Chapter 1 The Choices God Makes
God’s natural laws that He has established, the physical laws that govern the universe, help us understand theologically how and when God intervenes in the affairs of men. I am a mathematician, so I will use probability as an example, but I promise not to test the reader’s patience with this analogy. I have no reason to doubt that the laws of probability were established at creation, much as gravity and any other physical law. God set this amazing system in place as background for our lives, parameters if you will for living on earth. Like it or not, these laws exist and cannot be broken by us. Further, these systems are connected to each other; results in one system are confirmed in another, such as the connection between mathematical laws and scientific laws. It’s all quite complex and beautiful and, above all for the mathematician, it produces consistent results.
Now, consider the question: if God put this complex and beautiful system in place to govern life on this earth, does it make sense that God would then oversee and in fact determine every roll of the dice, every card pulled from a deck, every twirl of some spinner? What’s the point? The system ensures predictable outcomes for large numbers of events. In other words, the system works. Why would God need to be in every event or experiment? He wouldn’t, unless of course He had some specific purpose for that intervention; unless for some reason He wanted to circumvent the laws He Himself had established in order to serve some greater purpose.
The most direct example of this principle would be when lots were cast in the Old and New Testament. For instance, we are told in 1 Samuel 10 that Samuel the priest had already anointed Saul as the first king of Israel, but then in front of the entire nation he chooses lots from all of the tribes, and through this random-seeming selection process winds up identifying Saul from among all the people. The odds of this happening would have been astronomical but for God’s choice to intervene. We can also think about times when God countermanded the physical laws of the universe to accomplish His purposes. The two most obvious examples are when the Sun stood still in the sky for Joshua (Joshua 10) and when the shadow on the steps moved backward for Hezekiah (Isaiah 38). In these cases, there was an intervention into the system of the motion of the Earth around the Sun (and many other related laws) in order to create a specific sign for God’s people. Likewise, If we think of weather as a system that God established at creation, which has predictable outcomes over long periods of time, God chose to intervene during a storm on the Sea of Galilee as a sign for the disciples of Jesus (Mark 4:35-41).
Can God circumvent the laws He Himself has established in order to accomplish His purposes? Yes, of course. Does He do it on a regular basis? It seems not. Are some events in God’s universe pre-determined? It seems so. We see this in Acts 4:27-28, where the believers pray, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Well then, are all events pre-determined? We can answer that question with another question: Why would they be? Why would God establish these incredibly complex, powerful, and consistent systems if He only ever intended to determine the outcomes, event by event? It really doesn’t make much sense.
Now, here’s the theological application: just as God has established physical laws for governing the universe, He has also established spiritual laws. Perhaps the most pervasive biblical law is the principle of sowing and reaping. God expects us to sow righteousness, and when we do we reap spiritual blessing. When we do not, we suffer. This was the basis of God’s covenant with Israel. Biblically, it’s a very straight-forward principle with few exceptions. Yet, there are exceptions. There are those whose lives were anything but models of sowing in righteousness, and yet God’s blessing was upon their lives. How else can we explain the outcome of Jacob’s life? God simply chose, for His own reasons and purposes, to set aside the law of sowing and reaping and bless Jacob and his family. God did this in order to establish the nation of Israel and eventually lead them into the Promised Land. In other words, God had a higher purpose than even the spiritual law He Himself had established.
I believe God’s system of blessing people (e.g., through salvation), which we understand from the Bible, applies at all times and in every case. In other words, the system works. There is no need to pre-determine each outcome, similar to the roll of the dice in probability. But I also believe that God does, from time to time, choose to intervene in the system, to change some particular outcome for His purpose and glory. It’s hard to read the Bible any other way. It seems, in fact, that God delights in doing this, in making the last first and the first last, because it directly points to Him as the source of all blessing. I call these interventions God’s “deep selects.” In the military, there is a pecking order for promotion, an established order of rank and priority among officers. When a position of authority comes open, higher-ups go to the list and it is immediately obvious who is next in line for the job. The system works and there are few exceptions. However, there are exceptions. In specific circumstances and for specific reasons, it will be decided to pass over those at the top of the list for someone farther down. This happened at the beginning of World War II when Chester Nimitz was chosen to be Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. He was not only a more junior choice, he was also a submariner — a highly unlikely choice for CINCPAC. And yet, the choice was made and the United States’ military effort in the Pacific profited as a result.
