UGW #1: Our Impact on God's Will

"Understanding God's Will" Question 1:

You say that we have an effect on the path that we walk in this life, that God’s “best path and best plans” don’t always "just happen" apart from our cooperation.  Do you have Scripture to back that up?

Yes, well, I’m glad you asked.  But first, let me ask this:  If God always did whatever He wanted to do in our lives, regardless of us, why are we told so often in the Bible to pray for wisdom, to seek it, to be discerning?  If our choices and actions don’t matter and don’t have an effect on what He does in our lives, then it doesn’t matter if we live with wisdom or foolishness.  Whatever happens is God’s plan, right?  

[The Calvinist answer would probably be something like, "God ordains the means as well as the ends," meaning that He predestines (i.e. causes, forces) the end goal and all the steps to get there, what we do and what our choices are and if we pray or not.  

But once again, "Why should we bother caring or trying to seek His Will and obey His Will if He, as Calvinist theology teaches, preplans and controls everything, down to whether or not we even care or try?  If we're meant to care or try, He'll cause it to happen, with or without our thoughts, desires, or efforts.  If we're not meant to, then He'll make sure we never do.  It's all up to Him; we have no influence over it.  So why should we sweat it?"  

In the end, Calvinism is self-defeating, because nothing we think or do really matters because Calvi-god's planned it all and will carry it all out, regardless of us.  We are mere puppets lying lifeless on the ground until the puppet-master chooses to make us act out our part of his pre-written play.  

You know, I'd love to see how Calvinist pastors who've asked people to fill ministry positions and give money to the church would respond to someone who replied with, "Well, let's wait and see what God has ordained.  If I do it then God ordained I would.  If I don't then God ordained I wouldn't.  It's already been predetermined and there's nothing I can do about it.  And remember that if I don't serve at church or tithe, then it's what God ordained would happen, for His glory.  So don't blame me; take it up with Him!"  

I bet that Calvinist pastors would go pretty quickly from "God predetermined all things and controls all things" to "We are responsible for making our own decisions."

And if they try to appeal to verses that tell us God wants us to tithe and serve, saying, "See, it says right here that it's God's Will that we tithe and serve," then I'd say, "Yeah, well, the Bible also says it's God's Will that no one perishes, but Calvinists say that's only His 'revealed' Will.  They say He has a secondary 'secret' Will which overrides and contradicts His 'revealed' Will, which is that He actually wants most people in hell for His glory and so He created them to only be able to go to hell.  And Calvinists say it's okay for God to do this, to have two contradictory Wills.  So therefore, according to Calvinist theology, is it not possible that God also has secondary 'secret' Wills about any other of His commandments which contradicts what He revealed in the Bible, such as about tithing and serving?  And why not add in there His commands about divorce and adultery and sexuality and idolatry, etc.  If Calvinists say it's okay for Him to say one thing but mean another - such as, for another example, when He told Adam and Eve He didn't want them to eat the fruit when it was actually His Will that they ate the fruit, according to Calvinism - then how can we trust anything He says anywhere in the Bible?"

Once again, can you see how self-defeating this theology is and the damage it does to the Gospel and God's character!?!]

Proverbs 4:7 tells us “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.  Though it cost you all you have, get understanding.”

Proverbs 2 tells us to seek wisdom diligently.  And when we do, we will “understand what is right and just and fair - every good path.”  (Proverbs 2:9)  Wisdom is necessary to figure out the “good paths” that God wants us to take.  He doesn’t just do what He wills or what He wants to have happen in our lives.  We have to be walking in wisdom to figure it out.

I think the problem comes when we misinterpret verses like “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord ...” (Jeremiah 29:11), “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9), and “... for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13).

We hear these and think it means that since He has plans, He’ll do what He plans, regardless of us.  That His plans are set in stone and it’s going to happen regardless of what we do.  Right?

And I’m sure some verses seem to support for this.  After all, there are times in the Bible where we read about certain people being called up or raised up by God for a certain purpose, like judges, Pharaohs, and prophets.  And maybe He did "force" them (certain, specific people in history) to do what He wanted.  At the very least, He orchestrated events to get them to the point He wanted them to be.  Whether or not they had a choice to obey or disobey, I don’t know.  And God has the right to do that.

But ... maybe God didn’t really override their free-will?  Maybe it’s that He knew which person would be the best fit for His purposes at that particular time in history, and so He foreknew who He could use and how and for what purposes, and He weaved that into His plan.  That’s how I best understand it.  

