Divine Providence and Human Free Will

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“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

“For I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus”  ~ Philippians 1:6

In his book, Classic Christianity, Thomas C. Oden likens the complex interaction between divine providence and human freedom to “good human parenting.”[1]  He writes that “the providence of God guides human freedom in four phases: by permitting, restraining, overruling, and limiting our choices.”[2]  Part of God’s providential care and purpose is to permit us to fail “in order to allow the larger good of enabling freedom.”[3]  At times, God does restrain our actions by non-coercively and indirectly hindering us.  He hedges us in.[4]  He will directly overrule our choices either by correction and discipline or by turning what was meant for evil into good or to spur spiritual growth.  Odens writes, “God guides wisely by going ahead of our present freedom to prepare a new way … opening some doors, closing others … grace [preventing] freedom’s way from leading to disaster, or from tempting inordinately.”[5]

Oden’s parenting model of divine providence working within the confines of genuine human freedom is scripturally sound.  We are consistently given a picture of God working alongside human history to bring about His good and perfect ends.  He is not an uninvolved parent and He will work to limit and correct us when needed, just as a loving parent can establish appropriate boundaries in accordance with our needs without taking away our freedom.

As any parent can tell you, withholding punishment from one’s child would set them up for failure and disappointment.  It is out of love that we establish consequences for our child’s negative behavior, especially their actions that entail harm to themselves or others.  This is necessary for such a cause and effect universe as ours that operates upon what C.S. Lewis called the principle of vicariousness (the leitmotif of nature).  No man is an island and our actions have consequences that often extend far beyond our little lives impacting others deeply, often irreversibly.  Complete autonomy is perhaps the greatest of all fairy-tales and myths (and one we prefer to believe in order to justify selfishness).

Again, in our greater wisdom as parents, the limitations we set for our children are to preserve something far greater than the unrestrained freedom that seems possible.  How much more so for the Source of all wisdom Himself, then?

Therefore, we are called to not “make light of the Lord’s discipline, or lose heart when He rebukes” us for He does it in love as our Father.[6]  We can say with the Psalmist that God’s boundary conditions are pleasant indeed for He is Goodness itself and created us accordingly.

In the end, we can come up with philosophical models that explore in greater detail this complex interaction between divine providence and human free-will. Such an exercise can be helpful at certain times in our faith, especially when we struggle through doubt or suffering.  Still, I am continually brought back to a similar place as Oden:  divine providence is a divine mystery.  It represents one of those paradoxes of Christianity that, as G.K. Chesterton noted, anticipate “the hidden eccentricities of life.”  We intuit that we have genuine free-will and the New Testament letters ring with exhortation.  Yet even deeper still is the intuition that we must not claim an ounce of glory for either choosing God initially or for any righteousness we may seem to attain in this life.  “No one is good except God alone.”[7]

Though this keeps the Church in that perilous and “daring experiment of [an] irregular equilibrium,”[8]  the temptation to fall into an easier heresy lurking behind every human thought, it cannot help but remind us of the paradoxical Cross at the heart of orthodoxy.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[9]

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“When the Morning Stars Sang Together” by William Blake

[1] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 157.

[2] Ibid., 157.

[3] Ibid., 158.

[4] Job 1:10, 3:23, ESV.

[5] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity, 159.

[6] Hebrews 12:5-6, NIV.

[7] Mark 10:18, NET.

[8] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 94-96.

[9] Job 38:4, ESV.

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