Freedom. Sovereignty. Choice. Predestination. Man’s will. God’s will.
My head hurts already.
My headache comes more from the fighting I hear among Christians over these topics than the topics themselves. This biblical tension is something to be embraced. It’s not supposed to be a battle ground.
Sovereignty and human freedom are not enemies. One of the best books in the Bible to help us understand how these themes work together is Jonah. That’s right. The book about the guy getting swallowed by a great fish. Did you know that the whole fish thing is really just a small detail?
Jonah isn’t a long book. It’s only four chapters. They aren’t even long chapters. The whole book is half as many words as this blog post. Really. But many people have never read it. They’ve only heard it told in children’s church. Or mocked by unbelievers who asked, “You really believe a guy got swallowed by a whale and lived?”
But Jonah isn’t designed to be only a story for children. It is intended to teach deep theological truth. It tells of God’s great love toward sinners. The “Old Testament God” that everyone thinks is so mean… Jonah thought was too gracious. Too compassionate. God loved the Assyrians and sent a prophet to tell them the way of salvation. Jonah fled because he hated his enemies. Jonah didn’t want them to change or be saved. He wanted them to be judged.
Sound like anybody you know?
Jonah shows us how God’s sovereign will is achieved through free human choices. The Bible paints us a picture of freedom within parameters.
Have you ever stopped to think about how different your day would be if even small details were changed? Stopping to pick up a penny may cause you to get to your car five seconds later. Those five seconds may turn in to hours if you get stuck in a traffic jam you would have missed had you not been so concerned about a penny saved being a penny earned. If time is money do you end up ahead or behind in this scenario?
Philosophers call this the Butterfly Effect. Or Chaos Theory. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
Jonah isn’t about philosophy. It’s about the sovereign God’s relationship with people in His creation. God is sovereign over the details. He sets the parameters. He can change them. We make choices within those parameters. Our choices are freely made. We would be fools if we didn’t acknowledge the impact the parameters have on our free choices.
Ice cream or an apple?
Apple or a piece of broccoli?
As a parent I can set the parameters for my children’s snack choices. If they are free to choose based on the above two sets of parameters I know what choice they will make. Does that mean they aren’t really free? I don’t think so. The entire human experience indicates that we have freedom within parameters.
Sometimes the parameters are wide in life. Sometimes they are narrow. Some spend great effort to change their parameters. To broaden them. Or to shrink them. But they are always there. Everything we do is within the parameters.
God is sovereign over the parameters. When God told Jonah to preach Jonah disobeyed. That was Jonah’s choice. Disobedience is within the parameters. But God’s will cannot be thwarted. So God worked the details. He changed the weather. He commanded His creatures both small and great. And as people made free choices within the changing parameters Jonah found himself in the belly of a great fish.
When he was vomited up on dry land God gave Jonah the same instruction. Go. Preach to Nineveh. This time Jonah used his freedom wisely. He obeyed.
The Bible is clear that every child of God is predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. The destination is clear. The path to get there is filled with choices. We make them every day. When we obey God we take the most direct path. When we disobey God will work the details until we find ourselves headed in the right direction. Obedience simply gets us there in the most efficient way possible.
Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze! (2 Peter 3:11-12 NET, bold added for emphasis)
Whether we get to God’s end is not the question. It is whether we will stink like fish vomit when we get there. The good news is we don’t have to. Our obedience can actually hasten (or speed up) the arrival of God’s good goals. Jonah could have been two chapters long instead of four. He could have obeyed right away.
When we walk with Jesus we have genuine freedom. Freedom to obey God and walk in His will. Freedom to disobey and go back to our old patterns. No matter what we choose God’s will cannot be thwarted. He will have His way in the end.
(I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:19 NET)
Choose wisely. Don’t take the stinkin’ way. To use the Bible’s terms choose the path of sanctification not lawlessness. Your choices impact how each chapter of your life unfolds. It doesn’t put the end in doubt. Thank God for that!