Tag Archives: free will

God works in mysterious ways? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 5]

22 Mar

Does God seem mysterious to you? Confusing? Distant?

In this fifth and final post in our series fact-checking phrases about God’s involvement in our lives, we’re seeking to evaluate the phrase: “God works in mysterious ways.”

This is related to “everything happens for a reason”.  When we say “everything happens for a reason” we are saying we believe God is working things for good, and though we might not immediately know that good outcome, if we look for it, we will find it.  Or we might realize it later on.  Sometimes it only becomes apparent many weeks, months or years later. 

But when we say “God works in mysterious ways,” we are saying that we might never figure it out.  That sometimes God’s purposes are unknowable.  Sometimes God is mysterious. In fact, the Bible teaches this.

In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Or we could turn to, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

So what does this mean?  Theologians tell us that one of the first things we need to learn about God is that he is incomprehensible.  What “incomprehensible” means in the theological sense is that we in our human capability will never be able to fully understand God.  God will always be somewhat mysterious to us.

But that does not mean he is totally mysterious, as he has revealed himself to us.  In fact we Christians believe that he has revealed himself quite extensively, to the point that we can know him well.  He has revealed himself in nature, in his Word, and especially in Jesus, who shows us a wonderful picture of what God is like. 

What do we learn about God through what he has revealed?  That God wants to be in relationship with us, and he has revealed enough about himself for us to have a close relationship with him. 

When we say “God works in mysterious ways,” however, we are often in a quandary, unable to figure out why a bad thing has happened.  Thus it can be our attempt to console ourselves.  There is, however, another way we use “God works in mysterious ways,” as expression of trust.  Though we don’t understand our pain, we still want to express our faith in God. This is in keeping with the psalms of lament which, after a major complaint against God, still include a statement of trust.

“God works in mysterious ways” can also be an expression of frustration or despair.  We might not want to be in the situation.  We want answers and details and they are not coming.  We don’t want God to be mysterious, and we rebel against the confusion. 

Think about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was going to be arrested and crucified.  What was God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer?  “I hear you, son.  But you will have to go through this.”  Sometimes God will answer in a way we don’t expect or we simply don’t like! 

The problem is that saying “God works in mysterious ways” can give the idea that God is random, or purposefully mysterious, almost like he is playing games with us, trying to be sneaky or tricky.  There is no doubt that there will be situations in life that we cannot figure out, but God also has tendencies, patterns, ways of working, and is not mysterious.   As you walk with God, you get to recognize his work in the world. 

To say “God works in mysterious ways” can be a way of pushing God to the margins of life, however, rather than embracing him in the midst of mystery.  Think again of the psalms of lament, crying out in complaint to God.  In those laments, the psalmists are fully embracing the mystery, and yet still reaching out to God, seeking to bring him close in the middle of the pain. 

So in conclusion, we Christians believe God is at work in the world.  Yes, there are times when we might not be able to figure out what he is doing or why.  But we use our free will to choose to follow him, to honor him, in the middle of the pain.

If you are trying to comfort or encourage people who are in pain, I encourage you to avoid these phrases we’ve studied in this series of posts.  I know it can be very hard to know what to say, and thus we often default back to what we have heard ourselves.  This is the tendency where as adults, to our horror, we realize, “I sound just like my parents!”  Even when we promised ourselves we would never say the things our parents said to us.  Now it’s coming out of our mouths!  Why?  Muscle memory.  We heard it said to us, and it just comes right back out.  Often we learn later in life that what our parents said was actually based in wisdom! But when it comes to these phrases we have been fact-checking, we would do well to battle the tendency to just let them spill out without thinking.  It might mean forcing yourself to be quiet.  It might mean giving the hurting person a hug and simply saying, “I’m here for you, I love you, call me anytime,” and then checking back on them over and over and over, not giving up on them.

God is in control? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 3]

20 Mar

If God is in control, why does the world seem totally out of control?

In the previous post in this series, I referred to three reasons bad things happen. Christians struggle to make sense of evil and pain in the world, just as anyone does. Why would God allow it? Why did he create our world this way? We often respond with a shrug, and a fairly tepid, “Well, God is in control.” Usually Christians understand God’s control in one of two ways, and we’re going to review them in this post.

