Lately I have been binge-watching a TV series called “How It’s Made“. It follows the manufacturing process for hundreds of items over 24 seasons. There are things like producing miles of packaged aluminum foil from a multi-ton block of solid aluminum, building a Formula One car, creating sculptures — from leather or ice or bronze or glass — and cooking and packaging sandwich cookies. Each episode follows the dozens of steps involved, capturing the action of all the machinery: conveyors, cutters, rollers, robots, mixers, bottling and packaging lines, as well as all the manual hand-crafting. The complex design and interaction between all the moving parts is fascinating.
Whoever designed those assembly lines planned the placement of each machine. Whoever designed the machines planned the placement of each component within them. The overall process needs each person, machine, and component to work in sync in order to produce the final result.
What does that have to do with the will of God?
The Bible teaches that God has a plan and a purpose for the entire creation, and for each individual part of it. He created everything for a reason, and is moving it along toward the final goal that He has always had in mind.
For I am God, and there is no other;Isaiah 46:9-10
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;
I hope He’s not offended that I can see a small resemblance to a How It’s Made process. Just as each cog in each machine on How It’s Made has its place, everything has a place in God’s plan.
God’s Will, or My Free Will…Both
There are some differences, though, that makes God’s version special. Unlike the cog, I have a choice. I can squirm and wriggle and fuss and fume and reject my designed role. Also unlike the cog, I can’t cause the process to break down. God has always known all my squirming, and took it into account when designing the process; He already planned around all my choices, even my misbehavior!
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;Psalm 139:16
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
This intersection of my free will and God’s sovereign will has always been one of the great mysteries of the faith. How can both be true at the same time? The short answer is that God is just that big, so much bigger and deeper than I can comprehend.
The longer answer is that God chose to create real people, who can make real choices that really do make a difference. But He did not give up any of His power and control over His creation. History will go as He has decided, and nothing can change that course.
With Me, or Without Me…Both
The difference made by my choices is whether or not I get the benefit of enjoying my participation in His plan. If I choose otherwise, the plan will still move forward…just without me. I’ll get left out of the party.
In the Old Testament book of Esther, she — a Jewish exile whose family had been forced into captivity — was rather improbably chosen to be queen of Persia when the old queen was deposed. The Jews were being persecuted, and there was a chance that Esther could help. Her uncle told her:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?Esther 4:14
Bad News, or Good News…Both
Even things that we consider to be bad, like Esther’s people being hauled away from their homeland, are part of God’s plan. Jeremiah 21 and 22 tell of God’s plan to use Babylon’s invasion and the captivity there to punish Israel for abandoning their commitment to Him. Then, Isaiah 13:17-22 tells of a coming recompense on Babylon (by Persia) for their cruelty to God’s people.
The LORD has made everything for its own purpose,Proverbs 16:4
Even the wicked for the day of evil.
Isaiah 45 tells of God’s plan to use Cyrus of Persia to free His people and send them back to their homeland…even though Cyrus had not yet been born, and didn’t intentionally obey any command from God.
Obedience, or Disobedience…Both
Jonah tried to run away from God’s plan for Him. That didn’t work out so well. Jonah still ended up going to Nineveh, the capital of the notoriously cruel nation of Assyria, and warning them of God’s coming wrath. But the choices of the Ninevites did have an impact: When they repented, God relented and did not destroy them as He had warned. Jonah wasn’t surprised at that. He knew that God was a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” (Jonah 4:2) So God worked around and through Jonah, then through the people of Nineveh, to accomplish the forgiveness that He had wanted all along.
I know that You can do all things,Job 42:2
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
God’s Good Will Be Done
Jesus taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) That calls me to actively desire God’s will, as opposed to simply tolerating it because I have no choice. I am to make my plans, yes, but always under His umbrella. James 4:13-16 says it another way: “…you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.‘”
The way that God’s eternal over-all will is done by way of my own individual free-will choices remains a mystery. But it is also a great comfort. God is not surprised by anything that happens; He is never playing catch-up or correcting mistakes; He already has everything handled.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.Romans 8:28