Calvinists would say God forced Pharaoh to be the hard-hearted person he was so that God could use it for His plans.  But I say God let Pharaoh be the hard-hearted person Pharaoh wanted to be, and then after Pharaoh decided who he wanted to be, God made it permanent by hardening Pharaoh so that He could use it for His plans.  Calvinists would say that God "irresistibly called" (forced) Saul to become the apostle Paul, that Paul had no choice about becoming a believer and apostle, to do the job God gave him.  But I say that there's nothing in Saul/Paul's conversion story that shows that he didn't have a choice in how he responded to God's blindingly-clear call.  I say that when the Lord blinded him and called him, Paul wasn't "forced" to be a believer; he was just smart enough to recognize God when he saw Him and to know that he had better believe and do what he's told.  God didn't control what Paul decided; He just made Himself so clear that only a great fool would refuse to believe.  And Paul was not a great fool.  

I do not believe God controls the decisions we make.  But He can and does put us in situations that cause us to make the decisions He knows we will make.  And He can and does work circumstances out in such a way to appeal to our personalities to get us to do what He wants us to do.  

Such as, imagine a situation where God knows Bill is a faithful, outspoken witness, with a tender heart for hurting people.  And Susan is a hurting woman who is searching for some hope, for God, but she doesn't know how to find Him.  So God manipulates the circumstances by stalling Bill's car so that Bill decides to take the train to work.  And God makes Bill late for Train A so that he ends up on Train B, next to Susan.  And in the course of the train ride, Bill and Susan strike up a conversation, and Bill ends up helping Susan find the Lord.  God didn't force Bill to be a believer or to be outspoken or to care about hurting people or to talk to Susan.  He didn't even force Bill to decide to ride the train, because Bill could have chosen to call in and tell the bosses he couldn't make it that day.  But since Bill was the kind of person he was and God knew that he'd decide to take the train and that Susan was on a train too, God orchestrated events to work it all into good, into something eternally useful.  

This is how God can work things together without overriding our free-will right to choose, and how He can hold us accountable for our choices (such as to sin and rebel) even though He can use them for His plans and work them into good.  He does it by manipulating circumstances in a way to appeal to our free-will, to make the most of the choices He knows we'll make.  Not by causing us to decide what we do (which causes a severe problem when Calvinists claim that God "preplans, controls, causes" our sins and unbelief).   

Whichever way God chooses to work circumstances out to get us to make a choice, in the end it's our decision to obey or disobey.  And since it's our choice, we are responsible for our decisions and the consequences we reap.  And whether we obey or disobey, God knew what we'd do and how to incorporate it into His plans.

But even if God did have certain pre-set plans for specific Bible people, I do not think that's how God works in general for the rest of us.  I don't think we have pre-set paths all planned out for us, waiting for us to find them, or plans that will happen no matter what we do.  I think God has general plans for us, such as to serve Him, to be honest, to bring Him glory, to witness to others, etc., but we can chose how we fulfill those plans and whether we will follow His ways or not, like the Israelite nation as a whole.

Many times in the Old Testament, we read that God lays out blessings and curses and then tells the people to choose (see Deuteronomy 30).  He tells them that their choice to obey or disobey His commands will determine if they take the blessing path or the curse path.  Obviously, it’s God’s desire that they take the path to blessings, but He doesn’t force it.  He allows them to choose and He allows them to disobey.  And then, He allows them to face the consequences.

[If Calvinism is true, that Calvi-god ultimately controls all, then he not only deceives the people into thinking they really have a choice between two paths, between obeying and disobeying, but then he also causes them to disobey and then he punishes them for it, making it seem like it was their fault.

And he causes their disobedience and sins (their worship of other gods, their rejection of him, their disobedience, their sexual perversion, etc.) for his glory ... because according to Calvinists, Calvi-god does everything, even causing sin, abuse, unbelief, etc., for his glory, which is basically Calvi-god's main and sole focus and goal.  

John Calvin has even said that Satan's main goal is to extinguish God's glory.  But think about that for a moment!  If Calvi-god controls Satan, then Calvi-god causes Satan to try to extinguish his glory ... for his glory.  Do you not see how ridiculous and self-defeating this is!?!  Calvi-god is insane, unpredictable, untrustworthy, self-contradictory, and glorified by evil, sin, and people being in hell.  Why in the world would anyone trust a god like this!?!