We see God involved in this “deep select” process at very strategic points in the biblical account, choosing Joseph over his brothers, David over his brothers, Gideon the nobody farmer from the nothing family, the teenager Mary from the tiny village of Nazareth, fishermen, a tax collector and a zealot from the Galilee region, the Christian-hater Saul. Though some had questions for God about why they were chosen, we get the sense that their acceptance of God’s proposal was never in doubt. In other words, God pre-determined the outcome. In spite of having a system in place for blessing individuals, God chose to lay aside the system in order to bless beyond the individual, to bless the nations.
Though we might be able to talk ourselves into accepting this aspect of God’s sovereignty, unfortunately it only opens the door for more theological difficulties. The hard reality of the way in which God chooses to bless is that, as with games based on probability, if someone wins that invariably means that someone else loses. Biblically, we might say that where there is choosing there is also losing. The choice of Jacob resulted in the loss of birthright and blessing on Esau’s part; the choice of Joseph resulted in his brothers bowing down to him in homage; the honoring of Job resulted in the humiliation of his friends. As difficult as the outcome was for those that lost in these situations, we are comforted by the fact that ultimately there was redemption available for the “losers.” In each of the above cases, God had made provision for those on the short end of the stick through the one that was blessed.
But this was not the case for all of those in the Bible that lost out on God’s blessing. For some, redemption never came. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to bless His people, and as far as we know that condition didn’t changed. Esther won the king’s favor and salvation for her people, but as a direct result Haman swung on the gallows. Jesus called Judas Iscariot the “son of perdition” (or as the New International Version says, “the one doomed to destruction”) and Judas committed suicide having never rid himself of that label. These figures, Pharaoh, Haman and Judas Iscariot, were pivotal in God’s plan of blessing for the nations. In each case, God intervened in the affairs of men to bring about a particular outcome that would glorify Himself, which is completely within His purview as maker of the universe. And though we cheer for the winners (which includes us) in each of these situations, we are sobered by the tragedy that resulted for the losers. We hear echoes of this reality in God’s promise to the nation of Israel recorded in Isaiah 43:4, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”
Why does God do this sort of thing? Why would He establish a perfectly good system and then simply set it aside to intervene in the affairs of men? Further, when does He choose to do such a thing? Under what circumstances? The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11 is instructive here. What more pervasive and enduring physical system can we imagine on this earth than the birth and death cycle? We are born, we live, we get sick, we die. However, even though this was the reality for the vast majority of those whose stories are written about in the Bible, it was not true for everyone — time to time, the story would continue. This happened in both the Old Testament and New Testament. But among those stories, the account of Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus stands out because of the deliberate choices Jesus, God Himself, made.
The key decision made by Jesus was the one to stay on where he was for an additional two days after receiving the news of Lazarus’ sickness. Jesus’ choice resulted in two pivotal events: the death of Lazarus prior to Jesus’ arrival in Bethany, and Lazarus having been in the tomb four days before Jesus comes on the scene. For Lazarus’ friends and family, it was game, set and match. When Jesus finally arrives at their little town, both Martha and Mary express their understanding of God’s system by saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This statement says, essentially, “I understand the system: people who are sick can get better, but not people who have died. You should have gotten here earlier.” However, Martha adds a note of hope that Mary does not: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” In other words, God still makes His choices. A theological debate ensues between Jesus and Martha during which they discuss weighty topics like the resurrection of the dead and who Jesus really is. It seems clear from Martha’s answers to Jesus’ questions that her thoughts are on the hereafter, rather than the moment. This contrasts with Mary’s mindset, which is totally focused on the present.
When we ask why God chooses to intervene in His own system, we have to be mindful of this particular story from the Bible. God has His reasons, and God makes His choices, but those choices are made with us in mind. This is a remarkable but undeniable fact of Scripture. Somehow, God’s higher purposes are molded around our fragile existence. How else can we explain Jesus’ response to Mary? Whereas Martha made her statement to Jesus concerning her brother while standing at eye level in front of Him, Mary makes the same statement from the dirt at Jesus’ feet. Jesus went to Bethany with the express purpose of raising Lazarus from the dead, primarily because it would bring maximum glory to His Father. When He arrived at that town, He was the only one who knew that in just a few minutes Lazarus would be alive once again. Yet, with Mary at His feet, He began to cry. The crowd around Him said, “Look how he loved him,” and that was certainly true. But clearly Jesus was not grieving.
