Paul Molnar, God’s Will and Our Decisions
Paul Molnar is professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in New York. He received his PhD from Fordham University in 1980.
God’s will gets complicated when it intersects with our choices.
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JMF: Many people have the idea that God is unchangeable, because he’s perfect. If God were to do something different, or if he were to change his mind or answer a prayer from somebody, then that would mean that the way he was before the change wasn’t perfect, and he had to become perfect, or he was perfect and if he changed he wasn’t perfect before, so therefore, using that kind of logic, God never changes, and he therefore had to decide everything that would ever happen ahead of time, and everything plays itself out that way. If that were true, then how can we expect him to answer prayers and interact with us in a real and present way?
PM: We wouldn’t.
JMF: So what’s a better way of looking at that?
PM: A better way of looking at that is to say that God is free and knows events that will happen precisely as genuinely contingent historical events as he wills them to exist non-deterministically. Torrance is good on this, pointing out that in Greek thinking, the notion of logical necessity and determinism seems to be endemic to the way they think about creation, about reality. That leads to the ideas of fate and so on. Torrance would say, I think rightly, that Christianity Christianized Hellenism rather than the idea that Christianity was Hellenized.
JMF: Hellenism is Greek thought.
PM: Exactly. The epitome of Greek thought, projecting sensual images into the deity, was erroneous.
JMF: In other words, thinking of God as having the same kinds of passions and so on that human beings have…
PM: Correct. Thinking of God deterministically would be sort of an extension of that sort of fatalistic, necessitarian, logical thinking. Since the Christian God is a living God and is free and loving, when he acts toward creation, it’s from the overflowing abundance of who he is. It’s not out of need, it’s not because of imperfection, it’s not because he needs to fill something up in himself. When he creates the world he creates the world out of love according to his own wisdom for his own purpose. Sometimes that purpose may seem unclear to us, but he has a purpose, and it’s not arbitrary, and it’s not a deterministic sort of purpose that suggests that he’s encumbered by his relation with us. The existence of the world as a distinct entity is not a threat to God’s being.
JMF: Or to his sovereignty. So that would mean that there are any number of choices a person can make and any number of paths a person’s life can take, without God determining that way ahead of time or before all time, and yet that is still under God’s control, and it’s still part of what he is working out for his redemptive purposes.
PM: Yes, with one proviso. I would like to remove the word determined from that, and say that God knows those events as free events that we will do, but he knows them precisely because he’s not encumbered by the past or by the future. He’s always the one he is, transcending time and within time, so that he’s not losing part of his being when the past goes away and the present goes into the future….and he’s not yet because there’s a future. He’s present to all times because he’s God and eternal.
Torrance gets into some of this stuff and so does Barth… God has his own time, a unique time, in which he doesn’t pass away, as we do. Our time is marked by its limitations and by the fall, so we don’t really have time. We have no control over time. Created time must find its meaning always in God’s eternal time. God’s eternal time, however, is unique to him.
Both Barth and Torrance say that God has time, because he has time for us in Jesus Christ. That time is the healing of our time, so that we share in Christ’s eternal humanity, because Christ, although he hasn’t eternally existed (otherwise he wouldn’t be truly human), now exists eternally as the risen and ascended Lord. When we share in that, we have eternal life — life without end. Since God is not encumbered by the limitations of past, present, and future as we are, he can know things that are future for us, precisely as events that are freely determined, contingently determined, and not necessarily determined, in a deterministic sense.
JMF: “Contingently determined” means what?
PM: It means that they’re totally dependent on God’s purpose and will to be what they are. It means that they might not even be at all, or they might be differently, depending upon God’s will for them.
JMF: Sometimes a Christian will get the idea that in a given situation there’s only one right decision they could make, and that they must seek out what God’s will would be for them in this situation. They assume that there is only one possibility of what God’s will might be for them, and that if they make the wrong choice, that would be a disaster. They want to make sure their decision is God’s will, so they enter into whatever regimen that they think might help, whether it be prayer and fasting or seeking counsel or whatever. Often they end up, regardless of the counsel they seek, doing what they want anyway.
Is there only one right decision, and is God’s will always a specific thing that we must do, and a specific decision, that there’s only one will of God and then everything else would be wrong? How does God work with us, in other words? How does he interact with us on a day-to-day basis?