But Calvinists try to explain this all away with "But He's God and can do whatever He wants.  He is the Potter; we are the clay.  We can't talk back to Him and we don't have to understand it; we just have to accept it."

Well, excuse me, but I say that if your theology makes God the cause of sin and unbelief, if it says that Jesus didn't really die for all sins of all people, that God doesn't really love everyone, that most people are destined to go to hell and can't do anything about it, that God causes our sins but punishes us for it, that He is glorified by evil, etc. ... then you had better understand why you believe this!  You better have very good reasons for why you believe something that contradicts the plain reading of Scripture.  You better have solid biblical support for a theology that I say profanes God's holy character and Jesus's sacrificial death and God's amazing grace!  Because when you stand before God and give an account for your beliefs about Him and for what you told others to believe about Him, "I don't really know, but I was told to accept it and that I wasn't really supposed to understand it anyway" isn't going to cut it!]   

Yes, God has plans.  Ways He wants us to live.  Things He wants us to do.  Goals He wants us to accomplish.  And He asks us to join Him in those plans and to follow Him, but He doesn’t force us to.  And I think God allows a lot of freedom-to-move within the boundaries He's given us, when it comes to how we fulfill His over-arching goals for a Christian's life and ministry.  

And I think the verses that talk about God “determining out steps” need to be viewed in light of all the other verses that talk about our steps being guided as we obey God, as we walk in His ways and use wisdom.  It’s not that He forces us down certain paths; it’s that He guides us down the path and “determines our steps” when we are living in obedience to Him, walking in His ways, following His commands, seeking Him, abiding in His Word, praying, and using wisdom.  It doesn’t just happen, apart from our obedient lifestyle.  We cannot just do what we want and expect that it's all "God's Will" or that we are automatically on the best path for us.

Exodus 19:5:  “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.”  (If the Israelites obeyed, then they would get the blessing.)

Deuteronomy 6:3:  “Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you.”  (God’s promises and His best plans for us hinge on our obedience.)

Psalm 119:1-4, 9-10:  “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.  Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.  They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.  You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.... How can a young man keep his way pure?  By living according to your word.  I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.”  (Those who walk according to His law are walking in His ways.  If we want to find the best “way” and the blessed path, we have to obey Him.  They don’t just come to us apart from our obedience.  And I'm just wondering: If Calvinism is true, that God controls our decisions, whether we stray or not, why pray for Him to keep us from straying?  If we stray, wouldn't it be because He predestined it and caused it?  What effect can our prayers have on what He's predestined?  And if Calvinists say He predestined the prayer and well as our actions, then does He predestine that we pray to not stray even though He plans on causing us to stray?  Does He predestine that we pray for one thing while He causes the other?  Does this make any sense?  Does it make Him trustworthy and honest and good?)

Proverbs 3:5-6:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”  (Our paths are straightened out by the Lord as we trust Him and acknowledge Him in all our ways, as we walk with Him daily.  And notice that this verse says that God is a God of "straight paths," of making the way straight.  But Calvinists would have to say that Calvi-god is a god of crooked paths, of preplanning/causing sin and unbelief and rebellion, for his plans and glory.  So then how can they ever trust that Calvi-god is truly leading them on a straight path when he could just as easily be leading them down a crooked, sinful, rebellious path?  How different Calvi-god is from the God of the Bible!)

Matthew 6:33:  “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (Once again, we’ll get the blessings that God wants to give us when we put our focus on seeking His kingdom and His righteousness.)

There are some things - some overarching plans - that He has decided will happen, and we can’t change those, such as having all people eventually recognize that He is God.  This will happen in the end, when every eye sees Him and every knee bends.  That is going to happen regardless of what we do.  (God has ways of getting us to our knees.  If not in this lifetime, then in the next ... when the chance to choose to be on His side has passed.  So if you are eventually going to have to bend a knee to Him anyway, why not do it now, when it comes with salvation!)  But we do have an impact on how we get to that point.  We can rebel, we can harden our hearts, we can backslide.  Or we can seek Him, obey Him, and honor Him as God now.  

It’s kinda like a cop saying, “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way; but either way, you’re going with me!”  The end may be decided - that people will eternally be in one of two places (heaven or hell) - but you decide which path you take to get there, which eternal life you want.  