First, some say that God has given us free will, because he wants to be in a loving relationship with us, and that requires free will.  In order to have a real, genuine give and take relationship with God, we need to be able to say “No” to him.  We need to be able to deny him, to turn away from him.   If we have no other choice but to love and obey him, that would not be a genuine relationship.  That means we would have no free will, or maybe we would have a seriously diminished free will, and I suspect few of us would really want that.

There are, admittedly, times in my own life when I say to God, “Lord, make me a robot for you, because I am so sick of my constant screwing up.”  But if God would turn off our free will, our person-hood would cease to exist, and we would essentially be robots.  The result of free will, though, is that we are NOT robots, and that means we often make terribly selfish choices against God, against each other, against ourselves, and against the world.  Those selfish choices lead to pain and disaster, as we see all the time on the news.  You might think, “Geesh, if that is what God did, creating free will…was it worth it?”  Because the pain and evil has been really bad, hasn’t it?  It has!  God took a massive risk in creating free will.  Thinking relationally, he risked that his creation that he loved, you and me and all humanity, could deny his love.  When you give people a choice, they can and do sometimes make poor choices. And thus there is much pain in the world.

So the free will view explains that God actually does give up a measure of control…and he gives it to us.  But we’re not all bad, right? We can do amazingly beautiful creative loving things with our power, limited though it is in comparison to his.  Throughout the ages, people have done acts of amazing artwork, invention, unity, friendship, commitment and love.  I’m not just talking about famous artists or world-changers.  We all have an opportunity to use our free will in God-honoring ways.  From how we parent and grandparent.  From how we neighbor, how we work, how we handle ourselves in school, and certainly how we participate in a church family.  Lest we get too negative and jaded, we need to look for the amazing results of godly free will all over the planet. 

So maybe the free will view could be summarized as saying that God is in control to the degree that we give him control?

That brings us to the second way Christians explain the presence of evil in the world. God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty is about God’s control.  Free will gives humans control. Sovereignty says that God has never given up control, no matter how out of control the world seems.

We believe that God is control in the master plan sense.  Satan or evil people cannot ultimately thwart God’s master plan. Throughout Scripture we see this many times.  Nothing could stop Jesus from being born, from living his life, from having his ministry.  Nothing was going to stop the resurrection of Jesus, for example.  Nothing will stop him from coming back.  In that sense, yes, God is in control.

But he also gives us a measure of control.  My denomination, the EC Church, is in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition and we believe God allows free will, and we must use our free will to choose him.  Many do.  And it is a primary aspect of the mission of God’s people to help others choose God too. 

But we also know many do not choose God.  So there is a proper sense in which the phrase “God is in control” needs some explaining.  If all we mean, when we say “God is control” is that he is going to work out his master plan, then it is a true statement.  But if we mean that God is going to make things great for people in suffering, then it is not a true statement.  He might allow the pain to continue.  We might never know why we went through the pain.  In fact, there might not be a spiritual reason.  It could simply be that we live in a broken and fallen world.  To people in those situations, it could actually be counter-productive and harmful to say to them “everything happens for a reason” or “God is in control.”  As we saw last week, there’s a much better way to come alongside people who are struggling.  And we’ll talk more about that in a future post in this series.

One thing I would recommend we don’t say to people who are struggling is the next phrase that we are fact-checking, and we’ll cover that in part 4.

3 reasons bad things happen [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 2]

19 Mar

Does everything happen for a reason? Many people believe so, but as we discussed yesterday, sometimes things happen because of the kind of world we live. What do I mean by that? What kind of world do we live in? Our world demonstrates at least the following three tendencies that very much affect why things happen.

First, something scientists call the second law of thermodynamics – this is a principle of heat transfer that says things, generally, move from order to disorder.  The technical word for this is entropy.  Things rot, they rust, they wear out, they break.  It is the super-rare exception that a car, for example, would improve its working order.  Cars break down and need tune ups.  Our bodies heal, yes, but the normal tendency is that they age and break down.  This is what Paul is likely referring to in Romans 8:21 when he says that creation is in bondage to decay.

Second, Satan is in the world, tempting, lying, and as we read in Scripture devouring. And he is no joke.  We should be cautious in our view of Satan’s influence.  I so often hear that a person is going through a difficult situation because of Satan.  But we really don’t know that Satan is responsible, do we?  If your car is broken down, it’s almost certainly not because of Satan; it is because cars follow the second law of thermodynamics, and they break down.  It seems to me that we are generally too quick to blame Satan, and maybe we blame Satan when it was actually our own fault.  He is real, though, and powerful, and he does tempt and devour.

