I’d like to make clear that I am not a theologian. I also want to state right up front that this is a rational attempt to explain the unexplainable. While it’s perhaps a bit quixotic, I think it is a useful exercise, regardless.
First, a question: Can divine predestination and human free will coexist?
This is really one of the “can God make a rock so big that he couldn’t lift it?” questions; if he is omnipotent, then he can create a rock of infinite size and mass. This in turn leads to the conclusion that because it has infinite size and mass, it cannot â€“ by definition â€“ be “lifted” or otherwise “moved”. And then, of course, one concludes that God must not be omnipotent! The flaw in this reasoning is that it assumes that God is bounded by three dimensions and the laws of physics as we understand them. For that matter, it assumes that God is bounded by time. This, precisely, is the problem with this question. You see, the very term predestination is an attempt to map God onto our own understanding in the same way that an architect might use drawings to map a three-dimensional building onto paper in two dimensions.
Keeping this idea in mind, many things take on a quite different meaning. Citing a previous example, our linear minds think this way: Child falls in water. Rescuer pulls child from water. Attempts to revive succeed. From our perspective, this might be a miraculous outcome of a series of events. However, from the standpoint of God, this orderly sequence collapses into a single, cohesive entity, visible and in focus in its entirety. It simply is.
So then, if God exists outside of time in the eternal now, there is no “before” or “after.” He has determined our being, he has seen our existence, and he has pronounced judgment in a way that defies linear reasoning. I struggle as I write this paragraph because my mind wants desperately to order things and use words like “before” and “at the same time,” all the while realizing that this desire in itself defies reason. I cannot accept that the Creator can be bounded by his own creation.
From here we examine the topic of free will. Can I do anything apart from God’s will? By way of example, allow me to propose a case for you: I have to choose between walking past a homeless person on the street, or stopping to help them. I’m in a hurry. I want to stop, but I feel like I have no time. With a pang of guilt I keep walking. Now, what I’m saying is that there is no conflict between God causing me to make that choice and my desire to do the same thing. I could fool myself into thinking that I really wanted to help, but the fact is, I even more wanted to be on my way to get to whatever “important” thing lay ahead. What I desire to do is exactly what I do. Nevertheless, my desire is the product of who I was created to be and my environment, both of which are subject to God’s will in themselves. The only way I can resolve this apparent paradox is to conclude that I am choosing to do God’s will, even if I cannot understand how the things that I do are part of his plans.
Let me be quick to point out that I don’t believe that walking past this homeless person is always and necessarily wrong. Yes, it is probably true that I should have stopped to lend a hand. On the other hand, though, the act of me walking past may trigger a note of despair that causes them to seek God.
I realize that what I’m saying here can be used to rationalize practically any behavior. Dear reader, if you do this, you do so at your own peril. It is one thing to try to find the bigger picture, and another thing entirely to try to manipulate it to your own advantage. This understanding is not an excuse to dismiss your words, actions, and thoughts with a curt “well, that’s just the way I am.” Rather, I exhort you to seek God’s will.
But what is God’s will? Whether you believe the story of Moses being given the ten commandments to be a literal account, as I do, or an allegory, these words are powerful and fundamental. You can summarize them all with two thoughts: love God, and love others.
By love, and particularly in reference to loving other people, we’re talking about the kind of love that is committed to the welfare of others, that respects them and cherishes them regardless of personal cost. Loving people might make them happy, but sometimes it won’t. Loving people might cause them to like you, but sometimes they’ll hate you. This kind of love isn’t “G-love,” as Heather Mac Donald suggests. While this is at odds with popular culture’s idea that love is a feeling, it doesn’t invalidate the idea of love as commitment and action.
“What,” you may ask, “gives one person the right to decide what’s best for another?” Sometimes the answer is pretty clear cut; say, a parent choosing what’s best for a young child, or a friend taking the keys from someone who’s had too much to drink. Other times it’s not so clear. All you can do in many situations is make suggestions, and only then at an appropriate time and place. Above all you must be acting out of genuine care for another: not their feelings for you, not their pocketbook, not even their soul. All of these things are only single dimensions of a person! Getting people to like you doesn’t pay their bills. Giving them money doesn’t speak to their soul. Saving their soul doesn’t stave off hunger and thirst. Look at the whole person.
And so we come back, again, to the eternal now. In the same way that love sees a whole person and not just one aspect, God sees the whole of time and not just moments strung together in a sequence. Indeed, the very name of God alludes to this, which is variously rendered as “I am who am,” “I am who is,” and other similar constructs. From this perspective, at least to dim understanding of it, some seemingly unanswerable questions suddenly come into focus.
Some things just are, whether we understand them or not.