I don’t often comment on the free will/predestination conundrum. If I had to “pick a side”, I would err on the side of free will. It’s a conundrum because the Bible includes verses and passages that seem to support free will and verses and passages that seem to support the idea of predestination.
Some people say this is an example of contradictions in the Bible. Some people land on one side or the other, seemingly ignoring or explaining away the verses that suggest otherwise.
I say it’s a paradox. A paradox is “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.” A paradox may appear to be a contradiction, but it turns out to be true, and noncontradictory.
How are man’s free will and God’s preordainment true? I don’t honestly know. That we human beings think that we must figure everything out, or it cannot be true, is frankly an arrogant thought, finite creatures that we are. At the same time, we are not completely unreasonable to seek some explanation or understanding.
If you expect, now , that I will give one, I have to apologize in advance. I do have some thoughts about it and will explore them in one of those verses that affirms the free will of men:
“As he approached and saw the city, he wept for it, saying, ‘If you knew this day what would bring peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you and your children among you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another in your midst, because you did not recognize the time when God visited you.’”
In my daily Bible reading today, I read through Luke 17. While I have been reading through the Gospels, the kingdom of God has been the theme that has caught my eye. I have meditated and written on the kingdom of God a few times recently in my latest trip through the Gospels in chronological order.
Today, I read the following:
“When he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable; no one will say, ‘See here!’ or ‘There!’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.’”
Luke 17:20-22 CSB
The Pharisees asked Jesus about the Kingdom of God. This was their orientation. They looked back on David the king and all the kings of Israel and on a future Messiah who would reestablish the throne of the Davidic Kingdom. They were predisposed to think this way for tens of generations.
The response Jesus gave them wasn’t what they expected or what they hoped for. If Jesus was the Messiah, as some people were claiming, he would certainly reestablish the ancient kingdom in short order. Or so they thought.
What did he mean that the kingdom wasn’t coming with something observable?! What good would a kingdom be that could not be seen? What kind of a kingdom would that be?
At the same time, if they could get past their assumptions driven by their long-awaited expectations and listen to what Jesus was saying, they would focus on the statement: “For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst!” Present tense!
In many of the parables Jesus spoke about the kingdom, he paints a picture of the kingdom as something like leaven that makes bread rise or a small seed like a mustard seed that grows up into a large bush that can hold many birds.
These parables suggest that the kingdom of God does not come with pomp and circumstance in impressive form. It is more like salt and light, things that we take completely for granted, which we either can’t live without or which enhance or flavor and preserve and sustain us in ways that we might not even appreciate.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “is in our midst”, but we are apt to miss it if we do not appreciate what he means. Kingdoms have a king, of course, and Jesus is that king, but he is not a king now in the common sense of the word. He has not (yet) established an earthly kingdom, but a “heavenly one”.
Just as God created all that is seen from what is unseen, Jesus has established the kingdom, for now, through what is unseen. He invites us into His kingdom. It’s a gift offered to us. (Eph. 2:8)
The kingdom is nothing we can earn. (Eph. 2:9) We can’t be born into it; we don’t receive it as a privileged offer; we aren’t selected to receive the offer. (John 1:12) The kingdom is offered freely to all who respond by faith and enter into it.
The kingdom of God is experienced through relationship with God, the Father, through the mediation of Jesus, the Son, and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. We live out the kingdom of God in community with other believers and our interactions in the world. If we are true ambassadors of God’s kingdom, people will be attracted to our salt and light – or repelled by it as they who rejected Jesus were repelled.
The kingdom of God is demonstrated on earth now through lives of people who have given themselves over to its king, through the lives of people who follow Jesus, who have taken up their crosses, who have given up their lives, and who have devoted themselves to becoming like their Lord and savior. Where two or more gather to pray in Christ’s name, he is there.
This is the good news of the gospel that Jesus proclaimed to the poor, the freedom he proclaimed to the prisoners, the recovery of sight to the blind and the freedom to the oppressed. The kingdom of God is here and now openly available to all who would submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and King. But, Jesus also spoke of the future.
As Jesus often did with his closest disciples, he shared with them more intimate details that were not shared with the crowds at large:
“Then he told the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you won’t see it. They will say to you, ‘See there!’ or ‘See here!’ Don’t follow or run after them. For as the lightning flashes from horizon to horizon and lights up the sky, so the Son of Man will be in his day. But first it is necessary that he suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”
As believers, we can take solace and guidance from these words. The disciples were not prepared for what was to come – the ugly public condemnation, humiliation, and dominance of Roman authority over the Messiah, the king of God’s kingdom. They were not prepared for his suffering and death at the insistence of many of God’s own people.
The darkness of the world threatened to snuff out the light of God’s kingdom in them, and the darkness of today’s world does the same in us. Jesus warned them, and the warning stands for us, that the world would treat them (and us) the same way it treated him.
Jesus knew his followers would mourn for him and long for his return. This is a challenge for all true believers in Jesus Christ. We long for him to be with us, to return to earth. To right the wrongs and wipe away the tears.
We are tempted, therefore, to focus our attention on trying to determine when he will return. We are tempted to speculate and fixate on it. Indeed, people have written books and developed theologies about it. We even have a word for it: eschatology.
Many people over the years have claimed to figure it out and predict when he will return, but Jesus warned against us doing that. Jesus said no one will know the day or hour. Christ will return when he returns. His return will be unmistakable, but first came the business of suffering and dying.
Of course, Jesus suffered and died 2000 years ago now. We are tempted to think that times are different, but I believe Jesus was talking both about the present time and the future. His words to the disciples when he was anticipated his own imminent suffering and death provide us guidance still today.
The title to this piece seems like a silly question, right? But Jesus said,
“Consider how the wildflowers grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. If that’s how God clothes the grass, which is in the field today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he do for you — you of little faith?”