I believe Jesus’ tears are unexplainable apart from the fact that Mary had found a way to touch Jesus’ heart. She was someone who had spent time at Jesus’ feet before, while He was teaching, and she was affirmed by Jesus as having chosen the “better” way. She would be at His feet again when she anointed them with perfume prior to His death, a deeply significant act that Jesus said was His preparation for burial. We must always remember that God’s choices are not made in an eternal vacuum, devoid of any concern for His people. This is as true of the Old Testament as the New. How else can we understand the strange conversation between Abraham and God over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33)? Or Moses pleading with God to spare the Israelites after the debacle of the golden calf, which resulted in the unimaginable: God altering a decision He had made (Exodus 32:9-14). Or God’s accolades for Moses and Samuel in Jeremiah 15:1, and Noah, Daniel and Job in Ezekiel 14:14 — those who could touch His heart with their intercession. God’s pre-eminent concern is for His glory, but it seems in choosing that which will glorify Him, He leaves the door of intercession ajar for those righteous ones who are also His glory.
This brings us to the ultimate choice: salvation. Is there a theological debate that has divided more Christians, churches and denominations throughout church history? Whose choice is it? Is it God’s or the individual’s? Of course, in one sense, it’s all God’s choice, because He set up the system of salvation in the first place. If we apply the principles from the preceding discussion, we conclude that God established a system that works wherein individuals, without the need for some kind of prior approval, are free to come to God through Christ Jesus and receive forgiveness for their sins and reconciliation with God. However, God reserves the right to intervene in this system, from time to time, to produce a salvation that goes far beyond the individual. If we give it a minute’s thought, all of us can come up with an example of a salvation story we are familiar with (perhaps even our own) that is so unlikely that it defies human logic. The person was not “on the road to salvation.” In fact, it was quite the opposite — the person actually was an active condemner of God and of His followers. Yet, God in His mercy and for His glory “deep selected” that individual to be a part of His Kingdom.
Let’s consider a less controversial but equally mysterious choice, one we are called on to make every day as Christians: being led by the Spirit. In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul writes extensively on this subject, presenting us with a choice for living. We are either led by the Spirit or we are led by our sinful nature, he says. It is our choice, but there are only two options, much as when Moses presented the Israelites with the choice of life or death, encouraging them to choose life. What exactly does Paul mean by being “led by the Spirit”? Interpretations abound, but here’s my best effort at a definition: we are led by the Spirit when we do the right thing for the right reason at the right time. It is not simply a matter of doing the right thing, or even doing the right thing for the right reason.
Many philosophers extol the virtues of acting morally, based on moral principles, but most of them do not care a bit about being obedient to God. Following the Spirit’s leading means going with His timing, trusting His order and purpose and outcome are the best we could hope for in this life. We are not simply reasoning our way through life, trying to choose from the best that our human nature has to offer. According to the Apostle Paul, our human nature is in direct opposition to the way of the Holy Spirit because our human nature is by definition sinful. This sinful nature of ours is prone to skepticism and motivated by self-protection, and so the last thing we (on our own) would choose for ourselves would be to be completely dependent on someone else, even if that Someone was infinitely wise and loving. Our human nature can convince us that God is not interested in our personal needs, that it’s all about Kingdom work, and we are expected to sacrifice everything we feel and all of our needs for that work.
When we give ourselves over to being led by the Spirit, however, we discover that God is intensely interested in us, personally, and He is more than willing to take care of our needs. But He also knows the time to meet those needs – and timing in the Kingdom of God is everything. The ideal of living a moral life is then subsumed into the reality of being Spirit-led. Is it possible to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time and not have it be moral? I’m not sure I could come up with an example of that. The difference between being led by the Spirit and trying to live a moral life is that instead of looking for a one-size-fits-all approach to life that is based solely on principle, we flexibly following the Spirit who is infinitely good and yet also infinitely creative. That is a life worth living.
