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Do Our Choices Matter?
This week, I’m responding to a question from a reader.
What latitude do we have in our life choices, and how do we determine if those choices conform to God’s plan for our lives?
This question arises from a long-standing discussion about the sovereignty of God and human freedom. It’s a complex conversation spanning centuries, and I will do my best to simplify it in a few blog posts! However, I recommend researching this question for yourself. A great place to start is the book Providence & Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? by Terrance Tiessen. He walks through 11 different positions Christian theologians have taken on this issue, from one end of the spectrum to the other.
The problem is this: How can God be sovereign, or in control, over the whole of Creation and allow human beings to freely choose what we do?
On one side, some theologians argue that if God is in control, we can’t truly be free to choose what we do in life. Whatever God says will happen happens whether we choose it or not, whether we pray for it or not. If my actions can change God’s plan, then God really isn’t in control. So, on one hand, it seems like human free will is simply an illusion.
On the other hand, the Bible clearly calls us to choose whether we will worship and serve God (e.g., Joshua 24:14-18). And we are held accountable for our actions, so we must be free to choose them. Why would Scripture invite us to choose if we really don’t have a choice? Some theologians argue that human freedom means God isn’t in control and doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the future—but he’s really good at guessing and powerful enough to make things work out his way (this position is called Open Theology, and in my opinion is borderline heresy).
The problem can be demonstrated using prayer as an example. What difference does prayer make? If God’s will is set, won’t it happen whether or not we pray? If it is God’s will to heal my sick neighbor, my neighbor will be healed regardless of my prayers, right? God doesn’t need my prayers to heal someone, does he? And if it is not God’s will to heal my neighbor, she won’t be healed no matter how much I pray for her, right? My prayers can’t actually change God’s will, can they? So, in the end, my prayers really don’t matter… except the Bible commands us to pray for the sick (e.g., James 5:14-15). Why does God tell us to pray if our prayers don’t actually change anything? And how do we account for the many stories in the Bible when God acts in response to the prayers of his people (e.g., Exodus 32:14)? But if our prayers do change things, then what does that say about God’s sovereignty?
To summarize the problem, if God is sovereign, then how can humans have free will? But if humans are free to choose, how can God be sovereign? The Bible reveals both God’s sovereignty and humankind’s free will. How do these seemingly opposed concepts fit together?
We will take up these questions in future blog posts. For now, I want to leave you with these reassuring words from Psalm 119:89-91:
Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast. By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants.