Thursday, November 12, 2020

The God of All Possibilities

One of our most popular features is our weekly Too Hot to Handle post.

Tom and I started it because we wanted to get beyond safe topics. If the word of God is really our guide, we decided, how can we confine ourselves to applying it to the sorts of tame issues that keep us all feeling comfortable? Isn’t it a sharp and quick sword, a sword of division? And doesn’t it have to be our guide in all things, not just in those that are polite, conventional and suitably religious?

We wanted to push those limits, to see how far the word of God can take us. Pretty far, we’re guessing.

And we wanted others to see that’s what Christians can … and should … do with the word of God; to find its guidance for all matters of life, not just the easy, polite and comfortable ones.

But ooooh boy. Am I going to poke a hornet’s nest today!

Let’s roll.

A Story

Did you ever read the story in 1 Samuel 23? It’s about David, soon-to-be-king of Israel, when he was on the run from his arch-enemy, Saul.

David hears about a little town called Keilah. Apparently the Philistines are coming up and pillaging the threshing floors there. Now, David’s got the heart of a king even when he hasn’t got the throne, and he can’t stand to hear of that. So he asks God, “Should I go up there and do something about it?”

The Lord says yes.

David’s men say to him, “Not your fight, brother; and anyway, we’re scared enough where we are.” So David asks again, and again the Lord says, “Go … I’ll give you the victory.”

David goes. David wins. Keilah is saved. God knew what was going to happen before it happened.

What God Knows

But here’s the interesting bit.

After David frees Keilah, he suspects that Saul will soon be coming down after him. So David asks God about two other possibilities. One is “Will Saul come down to Keilah?” The other is “If he does, will the people of Keilah betray me and hand me over to Saul, even though I just rescued them?”

God answers in the affirmative to both: Saul will come down to Keilah, and the men of Keilah will hand David over to him, God says.

Now it gets even more interesting: though God says those two things will happen, neither actually does! David escapes, and Saul hears that David has left Keilah, and does not come down.


Sorting It Out

So what to make of that? Quite a lot, really.

For one thing, it makes us question what it means when God tells us something about the future. You see, quite a lot of us tend to think God has one “perfect will”, and that will is going to happen no matter what, and nobody can do anything about that. And in some specific things that is surely true. Think of the way God has settled the big world events of the end times: they will come about no matter what anybody does now. But then they’re not promised with an “if”, are they? They’re just foretold as certain. And God can do that. He can do that with anything he wishes.

But it’s not true of everything. What have we in this instance? Here, God clearly says he knows something that would happen if David stayed in Keilah. But it is not going to be happening, because David is going to leave Keilah.

We have other such instances, too. We could think of the number of times God tells Israel “If you obey”, then such-and-such will happen, but “if you disobey”, something different. Deuteronomy 28, the blessings and the curses at Mt. Ebal and Gerizim are an example of this. So are Exodus 18:23 and Jeremiah 42:10.

It looks very much like God sees not just a single “perfect way” that people WILL choose (and cannot not choose), but also possibilities of other ways that things can be if people had chosen something they did not choose. He can foresee not just actualities but possibilities.

How many possibilities? Quite a lot, I would think.

Stranger Still

Another extraordinary thing about this incident is that it tells us that God can make true statements about things that will never happen.

Saul never did come down to Keilah, and the men of Keilah never did hand him over to Saul; but would we say God was not telling the truth? Of course he was. He was speaking truly about what would have happened had David chosen other than he did.

Choice changes things. It’s not like the future is already “cooked” for us, and we just mindlessly stumble down a path God has fixed for us beforehand. We are invited into the dynamic of what will happen. God foreknows all possible alternatives, and can deal with any of them.  In fact, he even foreknows which of those many alternatives we will take, and which we won't.  But it does not look like God predetermines what will happen … at least, not in cases such as this one.

Foreknowledge is not predetermination. That’s a saying we should remember.

Against the Will of God?

Not only that, but the choices men make are often permitted and affirmed by God even when they go against the Lord’s own desires. Consider the passage in Matthew 23 and Luke 13, when the Lord grieves over unrepentant Israel. Remember how he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

I wanted. You were unwilling. Human choice matters. Different things happen, depending on what the human choice is. God allows people to make decisions — even bad decisions — and often confirms their choices over the good he would otherwise do for them.


And, of course, nowhere is this truer than in the matter of salvation. For the scripture makes clear what God would wish: that “all should reach repentance”. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. But not all WILL be saved, because not all will choose to come to him. As C.S. Lewis so pointedly put it:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”
That thought will severely disconcert some people. There are many Christians who depend on the idea that God preselects people to be saved, forces their salvation, and then guarantees it regardless of their wills. Of course, this would mean he preselects the others to be lost in just the same way. But no, here we see that human choices are affirmed even in cases of salvation. It is not idly that the Lord implores mankind to come. But they must choose to do so.

Bringing this Home

The incident at Keilah is a real provoker. If we think about it, it rocks our whole view of how time and possibilities work, of what God knows, and what it means to say that something could have happened, but didn’t. It also puts and extremely urgent emphasis on the choices we have to make. It indicates that God regards our choice-making very seriously indeed, and backs the choices humans make to a degree that might well take us by surprise.

Is that more upsetting or more reassuring? It depends on how you think about it. If you have taken comfort in the idea of an all-predetermining God, and think that history is safely “fated” by some choice made in the secret “eternal councils” of God, then you might find the Keilah episode a little disconcerting.

If, on the other hand, you’ve already been upset at some of the choices that you have seen human beings make — and maybe even some of the choices you yourself have made — it might actually be very reassuring to realize that God does not lack options for dealing with such things; that he foreknows all possible alternatives, and is so wise and powerful that he can actually deal with any of the various choices human beings can make.

Sovereign Foreknowledge

What would have happened if David had stayed at Keilah? God knows.

What we know is that Saul would have come down, and the men of Keilah would have handed David over to Saul. Would that mean that God had lost control of the situation? Apparently not. God knew about it already.

Many things could have happened, then: David could have been captured and spent some time in jail, like Joseph did. David could have escaped later. Or Saul could have been struck with a heart attack, and David could have been proclaimed king anyway. Or David could have been executed, and another man be raised up to do his work. We have no way of knowing.

What we do know is that no matter which of the possibilities actually occurred, God would have been in control of them all. Ultimately, no purpose of his can be thwarted. But the roads that lie between here and there are apparently more varied than we have perhaps hitherto imagined.

And which road we go down between here and there is sometimes left to our choice.

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