PM: It’s not an easy question. I’m thinking back to Barth’s ethics that he develops in Volume 2, Part 2 of the Church Dogmatics and then in 3 and 4 where he talks about the divine command. It’s been a long time since I’ve read that material, but if I remember, he argues that God’s command infallibly reaches each person in their particular circumstances and makes itself known to them as his will because it is a permission, it’s a freedom to serve him, which enables that person to be what God wants them to be.
One of the marks of coming up against the legitimate divine command is the fact that it’s a freedom, not an enslavement. It never says to the person, “If you do this, this, and this, then you will get that, that, and that.” It’s always a freedom to obey God himself. So there is only one possibility – but not in a legalistic sense that you have four possibilities there and you choose one, and if you get the right one, then things go well for you and if you choose one of the other three, then you’re in trouble. That would be the wrong way to think about this sort of interaction.
We really do interact with God, but we’re not set in a position…(Barth would often say, and I think Torrance would follow him in this)…like Hercules at the crossroads, we choose between two possibilities, and if we choose the right one, then everything’s good, and if we choose the wrong one, everything’s not good – partly because our wills are enslaved to sin and are freed by God in Christ for service of God.
Love of God and love of neighbor in Barth’s thinking means that the divine command reaches each individual in different circumstances and at different times in each person’s life…that’s why prayer is necessary, to discern precisely what that is, and then to obey. It’s not, as it were, a test, where if you get this point right then you’re okay, and if you don’t… It’s really a freedom, a freeing of a person from the illusion that they could determine God’s will by their choices, because they can’t, they can only obey. Let’s say you were called to do a Christian act at a given moment – you either do it or you don’t do it. You either obey or you don’t. It’s not a question of trying to figure out which is the right way to go.
JMF: Some people struggle over whether they should buy this car or that car. They want to get the whole church to pray for them to make the right decision. It’s as though they think there’s only one right choice they can make. Sometimes the pastors of certain churches will enter into that and presume to speak for God and tell them, you should get the white car because that’s… We can bring some almost-superstition to every decision, assuming that we have to be careful that we stay within the will of God, but pretending that we know or struggling over the fact that we don’t know.
PM: That doesn’t sound very freeing, does it?
JMF: No, it sounds so…
PM: It’s kind of unnerving, you might say. In such circumstances we can entrust our decisions to the care of God and to God’s forgiving grace, so if we made what turns out to be a bad decision, a year from now sell the car, get another one, don’t worry about it. I think we can trust in God’s loving care and in the fact that he will bring good even out of bad decisions.
JMF: More of a lifestyle of trusting God to help us through the decisions we make.
PM: Correct. And trust in his forgiving grace when things don’t go exactly the way they should.
JMF: There are certain principles anybody can use in trying to make a wise decision. You want to weigh the pros and cons. You want to get wise counsel, and you want to listen to good judgment about it and so on. But at some point you have to make a decision.
PM: An informed decision. Especially with regard to cars. If I’m going to buy a new car, I want to know every detail about that car.
JMF: There are many things we could obsess over. But when it boils down to it, we want to bring our Christian life, our walk with Christ, into whatever circumstance or decision we might make. Sometimes we make poor decisions and we still bring with that our faith that God will help us through. Sometimes we make a good decision, and we still bring with that our faith that God will bless us, help us to use it rightly, not foolishly.
PM: One of the good things in that is that we don’t have to worry about whether our decisions in the last analysis were right or wrong, because Christ promises to make good for us. He’s responsible for us. We are responsible to him and to God, but because he has made himself responsible for us, we don’t have to make a final judgment about what we’re doing. We leave that to him, to his care.
JMF: But at the same time we realize that decisions have consequences. If we do a foolish thing, then it’s going to have consequences.
PM: Which we do at least once a day, maybe twice a day.
JMF: Perhaps most of the time. Yeah. That raises opportunities to trust God to have mercy on us.
PM: That’s the whole point of prayer. Some of the botched decisions that we make point us once again to our utter need to rely on God’s forgiving grace. That’s not something we can control by plotting and planning every little detail of our lives and getting the whole church to pray for it, you know, that it’s not raining on Thursday morning.
JMF: When I leave for our vacation.
PM: That sort of thing.
JMF: These are the kinds of requests that sometimes come in.
PM: People might conclude from that, that since it is raining, therefore God doesn’t love me. So that concept of God is all too human a concept.
JMF: To what degree does God interact with us on a personal level with our daily life? Is it a matter of how much we bring him in, or is it that he’s always present but he lets us make our own decisions and make mistakes and live with the consequences, or is it hands-off, he’s out there watching us, for whatever reason? How does that work?