What about God’s choice in all of this? Similar to salvation, God has established a system whereby we can be led by His Spirit. He has made His choice; the question is simply whether we will choose the way He has made for us. Further, once we decide to be Spirit-led — a decision that takes place daily — from that point until we decide otherwise, we are giving God free reign to make the choices for us. A spiritual Venturi Effect takes over and we are drawn into God’s amazing plan for bringing His Kingdom to this earth. Our choice is consumed by, and becomes indistinguishable from, His choice.
What happens when we do not opt for the Spirit’s leading, in particular, the Spirit’s timing? We become like the woman in Song of Songs chapter 5 who initially refused to open the door to her lover, complaining of having to get out of bed and get her feet dirty all over again. Eventually, she pulls herself out of the bed, but when she goes to the door he is no longer there. This is a tragic story that hits close to home for most Christians. Many times we know the right thing to do, but we believe that we can respond to God at our convenience. As a result, we miss out on the God-encounter that was intended for us.
And this brings me to the subject of the significance of our choices. Whether it is salvation, or being led by the Spirit, or any other choice that we make, what is it that we are choosing? And why do our choices matter to God? Some would say that we have no choices, that everything is pre-determined because God is sovereign — He H Hknows what He’s doing and we don’t. Some think that every choice God gives us is a test of some kind. Put in negative terms, every choice is an opportunity for God to teach us a lesson, to show us just how short of the mark we fall, to remind us who’s boss. Some think life is really all about our choices, that God has somehow limited Himself in such a way that He can’t intervene in the affairs of men. So, He sits up in heaven wringing His hands, hoping we make the right decisions. It should be apparent from the preceding arguments that I don’t find any of these explanations very satisfying.
As with most spiritual principles, I tend to choose the simplest, most straight-forward explanation possible, one that I believe reflects the heart of the Creator while not denying reality. So, here’s why I think God values our choices: because He wants to bless us. Yes, he puts (at least) two options in front of us and asks us to choose, but what He’s really looking for is an excuse to bless us. In fact, I believe that life is just a series of offers from God for blessing. It is a sign of our depravity as sinful humans that we can interpret God’s offer of blessing as some sort of test or trial or burden to endure. God places someone in our path who needs to hear the Gospel, or He invites us to the mission field, or He…fill in the blank. He intends to bless us, but we see it as an inconvenience. We respond like the woman in Song of Songs 5:3, “I have taken off my robe—must I put it on again? I have washed my feet—must I soil them again?” How profoundly sad. The Lover of our soul is just a few steps away, one simple choice on our part, but we miss Him and His offer of blessing.
One of the most astounding things to me about God is that, despite our poor choices and our rudeness toward Him, He just keeps coming back with more offers of blessing. Why? Because He chooses to. He chooses to love the unlovely. He chooses to shepherd the blind and the lame. He chooses to bless those who would curse Him. This is perhaps the starkest example of the all-out conflict between the way of the Spirit and our way of doing things. As Paul says in Romans 8:7-8, “the sinful mindis hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” God wants to bless us, and He will pursue us to accomplish that purpose, but at some point we have to get out of bed and answer the door. A verse that is often quoted from Revelation as a salvation verse was originally intended for a Christian audience: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). This sounds very similar to the situation presented poetically in Song of Songs 5. God does not change; He continually offers the opportunity for blessing. The question for us, every day, is whether we will “choose life.”
The chapters in the remainder of this book put some meat on the skeletal bones outlined here. The characters who are the focus of each chapter have been deliberately chosen to illustrate both the complementary nature of and the tension that exists between God’s choices and our own. One decision enhances the other, yet the road to that agreement can sometimes be a rocky one: the choice for missions we see in the life of Abraham, the choice for calling exemplified in the life of Jacob, the choice for obedience found throughout the life of Joseph, the choice for righteousness that marked Job’s life, the choice for worship signified in David’s life, the choice for anointing Elisha pursued in his life, and the choice for suffering that characterized Paul’s life. These men were called on to make difficult choices, however, those choices were facilitated by the fact that God had already made His choice and His blessing was on their lives. What choices has God made in your life? What choices is he asking you to make? I hope the chapters that follow will help you answer those questions.