Christians often talk about “God’s timing” and His divine will and providence over our lives. If something is meant to happen, it will happen just when God has directed it to. This general mind-set is helpful in easing anxiety and allowing us to realize the plans are orchestrated beyond our control, but it also begs the question “to what extent does free will play a role?”
I have to admit, I am a huge control freak. The worst part is, I didn’t even realize this until a year ago. I have always tried to control what I was going to do and when. I would make plans about where to study, what job to get, and where to travel to. In my mind, everything had a start and finish date and I became obsessed with pursing my goals. This was good in the sense that nearly every goal I have ever set out to seriously conquer has now been achieve. It is bad in the sense that I likely went through most of life on auto-pilot not allowing the Holy Spirit to move.
I was recently doing some “pub theology” with a new friend when we began discussing this topic. Non-Christians might call it “fate”, Christians tend to stick with terms such as “pre-destination”, but in reality, it’s kind of all the same thing. Yes, I believe that there are many choices I’ve been able to make in my own life – we are not puppets and God allows us freedom to move around and to make bad choices which then have detrimental consequences. But I also believe that there are certain life events that just happen upon us which we did not choose for ourselves, and yet which truly end up having a life lesson attached to them after the fact. And then I believe that there are some things which I truly find very difficult to reconcile in terms of whether or not there truly was a point in it at all.
Take the first instance – free will. We all have made choices in our lives which have ended up wonderfully or tragically. Perhaps you knew that spending time with a certain friend was not beneficial for you, but you continued to do it anyways. This friend then led you down a bad path which ended up affecting other aspects of your life. This was not fate. This was a poor choice. Suppose you chose to eat only doughnuts and to fill yourself up with sugary sweets giving into every conceivable craving and you developed diabetes or other health conditions and became overweight. Yes, God may have a lesson to teach you in your health struggle – and that lesson probably is to take better care of yourself and change your bad habits! Or suppose you had the option of going to church on a Sunday or sleeping in and you chose church. You then heard a sermon that really impacted you and changed the course of your life. Was it free will or fate? Likely a bit of both. It was free will which enabled you to hear that timely message, but it was also likely predestined that you heard that message at the exact moment in time in which you would be readily able to accept it. Perhaps if you heard that same message 1 year or even 1 week ago, you might have let it pass through you without giving it much thought. Perhaps if you heard that same sermon one year later your life would be on a different path and so it would no longer be as relevant, but for today, it’s exactly what you needed to hear. God used your free will decision to bring a special blessing out of it.
The second instance – Life Events Which Take Place. We all have experienced these in our lives. We’ve met someone that we never would have crossed paths with before and they have ended up blessing our lives tremendously. We’ve found ourselves in a new location or in a new job that we didn’t know we would be in. Or take one of the most common examples of all – marriage. My own parents met 10 years before they began dating. I know of another woman at church who could have met her husband 20 years beforehand, but due to a series of unforeseen circumstances it just never happened. Why not? If God knew the two partners were meant to be together, why not just speed things up? There could be several reasons: maybe God was preparing one or both of them, maybe one or both of them were not yet ready, maybe there were still lessons to learn or ways to serve as single people which needed to happen first, and maybe there was a small element of spiritual warfare involved. The old expression says, “Life is lived forwards but understood backwards.”
When I look at my own life, I can often see how even the most difficult and painful seasons have played a role in propelling me forward towards being more of the person Christ desires for me to be. I remember being in university and applying for a transfer. I had all my credits lined up and had spoken extensively to the dean at the new school. At the last minute, I felt in my heart it wasn’t the right choice and so I stayed. Was it God’s will? I don’t know for sure, but I do know the people I then proceeded to meet who are now some of my closest friends whose paths I wouldn’t have crossed if I would have left. I suppose the argument could then be made that I would have made other friends, but who knows? I had a somewhat difficult time in my first year of seminary, and left to pursue a year at L’Arche before going back to my old Alma Mater to finish up. Was that first year worth it even if it didn’t end the way I had hoped? Yes, because it was in that year that I developed my passion and interest in disability theology. If I had never have gone to that other seminary, who knows if I would now be doing what I am today. I begged God to let me go back to Edinburgh after my first year there and the door was shut. It took nearly 2 years to arrive back in Scotland, and sometimes I wonder why. Yet, I think of all the lessons I learned in Canada (there were many), friendships strengthened, and a new identity forged. I still don’t entirely know the reason why it took 2 years, but I believe that there might have been an element of God’s protection. Who knows what might have happened had I been back earlier. Possibly nothing, but then again, maybe something could have occurred which thankfully didn’t because God was keeping me safe in my home country.
And then there are those moments which seem to be utterly pointless. I have to admit, I find a lot of tragedies difficult to explain away why they happened. Yes, there are those who have risen victoriously and are now ministering to the hurt and broken as a result of their own pain, but then there are just some life events I cannot fathom the true meaning for. And perhaps I never will this side of heaven. Maybe the glory is in the fact that we simply don’t know and all will be revealed to us in time. Perhaps the whole point is to live in that tension of shame, doubt, and confusion, urging us to trust in the One who does have all power and control.
I have learned that as much as I enjoy having full control over my life, my life goes better when I give that control up to Someone else. I may make my own plans for the future, but God determines my steps. Like the Psalmist says, “Unless the Lord builds a house, you labour in vain who make it.” (Psalm 127:1). We potentially may have SOME control over our own life’s destiny. We may choose to place ourselves in a position that brings us more of what we want or to position ourselves to achieve our goals at a younger age, but we cannot force the greatest mysteries of life to happen to us outside of the realm of God’s control. When we surrender to His leading, we find that great events come to pass for us and countless others. This is the great fact for us.