Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If God Were Really Good At Playing Cards – A look at omniscience and free will

(I have since retracted some of my points here and here. I decided to leave this post in the Press so people might see how I have changed from thought to thought.)

I live within two miles of two Universities and school is back in session. It’s probably safe to say about half of the people in my church building on Sunday go to college. In the past few weeks, I’ve met so many new students that I warn them immediately “I might forget your name.” Sometimes that doesn’t offend them and we’ll get to talk. During these conversations, at least five people have brought up the subject of God’s will and how that works with free will. I’m not kidding. The conversations all had their own, unique subjects that funneled into stuff like Predestination. One began as a discussion on Descartes and why I hate his work. Here’s one way someone asked me a question on God’s will:

Me: So what do you want out of life? (I really ask this question, usually during uncomfortable pauses. If we ever meet and you run out of small talk, watch out.)

Them: I want to know what God’s will is for my life. Should I be doing this or should I pay more attention to that? I’m having a hard time telling if it’s God directing me or if it’s just what I want.

Me: It sounds like you want to know how to discern the voice of God and know when He’s telling you something as opposed to you telling it to yourself.

Them: Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Then after I tried to make myself look cool by telling them about my book, the person asked what I thought of Reformed Theology. I thought this was pretty funny, having moved from West Michigan, where the Reformed Church of America set up its headquarters, to Nashville, where Southern Baptists and the Church of Christ reign supreme. Then again, I don’t know what they think about Reformed Theology, either. There are too many denominations, huh? Moving on.

Me: I like some parts, but not other parts.

Them: What do you think about predestination?

Me: Ooh. Uh. Well, I seem to remember a verse that says God does not wish that any should be lost. So it sounds like it’s God’s will that all should be saved. But of course, not everyone will choose to follow God. Then the question is, if God is all-knowing, doesn’t He know if people will accept or deny Him?

Then I used a metaphor that has become very dear to me. I’m aware that some Christians will give themselves headaches when I compare God to a gambler, but stay with me. Imagine that God is a really good poker player. He could stack the deck if He wanted to, but then anything won would be meaningless because He set Himself up to win. So He has to set that ability aside in order to have true victory. At the same time, He can count cards. So based on what you throw out, He has a pretty good idea of what you’ll do next.

God’s omniscience is a part of His character, but then let me ask you an uncomfortable question: Was Jesus, God, omniscient while here on earth?

In Matthew 4, Jesus begins a forty-day fast after His baptism. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” But if Jesus, God, were omniscient, why would He need the Spirit to lead Him anywhere? Wouldn’t He know where to go already? Or consider what Jesus said in John 8:28, “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.”

Here’s how I see it. God the son had to willingly put His Omniscience to the side in order to become fully man. That way he could learn and live and make choices between right and wrong. He could be filled with the Holy Spirit (another theological knot I won’t try to untie for you right now) and operate as an example to His disciples of how to live by the Spirit.

I used this example to show that God is omniscient, but for the sake of truly winning our love, He is able to set his omniscience to the side in the area of our choices. This gives space for free will to exist. I think he did this so He could give us opportunity to choose Him. If He knew absolutely from the beginning that a person would not choose Him, two things would make me believe that God was cruel. First, God would have created a person to be damned. That goes against the scripture I referenced earlier, 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Second, He’d offer salvation to people He knew were incapable of accepting it. That’s just, you know, a tease. And my new friend who got me started on this conversation said, “Exactly. Otherwise, what would be the point of praying for people? What would be the point of Evangelism?”

Now that I’ve come to the end of this post, I realize that I didn’t have an agenda when I started it. I can say for certain that I don’t want readers to think less of God’s power, but more. I don’t want to diminish the truth that God never changes, but emphasize the fact that God is not stiff and rigid. God is loving and will find a way to allow us to love Him. He wants you to seek His will, but He’s also able to work our own decisions to our good and to His glory. And He will be glorified. But that’s a different card game. God stacked the deck on that one. He will be glorified no matter what we do.


Heath Countryman said...

I read this joke today, and given your comparison of God with a poker player, I thought you might like it:

Jim was working at his business one day when he heard a loud voice say, “Jim, sell your business.” He thought this was odd.

