Whenever I lead a group of teenagers, somewhere over the course of the conversation, no matter the topic or scripture or theme of our time, someone asks the question about whether our will is free or bound. It happened last night in our back home group at the Montreat Youth Conference.
Sometimes I just skirt the question because it feels like a tangent that derails the conversation. Other times I try to entertain it and talk about the paradox that is human will in the Christian tradition. I chose the latter last night.
We began with the idea that nothing happens outside of God’s will. I asked the kids, “What does it say about God if everything that happens is God’s will?” Eventually someone said, “Then God is the cause of all the bad things that happen in the world.”
Usually someone else jumps in with a purposeful idea of God’s providence (they don’t know that’s what their doing), “Maybe we just see something as evil or bad, but God has a plan for everything, so God is doing something good through the bad thing.”
And without fail, “If God has to cause tragedies or pain or suffering in order to do God’s good will, then God isn’t very good. I’m not sure I want to worship that God.”
At this point I chimed in, “So while the understanding that God’s will orders all things affirms that God is in charge (God is sovereign), it brings into question God’s ultimate goodness because of the suffering we see around us.”
“So let’s consider the alternative. Let’s say humans have free will and can act on our own outside of God’s control.”
And our bright young people reply, “Then that means that God isn’t very powerful and we are capable of thwarting God’s plans and designs. In that case we can say that God is good but God isn’t powerful enough to bring about that goodness. In this scenario we are sovereign.”
So is God sovereign but not good or good but not sovereign?
Perhaps this is where understanding the person and role of Jesus and his incarnation can help us understand both God’s goodness and God’s power. We can say, by looking to Jesus and especially his willful death, that God chooses to limit God’s power by coming in human weakness and subjecting Godself to the depth of human suffering, that God is sovereign but that God makes a choice not to practice that reign as a harsh dictator. A relationship is essential to God’s way of acting in the world. The relationship is most important. God chooses to partner with humanity (this isn’t just in Jesus, think about Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Esther, Ruth, and on and on) in order to enact God’s purposes.
God invites us to be part of the creation of God’s goodness into the world. God, who could rule without us, chooses to work with and through us to bring about God’s way in the world. Does the Holy Spirit work within us causing us to choose to partner with God or do we freely make that decision? As Presbyterians we tend to lean toward the Spirit’s work, but experientially it feels like a genuine decision on our part to move toward the God who has chosen to come so close to us in Jesus Christ.
I wonder why teenagers are always asking this question. I think it has to do with their developmental state. They are growing up into decision makers, wielding more freedom, spending less time under their helicopter parents, and some are moving away to a freedom they have never before experienced.
Is God still at work when they are beginning to feel so autonomous? That autonomy is both exhilarating, but I imagine that shortly after the exhilaration is an incredible fear that they will make poor decisions, stray from God’s way, find themselves off the “straight and narrow path” and unable to find the trail again. Is God still there? Is God still leading? Do I get a say in the matter? Yes. Yes. And yes.