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God’s control over this universe is absolute—this is something He makes quite clear in the Bible. But also in the Bible, we find God talking to people as if they are making a bunch of independent choices. So how does that work? If God is really controlling everything, how can our choices be more than that of automatons? And if God has preprogrammed us to like certain things, and think certain ways, then how can He blame us for making choices He doesn’t like? Aren’t we all just living out some prewritten script? These are the questions we’ll answer in this post.
Suppose I’m holding a deck of 52 cards in my hand. I lay three cards down on a table in front of you and say “Pick any card you like.” Of course what I really mean is, “Pick any card among the three that I’ve put in front of you.” There are 52 cards in the deck, but I’m holding 49 of them back and I have intentionally selected which three you get to choose from. Now you choose your card. Should we conclude that your choice was irrelevant because your options were limited? Not at all. You still made a free choice among the three options I gave you. I didn’t force you to choose one particular card. This is how it works with you and God. He is constantly limiting your options, but He is still presenting you with choices and you are still choosing. This is why it is fair for Him to judge you—because He is not forcing all of your choices upon you. This is also why God is the only One who can judge you fairly: He is the only One who knows how many choices He has put in front of you at a given moment.
Humans are terrible judges of each other because they do not accurately see each other’s choices, nor do they respect the notion of limited choice for people they don’t like. If you are supposed to be dieting and I find you sneaking a chocolate bar, you’ll rush to defend yourself by telling me how stressful your day was and how tired you were and how much you were craving a taste of something sweet. What you’re really saying is that you had very limited options. You’re insisting that in this particular moment of time, the option of self-control simply wasn’t being made available to you, therefore I should suspend judgment.
But later on, when you see a fat person in the grocery store buying a bunch of sweets, you will probably think something like, “Wow, if they eat like that, no wonder they’re so big. Talk about no self-control.” When you’re the one messing up, you want everyone to recognize your limited options. But when it comes to other people, you assume they had a complete set of options available to them, therefore it’s always their fault if they aren’t perfect.
We do this in the Church as well. We view the Holy Spirit like a full deck of 52 cards. Since the Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian, we say there’s no reasonable excuse for sinning, because Christians always have the option of perfect righteousness readily available to them. So if you doubt, it’s because you’re refusing to exercise your option of perfect faith. If you’re rude, it’s because you’re refusing to exercise your option of perfect self-control. And once we teach Christians that God has placed the option of Christlike behavior in front of them at all times, therefore they can expect no sympathy or compassion from Him when they stumble, then of course all we do is make souls feel so buried in shame and discouragement that they end up running away from God entirely. God wants us to come boldly before Him, confident of His love and compassion for us. But if we don’t have a proper view of how He leads us in life, then we easily buy the deception that God must be constantly angry and disgusted with us for always failing to choose the path of perfect behavior which He has placed at our very fingertips.
Suppose you get up one morning and decide you need to get some housework done. You see two things that need doing: vacuuming and stocking up the groceries. Now you freely decide which path you’re going to take. You decide to vacuum. You get out the cleaner and plug it in. So far you’re feeling very in control of your day. But when you’re halfway done, the electrical power in your house goes out. This is something that is completely beyond your control—this is an event God is bringing into your life and with it comes a new set of choices. Do you wait it out or go and try to get the grocery shopping done? This is another choice you freely make, and you decide to go to the store. You get in your car, and head to the market. On the way there, you run into heavy traffic that has piled up due to an accident. These are more factors you have no control over—things you did not choose or want, yet God has chosen them for you. When you finally get to the grocery store, more options will await you. You’ll choose what brand of foods to buy, which checkout line to wait in, and whether to pay with cash or credit. But you won’t have control over how fast the checkout line moves, the behavior of the people waiting around you, or the environment in the store. And you didn’t choose the prices of the food you’re buying, either. Those prices were chosen by other people who made choices that are now affecting your life.
As we can see by this scenario, your life is filled with a variety of factors. Some things are forced upon you and you can’t get around them—like the loss of electricity, the price of food, and the traffic jam. In some cases, you can make choices that will minimize how much these things affect you. If your checkout line isn’t moving, you can try changing to a quicker one. But some things you’re stuck with until someone else changes them, like the loss of electricity or the prices of food. When you do make choices, they are always drastically limited by God. You never get anywhere close to seeing the whole deck of cards. But your choices are still very real and very important.