A simple illustration I give my kids about the Bible's view of predestination is this: It's like God has set up two buses, one to heaven and one to hell.  The destination of these two buses has been predestined, but we decide which bus we want to get on.  And we all have to pick one.  And the only way to get on the bus to heaven is through faith in Jesus, repentance from sins, accepting Him as Lord and Savior.  So even not making a decision about Jesus is making a decision, because if you don't choose Jesus as Lord and Savior then you end up on the bus to hell by default.  God doesn't predestine which bus we pick; He leaves that up to us.  He just predestines that there are only two buses, where they are headed, that we have to make a choice, and the consequences that come with the decision we make.  

This makes me think of the Israelites and the trip to Canaan.  God wanted them to enter the Promised Land.  He desired that and planned that for them, but they rebelled and grumbled and disobeyed.  So as a consequence of their rebellion, He extended their stay in the desert until all the grumblers died off.  And then He led them to the Promised Land.

His long-term plan was that His people got to the land He promised.  His short-term plan was to get the same people into Canaan that He took out of Egypt.  But because of the people’s behavior and choices, they altered the short-term plan and earned themselves serious consequences.  And yet even with the people’s rebellion, He still found a way to accomplish His long-term plan.

But it didn’t have to work out the way that it did.  God didn’t “will” that they die in the desert.  They could have had the blessings and His original plan for them, if they had just obeyed.  We are given the choice to cooperate with God in His plans or not, to obey or disobey, to follow Him or to go our own way.  And we will get the consequences that come with our choices.

I think those who believe God's Will always "just happens" and that everything that happens is God's Will fall into the trap of thinking we can do "whatever" and that we'll still end up being in His Will (and they can't understand why prayer matters).

But reading between the lines of Romans 12:1-2 shows me that God doesn’t just force His Will on people (what He desires for/from us), regardless of what man does.  Man actually has much greater level of responsibility than just “God's Will always happens, regardless of what I do.”

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Out of thankfulness for the mercy that God has shown us, we are to live holy and pleasing lives as God calls us to (this is what I call seeking righteousness or living righteously).  We are to sacrifice our desires and plans for His sake and for His kingdom, offering our bodies to be used by Him and for His purposes.  And this includes our minds, which we are to transform and renew by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We need to get our hearts and minds in line with Him.  And this can only really happen when we choose to stop conforming to the world.  We can’t do both: have our minds conformed to the world and transformed by the Holy Spirit.  But when we choose to let go of our worldly pursuits and mindsets - when we seek to be holy and pleasing and submissive to God - we give the Spirit room to come in and transform us.  And it is then that we can discern God’s perfect Will for our lives, what He wants for us and from us and the ways that He wants us to walk.  And then, it’s up to us to obey!

Psalm 37:23 tells us “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm.”  And Proverbs 11:5 says, “The righteousness of the blameless makes a straight way for them, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness.”

We won’t know God’s plans for us by trying to “force” Him to reveal it, by trying to make it happen, or by sitting back and waiting for it to come to us, presuming that God will drop blessings in our laps as we self-centeredly go about our business.  We have a lot more to do than just "going with the flow," thinking we’ll stumble onto God’s plans for our lives or always be in His Will no matter what.  We need to be delighting the Lord with our righteous living and our obedience if we want to remain on His best path for us.

Even Philippians 2:12 echoes this (which is just before the verse that says that God works in us to will and to act according to His purposes).  It says that as we have always obeyed, we are to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  We are to continue in our obedience, in fear of the Lord, because God works in us to accomplish His purposes.

For some reason, we always skip the part that talks about our responsibility, and we go right to the part that says that God will work in us according to His purposes.  And then we think that He’ll just do whatever He wants in us and through us, that we'll always be in His Will and that whatever happens is always His Will.  But I think the Bible shows that God works His plans out in cooperation with mankind, through our prayers and obedience.  They won’t just happen if we are not doing our part.  (Of course, He can and does use our disobedience and sins too, without causing them, but then we miss out on the kind of life He wanted us to have.)

But most of us don’t want to put that kind of effort in.  We’d rather just convince ourselves that every open door is from God and that He does whatever He wants, that everything that happens is "His Will".  It’s a lot easier and a lot less disruptive than transforming our lives and our minds.

For the posts in this series, see the "Understanding God's Will" label in the sidebar (or find the original series, without the Calvinism info, by clicking here).

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