Do we really end up at the same place, on the other side of the stone?
This is my question to an illustration that was recently shared with me, that attempts to explain the mystery of Divine Sovereignty and Human Choice. The illustration goes like this: in the stream of choices that we make each day, God is in control. But sometimes, you come to a stone in the stream that separates the water. At this point, God let’s you choose which direction to take, to the right or to the left is up to you, it’s your choice – you choose to go to the right. But though it is your choice, you end up at the same place on the other side of the choice, around the stone, meeting the same stream of water that swished around on the left.
I can appreciate any attempt to meditate on the mystery of God’s Sovereign control and the real choices that God calls us to make each day that are really ours. But this illustration has problems. Here is an illustration that the scriptures provide:
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” – Proverbs 21:1
Clearly, the point is that if the king’s heart (the seat of his affections and desires that guide his choices) is guided wherever the Lord chooses, then so it is with those who have even less authority over their lives than a king. Here is another illustration on this same matter:
“You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” – Romans 9:14-24
The Lord God is like a potter who makes a bowl on his wheel for any purpose that he chooses. Although the Pharaoh, in all his self-proclaimed deity thinks that his choices are self-determining, autonomous, and free from any constraint upon his desires, this illustration shows the opposite. Therefore, with regard to the aforementioned illustration, I have a few comments, and a few more remarks to cause us to trust and worship a Sovereign God.
- If our illustrations do not complement the ones in scripture, then we’re probably already off course.
- Illustrations are meant to reveal that which is difficult to understand – Jesus used them all the time. But illustrations are not meant to sanitize nor make simple the mystery and paradoxes of who God is (e.g. Trinity) and how he governs his creation.
- The illustration of the stone in the middle of the stream assumes that our choices are sometimes completely ours, and sometimes completely not, but either way, we end up at the same place. This is simply not true. Just ask Joni Eareckson Tada, if the seemingly small and insignificant choice she made in the summer of 1967 ended up in the same place as if she had not. Joni was 17 years old and loved swimming. Playing with friends, she dove into a lake, not realizing how shallow it was, and broke her neck, and since then has been paralyzed from her neck down. Her life truly is remarkable – you can read it here – http://joniearecksontadastory.com/jonis-story-page-1/. Joni has written and spoken extensively on the complete and Sovereign Will of God that was in control of that fateful choice. Her life is a testament that no choice, no matter how small, is outside of God’s control.
The truth is, no choice we make ever really brings us to the other side of the stone in the middle of the stream. Each choice we make changes the course of each day. Think of the mind-boggling significance of a single choice to get into your car and go to the grocery store, now. Not 30 minutes from now, not 3 minutes from now, not 3 seconds from now. Right Now – can make all the difference in the world from returning home with a loaf of bread or ending up in a car wreck, or to not even return home at all. Everyone who has ever driven for any length of time has had a fraction-of-a-second near catastrophe.
Besides, if you took the right side of the stone in the middle of the stream and there was a crocodile waiting for its next meal, on the right side, I can assure you that had you taken the left side, things would be different on the other side of the stone. No stream of life works in such a static, inconsequential way as the illustration above suggests.
Finally, I am happily content with the mystery that all my choices are still under God’s Sovereign control. I take great comfort in the fact that if I make a choice to go right, God is still completely in control as if I had taken the left. He will never leave me nor forsake me. I can’t imagine going anywhere, doing anything, making any decision without the knowledge that “this too” is his plan for my life. Not even my rebellious choices are outside of his will – I am culpable, yet God is Sovereign (Acts 2:22-23). I take courage in all that I do because I know that he governs everything in the universe according to his over-all plan (Job).
God’s Sovereignty frees me from a paralyzing fear of the unknown. I do not live in fear that my most mundane and routine choices could capsize my life, unintended by God. Nor do I live with a false sense of freedom that since I can make choices, at least for a paddle stroke or two, that this makes my life significant. In the new heavens and new earth, where the Son will set us free indeed, not one choice, ambition, motivation, thought, expression, or movement of heart and mind will be outside of God’s Sovereign Will. And yet, we will be free indeed (John 8:36). So then, what is real human freedom? It is not the ability to make a choice free from God’s Control, but rather, a choice that is free from wanting anything else but Jesus Christ.