PM: The God that we know in Jesus Christ is not a hands-off deity, because he has loved us while we were still sinners and powerless to love him. He continues to love us in exactly the same way in Jesus Christ. There’s no limit to his approach to us. We can only love because God empowers us to love at any given moment. God is deeply involved in each moment of our lives, but sometimes we’re so busy that we don’t see that and we don’t pay attention to that, or we look right past it toward our own agenda, which, when put into effect, will enable us to sort of redefine who God is and what revelation is and what salvation should mean, to make ourselves feel comfortable.
God is not a distant deistic deity — that’s the dualism that Torrance always refers to as problematic — because the God who meets us in Jesus Christ meets us in a myriad of different forms experiences. He is never far off but is sometimes hidden to us in our own experience because we’re not paying attention or not really trusting God. We’re sort of reinventing the God we want instead of trusting in God as he is.
JMF: Isn’t another form of reinventing the God we want, to take the approach of… you hear in some conversations, the Lord told me to take this job or the Lord told me that we should move to Kenya and be a missionary. Sometimes the whole church knows it’s a foolish decision, and yet the person is convinced that the Lord told them that, and in their own mind, they bring God into every decision they make, as though this is what the will of God is for me. It’s as though I don’t have to take responsibility for my own decisions because God told me to do this. So for you to tell me that this was foolish…
PM: That could just as easily be a manipulation of God’s will. That’s a problem. For example, God told me this morning I should be a chemical engineer. I don’t know a thing about chemical engineering, but God told me to do it, so I’m going to go and do that. If you get such a revelation supposedly, you should have to then look at the abilities that you have, the talents, where your life has been to this point, and ask yourself seriously whether that is something that God is asking you to do. I don’t think God is actually telling you to do that at all.
JMF: God is telling me that you’re supposed to do that.
PM: I should be a chemical engineer because I utterly failed at the arts, so I might as well be a chemical engineer. Barth once said, I think to someone who was asking about whether they should be a theologian, you have to look at whether you have the temperament, the qualities that would lead to someone being a good theologian. You might have none of those things. If that’s true, then that’s a sign of God’s interacting with you. You have to use common sense.
JMF: I think this happens too often with people who take up a missionary plan. They come to the conclusion that God is calling them to some sort of missionary service, and they will pluck their family up without regard to the effect on the children of moving to a new country, a new culture and so on, without really understanding what they’re getting into, when they have heard a presentation or they have heard of a need and they feel some twinge of conscience or something, and so they assume that God is moving them to make this huge life-changing decision. Sometimes it becomes a major mistake for the family, but they’re convinced that this is what God wants them to do. I don’t know that there’s any solution to that, because we all stand prey to that in one way or another.
PM: It’s true. That’s an extremely difficult decision, but the point that you made about that person needing to look at the overall effect on the entire family should weigh heavily in such a decision.
JMF: Getting good counsel from not just the person and people who want them to go, but from people who have been there, done that, and from their pastors, from other counselors, and are listening to the suggestions and ideas from more than one point of view on the topic.
PM: No question. I’m thinking of Tom Torrance’s own life when he was asked by Barth to follow him in [the University of] Basel, and he stated that was one of the hardest decisions of his life. He decided not to go because he didn’t want to uproot his children from school and bring them into a setting where they would have to speak and learn in German and so on. He was never sorry that he made that decision, but it was difficult. He had to weigh all of his family issues and so on, and in retrospect I think it was a good decision.
JMF: Just because a thing might seem spiritual or holy doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to serve God effectively in any other way.
JMF: But we sometimes substitute going out and doing some kind of a seemingly spiritual thing, trying to make up for all the other problems in our life, to feel better about our walk with God.
PM: Very true. We have an amazing ability to deceive ourselves.
JMF: Isn’t that part of what we learn from Trinitarian theology, in the fact that Christ is already everything for us, and our trust is in him to be everything we need to be?
PM: That’s why when Barth talked about Christian vocation, he said the Christian preacher and teacher should point vigorously toward Christ as the one who calls us toward his purposes, and not point toward Christian experience as the way forward in these matters. I think he was right.
JMF: It’s often hard to face the fact that maybe the best place for us is right where we are, being who we should be in Christ, as opposed to finding a new and exciting place somewhere else that promises…
PM: But may not deliver. I couldn’t agree more.