The third way to describe our world is talk about the broken and fallen nature of people.  People are in the world using their free will in ways that are selfish and harmful.  Sometimes we are dealing with pain of our own making.  Sometimes the pain is brought on us by others.  Sometimes it is both.  Because we have free will, and we don’t always use it in a way that is in keeping with God’s Kingdom, it leads to pain. 

But does that mean God is hand’s off?  Deism is a view of God that says this.  God created the universe, he set things in motion, but is now hand’s off.  Like a bowler releasing his bowing ball.  Is God like that?

Or is God in control?  That is the second phrase we’re fact-checking.  I’m bringing them together at this point because they are related.  “God is in control” is very much connected to the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.”  Usually we think of God like that.  He is in control, and therefore the pain we’re going through must have meaning or a purpose.  There is a reason. 

But does God control things like that?  If he does, then why is there so much pain and evil in the world?  Some people state, assuming that God is good and that God is all-powerful, that he would control the world so that there would not be pain or evil. Because the world is obviously filled with pain and evil, they conclude that either God is not good or God is not all-powerful.  As a result, some say, God doesn’t exist. 

These are deep questions, hard questions, scary to bring up.  But let’s face it head on.  What do we Christians do with this situation of evil and wickedness in the world?  Is God in control? 

We Christians respond to this in a number of ways.  And that is what we will investigate in our next post, so check back in!

Choice matters

3 Mar

Have you had to make any major choices lately in your life?

It could be a major purchase like a car or a house. It could relate to moving. Could be a job change. It could be about how to handle a relationship, about getting closer to someone or maybe about putting some distance between you and them.

You may be faced with a choice related to finances. How will you report taxes? How will you use your income tax rebate? How will you spend, give, or save?

How will you use your free time? Will you do a project at home, take a vacation, go on a mission trip, serve in a ministry, volunteer somewhere?

There are so many difficult choices in life: How to respond to someone who has wronged you. How to respond to feeling marginalized at work. How to respond to death. How to respond to your own failures and mess-ups. Will you get defensive? Will you argue? Will you scrape and fight to preserve your point of view? Or will you be teachable, humble and try to see things from the other person’s point of view.  This could be with a co-worker, a boss, with your spouse, with your siblings, with your parents, with your teachers, with your friends.

Choices abound. Some people have said that life is just a series of choices.

Choices can make life hard in a way. Have you ever felt that you’d like a break from all the choices? It’s not like we’re always dealing with whether we choose the Porsche or the Ferrari, the 2 million dollar mansion or the 3 million one, or even much less costly ones such as between an ice cream cone with 2 scoops or 3 scoops, or between the iPhone 7 or 7+. Those choices are all easy. Well, actually, if we were in a position to make those kinds of choices they would be easy because they have very little ramifications on life. That is, if you have the money to afford them!

Choices can make life feel stressful, however, because we so often don’t know what is right in a given situation.  Or we face a situation where both choices are tough, and we’d rather not have to choose at all.

But choice in life is also a beautiful thing. It reminds of that we have free will. Free will is a God-given system of choice. Obviously we cannot choose to jump up in the air and start flying. There are limits to choice, such as gravity. And before you start responding with “Well, if we had a jet-pack, we could do that too!” I hear you. So get out your jet-pack and go for a quick flight!  (You can get yours in 2017 for only $150,000.)

I know my argument has exceptions. Yes, if you are smart enough or rich enough, you could make or purchase a jet pack. But the larger point still holds, we have limitations, we are not free to choose to do or be whatever we want. Only God is that free.

Though we have limitations, we are still free in a significant ways.

Perhaps the most significant thing we can choose is that we can choose to follow the way of Jesus, or we can choose not to follow his way. We can choose to follow it a lot or a little, and there are ramifications to the choice we make.

Many of us have a desire to choose to follow Jesus, but we wonder if we are following him less than what we should be or could be. Less than what he wants us too. But we admit that there are things in life that are holding us back. There are barriers in our lives to following Jesus. Is there something holding you back?

This Sunday at Faith Church we will meet two people that Jesus encountered as he was walking along the road. Each of these two people are faced with a choice. Each of them will have the opportunity to follow the way of Jesus. It is amazing how differently they choose. Through them, we’ll see what barriers might be holding us back.

Check it out at Luke 18:18-43, and be our guest at Faith Church on Sunday!