The next day he heard the same voice say, “Jim sell your business for 2 million dollars.” After several weeks hearing the voice, Jim sold his business in obedience.

A few months after selling, Jim heard the same loud voice say, “Take your 2 million dollars to Las Vegas.” Jim said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But the voice responded in a louder and more stern manner, “Take your 2 million to Las Vegas.” In obedience, Jim took his money and drove to sin city.

While checking into his hotel room, Jim heard the loud voice say, “Take your money to the table to play 21. Place all of your money on one hand of 21.” Jim replied, “You’re nuts!” The loud voice said, “This is my command, obey me.”

Jim approached the blackjack table and placed his 2 million dollars on one hand of 21. The dealer dealt. Jim was dealt an ace and a seven. The dealer showed a six card.

Jim was relieved and was ready to take home his virtually inevitable winnings. But he heard the loud voice say, “Ask for another card.” Jim replied, “But I’ve got an 18 and the dealer is showing a six!” The voice replied even more loudly, “Ask for a card!”

Jim asked for a card, and the dealer gave him one – it was an ace! Jim was thrilled. It would be nearly impossible to beat 19.

Before Jim could even turn to leave, the voice said, “Take another card.” Jim replied, “Are you crazy? I’ve got a 19. I'm nearly unbeatable!” But, after a long pause, in obedience he asked for yet another card.

The dealer dealt him a second card – it was another ace! 20! Jim was about to pick up all his cards when the voice said, “Take another card!”

Jim wanted to disobey. This made no sense. The dealer couldn't beat him now.

But Jim was learning to trust. So he asked the dealer for one last card.

The dealer dealt him a third card – it was a third ace! 21! Jim was ecstatic.

And the loud voice exclaimed, “Un – be – lievable!!!”

Clare O said...

yeah, maybe it is because it's 1am here, but I don't get that joke. Oh dear.

I read your blog most everyday, when you update. Those 1 second visits from Perth are me checking to see if you've written again.

That divine/human thing gets me every time.

How do you think your argument would change if, say, he still knew, he still had his omniscience?

:) from Clare

Isaiah Kallman said...

Clare! Friend! I'm so happy to hear from you. It shouldn't surprise me that you have a weblog, but I am surprised that you regularly check mine.

I would say, if God still knew whether or not we'd choose to follow Him, I would feel sad. If I were not following Him, I'd think, "What? You made me and you knew I'd say no to you? That's like sending me an invitation to a party and intentionally putting the wrong address on it. Even if I wanted to show up, you made sure I wouldn't get there."

And If He created me, knowing I'd say yes, then I would feel like my parents had arranged a marriage I couldn't escape. I might learn to love the person I'm with, but it wouldn't have the love birthed out of risk or trials (what if He doesn't like me back? What if I screw it up? Do I even feel like going through with this anymore?). I'd prefer the love birthed out of relationship. And If I knew that I was merely predestined, I'm not sure I'd understand Grace. This marriage was arranged, I had no choice.

But God does still have omniscience, in the same way that Jesus was still fully God while here on earth. The limitations are temporarily self-imposed in order for the events to matter. What was Satan tempting Him with in the desert? To use the power and authority Jesus already had the right to use, but in order to fulfill the scriptures, He couldn't give in to temptation.

This situation of God setting his omniscience aside in terms of knowing our choice in salvation is temporary. We will always have free will, but the conundrum of free will exists until Jesus returns or we go to Him. In Heaven, I think we'll still have the opportunity to sin. It's just that in the presence of God, we'll see sin for what it really is and the choice would look something like this: "Well, I guess I COULD cut off my leg. I have that choice. But why in the world would I?"

I hope that's a satisfactory answer to your question. I didn't even get out of bed before I wrote it because I was so excited when I read your comment. One of my roommates gave up waiting for me and brought a cup of coffee into my room.

And I think I'll like reading your posts about happiness. I've been under pressure the past few weeks and it can affect my mood. You'll get a better idea of what I mean when you read my next post.

BrotherJoshua said...

It is a comfort. I was just brought to question the nature of what happened. Even if a question is half-way rhetorical, you have to ask it, sometimes.