Arminianism, God’s providence, and suffering

March 5, 2014

In case you haven’t noticed on this blog recently, I have recovered a far more robust view of God’s providence in our lives and world—so much so that I happily say, with a sigh of relief, “God is in control.” My favorite fellow Arminian blogger, Roger Olson, won’t go that far—out of fear that saying so compromises human free will or makes God the author of sin and evil. He says, instead, “God is in charge but not in control.” He says God does not “micromanage” history or human lives.

While I have felt at odds with many of my fellow Methodist clergy over the doctrine of providence, am I also at odds with Arminianism itself? Am I becoming… Calvinist?

Thank heavens, no!

Perhaps Olson himself sensed that his quibble over words like “control” and “micromanage” had caused Arminians like me to wonder if we (or he) were outside the Arminian camp. As he makes clear in this post, however, being Arminian does not imply a weak view of God’s providence. On the contrary!

The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. One qualification is necessary even here. In relation to creaturely decisions and actions that are sinful, God never designs, foreordains or renders certain individuals’ evil decisions and actions that would cause their condemnation.

Olson is careful above to say that God isn’t the author of evil, and God doesn’t override an individual’s free will when it comes to their acceptance or rejection of God’s gift of salvation in Christ. These are bedrocks of Arminian doctrine.

But my main concern here, now, is to say that God DOES interfere in free will in guiding and directing our lives as his people. He is not the author of our sins or failures, but he does direct our lives in terms of opening and closing doors.

My point is that for the Arminian God is not a “deist God”—uninvolved and only observing. God is intimately involved in the details of our lives—to the extent that we allow him to be. If we shut him out of our lives and tell him to leave us alone he will, saying, reluctantly, “Okay, thy will, not mine be done.” This, too, of course, is within his will—consequently but not antecedently.

This is how I understand God’s providence in my life when I sing, for example, hymns that talk about God “appointing my pathway, knowing just what is needful and best.” I never think such lyrics mean God designs , foreordains or renders certain my sins or failures. I take them to mean that God has a plan for my life and, insofar as I surrender to his will, whatever happens to me is “needful and best.”

Of course, God does not design, foreordain or render certain OTHERS’ sins that impact my life. In that case he permits me to be impacted by their sins and brings good for me out of them. But I have no problem believing that he foresees their sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that [is] “needful and best” for me.

So he and I are on the same page, even though I see no harm in speaking of God’s being “in control.” I also don’t see how what he’s written above means that God doesn’t micromanage. He would at least concede that God manages very, very closely, right?

Regardless, like me, Olson rightly sees what’s at stake in the question of the doctrine: Is God actively involved in our lives and world—including answering our prayers and guiding our paths—or does God mostly let events run their course?

The liberal mainline Protestant answer, which I now completely reject, leans toward the latter: God hates that we suffer, and God suffers alongside us, but he doesn’t really do all that much about it. To be sure, this safely insulates God from being being responsible for evil in the world, but where does it leave us when bad things happen? “It’s all a mystery,” we say. God can’t possibly be allowing this to happen for a reason—to serve his good purposes. The less said about what God is up to, or even that he’s up to anything, the better.

How many of my fellow Methodist clergy, fresh out of liberal mainline seminary, would agree with the following statement from Olson? “But I have no problem believing that he foresees [other people’s] sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that is ‘needful and best’ for me.”

From the perspective of too many of us Methodist clergy (which, sadly, used to be my perspective), there can be nothing “needful and best” about God’s allowing us to suffer.

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