Luke 12:27-28 CSB
So, we need to ask again, “Does God throw wildflowers into a furnace?” I think it’s pretty safe to say that He doesn’t, right? Jesus is speaking allegorically here.
Jesus is saying in flowery terms that flowers are here today and gone tomorrow. They are beautiful, but only for a short time. No one reads this passage to mean that has a furnace where He throws all the wildflowers in the world. A wildflower furnace.
In the context of this little parable, Jesus is saying that wildflowers are magnificent in their splendor, though they last only a short time. The fact that God makes such temporary things as wildflowers beautiful in splendor is meant to give us hope and faith that He has much more splendor in store for us, the creatures He made in His own image!
These words give us great hope when life seems to be taking us down. No one interprets what Jesus says here as a lesson in the way God disposes of wildflowers. It’s a lesson about putting our faith in God.
I don’t use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” anymore. If you have been on social media in the last however many years, you know why. That phrase has been a typical and favored response to tragedy and hardship as long as I can remember, but it meets now with harsh rebukes.
I wince every time.
As a Christian for 40 years, I hold prayer sacred, even if I fall somewhat short in my own prayer life. A statement that I am thinking of you and praying for you and your situation is a polite staple of good manners. It is a benevolent expression of good will.
Some of the most vocal critics of “thoughts and prayers” hate and despise my Christian faith. Their criticism is full of venom.
The criticism is aimed at Christians, so I took it personally. I believe in prayer. I believe in the need to rely on God and turn to Him for guidance and wisdom. Just because you don’t believe in prayer doesn’t mean that prayer is an improper response for the person who believes.
At the same time, I have come to realize that I need to follow Christ instead of responding in anger. It’s taken me some years, but I have realized something about our public proclamations of “thoughts and prayers” that I hadn’t seen – maybe wasn’t willing to see – before.
We say, “thoughts and prayers”, in response to a cancer diagnosis, or a loved one’s death, or the loss of a job or other hardship or misfortune. We can say it so much, it can become barely more meaningful than wishing someone a good day. Still, it’s a proper thing to say, especially if we mean it.
School shootings and similar tragedies have taken a toll on that benevolent phrase. Our public statements of “thoughts and prayers” have been exposed as hollow sentiments be people who urge gun control. That some people who are quick to offer “thoughts and prayers” are just as quick to shoot down discussions of smarter and more effective gun control smacks of hypocrisy.
I have bristled at the implied criticism. I don’t own guns. I don’t own a FOID card. I am not a gun enthusiast. I am ambivalent on the 2nd Amendment, but I am not (have not been) sure of the right way to go about dealing with the mass shooting phenomenon in our country.
Social media is like a scatter bomb, not a surgical strike. It lends itself to blasting everyone in the direction aimed. Memes are the epitome of mindless criticism. Perhaps, that’s why I bristle so much. It’s so unproductive!
A perfectly good and proper response has been turned into a meme by a meme!
On the other hand, I have come to realize that my feeling of being personally affronted has led me into the very error that I bristle against. Overgeneralizing and failing to deal with nuance is the bane of social media and modern society, and I am also susceptible to it.
Platitudes do wear thin. In the aftermath of another wanton mass shooting that took the lives of 19 fourth graders and their 2 teachers, platitudes ring especially hollow. How many times can we say, “thoughts and prayers”, about a clear problem we have in our country that does not happen with the same frequency in any other developed country in the world?
When will we gain the will to do something about it? Do we care to do anything about it? We have to care, but what do we do?
In this particular conversation, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and well-known scientist who professes religious faith, just finished explaining briefly why he came to believe in God at the age of 27. Richard Dawkins, the very well-known scientist and “new atheist”, responded this way:
“If I were God and I wanted to create life, maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation of a religious person, I think I would not use such a wasteful, long-drawn-out process. I think I would just go for it. Why would you choose natural selection, which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without you? Why would God have chosen a mechanism to unfold His design and chose the very mechanism that would make Him superfluous?
Dawkins speculated that God might have thought, “I wonder what would happen if I set up a primeval, self-replicating molecule and leave it to see what happens.” Dawkins called such an experiment “interesting” and sympathized with the thought of God experimenting in that way. Then he added, “If I wanted to make complex life, I wouldn’t choose that astonishingly wasteful, profligate – cruel actually – way of doing it.”
Dawkins focused on the suffering that comes from competition and evading starvation. He focused on the weeding out process of some animals starving to death, being eaten by predators and succumbing to disease. Dawkins summarized, “It is not a benign process at all.”
Dawkins admitted that this line of thinking is “not a good argument”, but it is what “struck” him as Francis Collins was talking. Indeed, I have heard Richard Dawkins say similar things in debate and in his writings. This line of thinking is obviously compelling to him, good argument or not.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Dawkins. I am not here to blast him or judge him. We all have a judge, I believe, and it isn’t me!
Dawkins is not an ignorant man, obviously. He is a foremost scientist who is a very poignant and elegant communicator and champion of the evolutionary paradigm. His many books and body of work speak to his exceptional intelligence. As people go, he is at the top of the food chain in scientific knowledge and understanding.
Francis Collins is good company for Dawkins, having advanced the relatively new science and understanding of human DNA, perhaps, further than any person before him. Yet, these two men have diametrically opposed views of whether God exists. Neither of them is an intellectual slouch.
I am writing, though, on what Richard Dawkins said. Just as Dawkins was “struck” by what Collins said to respond in the way he did, I am struck to respond by what Dawkins said.
His instinct or intuition or line of thought – whatever you want to call it – was to consider, “If I were God….” Dawkins gravitated toward comparing what he would do if he were God and the world as it exists. Dawkins’s point is, ultimately, that he finds the world as it exists not to live up to what he would have created if he were God.