The fact that God has created you with the capacity for choosing is very significant to Him. It makes your relationship far richer than it otherwise would be. When it came to creating humans, God was not at all interested in automatons. Would you rather pet a stuffed toy dog or a real one that is wagging its tail happily? The real dog is far more interesting. In the same way, talking to a real human is far more engaging than talking to a mannequin that you’ve propped up in a chair. In both cases, you want to engage with a living, conscious being who has the ability to choose their behavior and respond in a variety of ways to you. It’s the same with God. Now and then you’ll see an artist depicting God as moving chess pieces about on a board. The chess pieces are supposed to be people, and the picture is supposed to capture the idea of God’s total control over everything. Yet you are not just some object that God pushes about on the face of the earth. You are not some doll that He maneuvers about like a girl playing with her doll house. You are a living, conscious being who has been given the option of rebelling against God. The fact that He gives you the option of rejecting Him is what makes your acceptance of Him so meaningful. It also makes your rejection of Him more meaningful, because when we reject God, we understand what we’re doing. No child needs to be taught how to obey or disobey—these concepts are wired in. When mom tells us to do something, we choose whether we’re going to cooperate or rebel. If we rebel, we know that we are defying her authority and so we are not surprised when she gets upset with us. This warring of wills starts the day we are born as we come into the world screaming with discontentment and demanding that people rush to try and pacify us. Though we get wrapped with warm blankets and cradled in loving arms, it still takes us a while to get over our huff. After all, we’ve been rudely ousted from the only home we’ve ever known inside our mother’s womb and we don’t much care for this terribly dry alien planet with loud noises and bright lights and giants all around us. Yet the fact that we are such opinionated little things—always crying when we don’t get our way and acting like the world has ended when we can’t find our favorite toy—is what makes us so appealing to God. He could have made us all completely complacent beings who just lie around in our cribs like silent lumps and accept whatever life brings us. But He’d much rather we interact with our environment, form opinions, make demands, and choose who we will like and who we will hate. If you get an abused dog to submit to you, what do you have? The poor thing cowers at everyone who comes near. But God starts us off assuming that the universe revolves around us and demanding that our hungry stomach or desire for company be at the top of everyone else’s priority list. When such self-centered creatures then decide to submit to God and seek His pleasure over their own—well, that is exciting. That is powerful. Our submission to Christ is not some meaningless, preprogrammed motion, but a decision we make because we decide that God truly is greater than ourselves. Of course if we rebel against God and refuse to submit to Him, He responds with terrifying consequences. Yet it is because He does not force us to submit to Him in this life which makes our submission worth so much. And when we consider how few people will ever submit to God and how the vast majority of us will end up in Hell, we realize how important this choosing business is for God. He wants dynamic relationships with us. He won’t settle for robotic and forced. He’d rather lose most of us than keep all of us at the cost of turning us into brainless automatons.
Now let’s consider the cross and what great lengths God went to in order to communicate just how precious we are to Him. Even though He knows only a small percentage of the whole human race will ever choose Him, He still went through the whole ordeal of the cross in order to prove beyond all doubt how much He values relating to human beings. We do not have a Creator who is lukewarm about us, but One who is extremely attracted to us. The only One God loves more than us is Himself, which is why He will not allow us to defy Him without consequences. If we insist on treating Him like dirt, God’s love for us will change into hate in eternity as He tortures us forever in Hell. We’re dealing with passion of immeasurable intensity—we won’t ever see God casting us into some neutral pool. The only two options He gives us in eternity are polar opposites of each other and both are extreme environments. Heaven is a paradise with a shocking absence of grief and strife, while Hell is devoid of any pleasure or peace. Both are rewards which we earn based on how we responded to all of those limited choices God gave us on earth. We are not rewarded or punished for the things He forced upon us, but only for the choices that He knows we made. Sometimes we try to pretend we had fewer options than we really did, or we blame ourselves for not choosing options that we really didn’t have available. But God always knows the truth and that is what He will judge us by. God will judge us fairly—He will not blame us for things that were beyond our control. His assessment of our lives will be quite different than other people’s assessment of us. And as we go through life, God will tap us with conviction about which direction He wants us to go in at certain forks in the road. Not every decision we make is a moral dilemma, nor will we hear God convicting us to always choose one thing over another. In many situations, God doesn’t care which option we pick. One morning we can decide whether to put on a red shirt or a blue shirt and He will work either decision into His plans. On another morning, He might strongly urge us to call a friend who needs to talk and we’ll decide whether to obey or blow Him off. God does not leave us without direction and then nail us for not doing what He wanted. Whenever He wants us to make a certain decision, He will make that very clear to us. We don’t have to worry about missing His cues when we sincerely want to please Him in life, for He will make sure to communicate His preferences to us in a way that we understand. God is good, kind, fair and generous. He is really very easy to please once we realize that He is intentionally limiting our options in life and He judges us according to those limitations.
No Christian gets the option of Christlike perfection presented to them. While Satan will try to convince you that sinless living is very much within your grasp, this simply isn’t true. You will sin in life, yet how much that sin creates problems in your relationship with God has to do with your core attitude. If you sincerely want to please Him, you will want to do what He says. Wanting to do what God says and having the resources to carry out your desire are two very different things. When God presents us with choices in life, He cares about our internal response to those choices. When He convicts us, our souls either agree with the conviction and desire to carry it out, or we fluff it off and treat the Holy Spirit like an annoying pest. These internal responses are what we will be judged by in eternity. Maybe you feel prompted to say something nice to a lady on a public bus. You try to compliment her on her outfit, but you trip over your words, then she doesn’t hear you, and by the time you shout your compliment at her, you’re all red in the face, everyone’s staring at you, and you feel like a fool. Plus the lady gives you a strange look and moves to a seat that’s far away. Is God going to grade you down for awkward execution? Not at all. He will be quite pleased with you because you wanted to obey Him. You won’t see what earthly good you did and you’ll wonder why God prompted you in the first place, but none of that matters. What matters is that your soul chose obedience, therefore you honored God.
MORE ABOUT HUMAN CHOICE: Can God force us to sin?, Can God force us to obey?