One spiritual dichotomy that I have been stewing on lately is the idea of free will and how it (if it exists) coexists with God’s sovereignty. The other day I saw something that I think may shed some light on the subject. A child was sitting in one of those grocery carts that looks like a car, with a little steering wheel. His mom was pushing the cart through the parking lot erratically, both mother and child were laughing and shrieking, obviously having a wonderful time. I noticed that when the boy turned the wheel left, the mom moved the cart left, and when the boy turned the wheel right, the mom moved the cart right.
Now, for the question… Who was sovereign in that situation, the mother or the son?
What if the mother wanted to teach her son about what it is like to really steer? She would likely do this by allowing him to run into things, to show him what happens when there is no rhyme or reason to the turning of the wheel. Suppose the son wanted to steer the cart directly into the nearby highway? Would the mom allow that? Not likely.
I wonder if this scenario is applicable to our understanding of the seemingly free choices we make and God’s ultimate control of the universe. R.C. Sproul said something that stuck with me, regarding God’s sovereignty. He said that if there is one renegade molecule in the universe, then God is not God. Why? Because there would exist something, in this case the renegade molecule, which took Him by surprise, which operated according to a plan other than God’s plan.
Sometimes we see that terrible things happen, and we wonder how or why God would allow it, we wonder why God keeps pushing the cart even though He knows we are steering ourselves into the highway. All He has to do is stop pushing the cart. But then, we must also consider that we see the entire situation from one perspective, that is, our own. What about seeing it from God’s perspective? Since God can (and will) make all things new, since God has promised to bring resolution to the tension caused by horrors such as violence, starvation, death, etc, isn’t the human existence as we now know it just a lesson in the divinely ordained do-over? A mother would not keep pushing the cart into the highway for one reason – she does not have the power to put an end to pain or to give life. The consequences of the situation are beyond her control. But this is not the case with God. God is able to redo or undo or just plain do, well, anything He wants.
I remember telling my son, Seth, that when he was taller then me, I would let him go places and do things on his own. He used to stand next to me every few weeks to see if he was tall enough yet. In the meantime, I saw that he was getting smarter about the dangers in the world. When he was still an inch short of venturing around the neighborhood on his own, I said, “If there were nothing in the world that could hurt you, no accidents, no getting lost, no strangers with bad intentions, no poisonous snakes or dehydration or any other life threatening thing, I would let you go as far as you want to go and do whatever you want to do.” Then Seth took it a step further and asked me, “If you had the power to find me no matter how far I went, bring me back to life if I died, or rescue me from getting trapped for a long time in a bad situation, would you let me go off on my own right now?” I told him I would.
Perhaps these illustrations are inaccurate or inadequate. Free will and God’s sovereignty is a spiritual dichotomy with which philosophers and theologians have been wresting for ages. I don’t expect that I will be the one to come up with an explanation, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Just yesterday I experienced a spiritual breakthrough which I am not willing to share (yet), something I had been wrestling with for my entire life. If God can teach me about Himself in one seemingly unsolvable puzzle, why would He not be able to teach me about the relation between free will and His sovereignty? One thing I know for sure – to settle in “it’s a mystery” or “we may never understand” mentality for longer than a season is the equivalent of spiritual stagnancy. There is such a thing as being at peace with God even though we don’t understand, but the fact that an unanswered question remains, is, to me, an invitation to a choice. We can choose to dive into the scary-grand adventure of discovering God and be changed, or we can remain comfortably dormant, without progress, without development. Is that choice evidence of free will? I don’t know. But to be perpetually content with “I don’t know” is tantamount to Copernicus ignoring the wandering stars and settling for “we may never understand” instead.