In my previous post, I took issue with a fellow Wesleyan Christian’s low view of God’s providence. My friend disagreed “wholeheartedly” with William Lane Craig’s statement that providence “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details,” and “nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” If this is true, he said, God is “nothing more than a puppeteer… trampling over any conception of free will.”
I hope I offered good reasons why this isn’t true: that human free will is compatible with a high view of providence. I think my friend confused Craig’s saying that God “ruled all of life, even down to the smallest details” with saying that God determined all of life, including every detail. If that were true, as I implied in my post, then God has a strange way of “determining”: since he usually does so by letting the laws of physics run their course—”letting the universe be the universe.”
No: to me, there’s an incredibly important difference between saying that God rules over the universe (the very definition of God’s sovereignty) and God determines everything.
Notice my friend wasn’t saying that providence doesn’t exist, only that there are some things that happen outside of providence—like the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl or an occasional boulder falling and flattening someone. As I tried to show in my post, however, it seems unlikely that God could afford to be so “hands-off” about certain things while at the same time fulfilling, for example, Paul’s words about providence in Romans 8:28. There are way too many consequences associated with events such as these for God not to enfold them within his providential care of the universe.
Pastorally and personally, I find it far more reassuring, when some tragic or evil event occurs, to believe that God allowed it for a reason—even, indeed, that he willed it—than to throw up my hands and say, along with so many mainline Protestants, “It’s a mystery.”
Well, I agree it’s a mystery that we don’t usually know why God allowed something to happen. But we can be confident that God has his reasons, and God allowed it to serve his good purposes.
What’s the alternative? As Christians, we already believe that God transformed the world’s greatest evil, the cross of his Son Jesus, into the world’s greatest good. Does God not also have the power to transform lesser evils in our lives and world into something good? That seems like a strange limit to place on God’s power!
Even as I write these words, some younger version of myself is objecting: “How can this [Tragic Event X] be God’s will?”
Here’s my answer: It can be God’s will because God wants more than one thing. As my friend and frequent commenter Tom Harkins often reminds me, it’s the Law of Competing Principles: God doesn’t necessarily want some tragic or evil event to happen, all things being equal. Nevertheless, given that these are the circumstances in which the world finds itself at this moment (based in part on the free choices of human beings and God’s desire, most of the time, to “let the universe be the universe”), God clearly wants this tragic event to happen more than God wants something else to happen. If not, he would have either created a different world or intervened with a miracle.
We finite human beings may certainly desire some other alternative, but what do we know? Unlike God, we’re not omniscient. We can’t begin to imagine how much more harmful our favored alternative would be than the one that God allowed to happen. So, yes… God willed Tragic Event X to happen because letting it happen beat any other alternative. So let’s trust God: he knows what he’s doing!
Does holding this high view of providence make me a Calvinist? (I suspect that this was the unspoken fear of my fellow Methodist friend.)
Why would it? Wesley himself held a high view of providence. Please remember: We’re not Wesleyans because we don’t believe in God’s sovereignty, only that this sovereignty doesn’t preclude a human being’s free choice—enabled as it is by the Holy Spirit—to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation. There’s only a very narrow kind of freedom at stake in the question, and if it weren’t for God’s prevenient grace, even that freedom wouldn’t exist. We Wesleyan-Arminians would all be nodding in agreement with our Calvinist brethren when they talk about the “T” of TULIP and five-point Calvinism. Apart from prevenient grace, Wesleyans agree that human beings are all “totally depraved,” unable to do anything to save ourselves.
My thinking on this topic, reflected in these two posts, has been greatly informed by C.S. Lewis’s appendix “On Special Providence” in his book Miracles. Like me, Lewis rejects the idea that some events are providential while others aren’t (which my friend Geoff was seemingly saying). Among other things, Lewis writes:
Many pious people… speak of certain events as being ‘providential’ or ‘special providences’ without meaning that they are miraculous. This generally implies a belief that, quite apart from miracles, some events are providential in a sense in which some others are not. Thus some people thought that the weather which enabled us to bring off so much of our army at Dunkirk was ‘providential’ in some way in which weather as a whole is not providential. The Christian doctrine that some events, though not miracles, are yet answers to prayer, would seem at first to imply this.
I find it very difficult to conceive an intermediate class of events which are neither miraculous nor merely ‘ordinary’. Either the weather at Dunkirk was or was not that which the previous history of the universe, by its own character, would inevitably produce. If it was, then how is it ‘specially’ providential? If it was not, then it was a miracle.
So, Lewis says, we face a choice: abandon providence altogether, and with it a belief that God answers prayer, or figure out how all events are providential. So, Lewis writes,
it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws.’
It’s then Lewis’s burden to show, in greater detail than I’ve gone into, how God can direct without determining, and without ever abrogating human free will or the efficacy of prayer.
In a nutshell, Lewis argues, since God stands outside of time and knows all the prayers that human beings would offer under given circumstances—in what Lewis calls the “eternal Now”—God is creating a world that has built into it as many of these answers to prayer as will serve God’s good purposes.
I especially like this:
When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.)
1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 283-4.
2. Ibid., 284
3. Ibid., 294.