I was sitting with a dozen women’s Bible study leaders around a table recently, in our quarterly meeting where we plan and problem-solve for the various upcoming studies at our mega-church. Our committee leader was telling us about a logistical issue she was working on for a new study, and the always anxiety-producing task of recruiting qualified group facilitators.
And then she said something profound by accident. “I know God is in control,” she said. Pause. And then, “But people are also involved.” The table erupted in knowing laughter. For the next hour, that became our meeting theme and inside joke. Because with everything we spoke about, both things were true. I embroidered it on a bag for our leader (shhh she doesn't know yet), because that's what I do when things are profound. I write about them, and I put them down in thread.
This is, in fact, the great mystery of the Christian faith. God is in control. But people are also involved. And it is true about pretty much everything that matters to us, every question that makes us anxious.
Will my child get into the college she wants to go to?
Will my business thrive or fail?
Will those I love come to know Jesus?
Who will be our next president?
How will we reckon with social justice as a nation?
Will I get another book published?
Will I ever find the right person to marry?
Will I pass that big test?
Will we end human trafficking in this century?
Will the church thrive in this generation?
We can trust God, but still doubt how people might foul things up, am I right? And we can also trust God, and know that we have to get off our bottoms and get involved.
How these two things work together is a great mystery and I’m suspicious of any doctrine that tries to box it up or explain it away. Jesus himself said that we were to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven – showing that first, God’s will is not being fully exercised on earth, and second, that we have a profound privilege to help bring God’s will about through prayer and our obedience.
If we err too far on either side of this mystery, we miss the heart of Christ and how he calls us to live.
If we err too far on people determining all outcomes of the things that matter most, we can fall into discouragement and even despair. We can work ourselves to death, trust too much in government systems and not enough of God’s spirit. We can second-guess our every past decision and wonder endlessly if we chose the right path in our lives. We can agonize over whether we are doing enough to tell people about Jesus. When we swing to this side, we need to remember scriptures like Proverbs 3:5, where God promises to direct our paths when we trust him, and Romans 8:28 in which Paul tells us all circumstances will work for our ultimate good if we love him. We can also trust that God is not willing for anyone to perish. (2 Peter 3:9)
And then there’s the other side.
If we become too absolute in our belief in God’s control, and underestimate the power of human choices and free will, we can become uncompassionate, Romans 8:28-ing people to death when they are grieving and struggling – forgetting that God brings good from all things. He doesn’t call all things good. We never saw Jesus minimize pain to the glory of God.
On this side, we can also fail to take responsibility for our choices as individuals. Read most of the other Proverbs to see that God’s word affirms cause and effect of our actions over and over again. On the God-is-in-control side, we can fail to do our part to pray for our communities and tell our friends and families about Jesus.
And perhaps worst of all, we may come to excuse huge societal movements of unkindness and oppression by claiming that they were actual movements of God for his own purposes. Like those who excuse American slavery or the extermination and oppression of the Native Americans as movements of God to save a pagan people. As if God is Machiavellian, not caring about methods if he gets the “right” outcome. But Scripture tells us clearly that “in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and that God doesn’t ordain oppression, but rather he desires us to loosen the bonds of wickedness, undo the bands of every yoke and let the oppressed go free! (Isaiah 58:6). To bring about the kingdom of heaven, we have to affirm that God doesn’t ordain the wicked tools of empire.
And finally, if we don’t also give people the credit of causality, we can come to blame God for acts of evil committed against us personally, as if they were caused by a Father who turned out not to be loving at all. And what a tragedy if our theology pushes us out of the arms of God.
Around the Bible study leaders’ table that morning, we didn’t discuss every side of this issue. But our very discussion, our very prayers, and our very presence at the table affirmed that we live within this beautiful mystery: trusting God, and doing our own part.
Here’s the good news: This is an unsolvable mystery with an excellent ending. One day, we will see what God has done, and it will be good. We will marvel at the fact that somehow God didn’t leave people -- with their free will, their broken hearts, and their rebellious spirits – to their own devices. But in fact, he placed eternity in their hearts, and called them to be part of the great restoration work He is doing. Thanks be to God that he is in control, but we get to be involved.
If this blog spoke to your heart, I encourage you to adopt two practices I learned through my work in the Twelve Steps.
The Eleventh Step:
We sought through prayer and meditation to increase our conscious contact with God as we understood him, asking only for a knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry it out.
The Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.