could say that will all my heart. But that's another story, which I could share with you sometime, when the time is right.

For now, you should have plenty of things to stew on.

Your friend and brother in Christ,


Document last modified 01 Sep 99. (C) 1999 by Kevin Jay North; see also full copyright notice & disclaimers..

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