Human Free Will Within God’s Providential Control

Konstantin_Flavitsky_001

Joseph’s brothers sell him into captivity (1855, Konstantin Flavitsky)

Note: The following post is an excerpt from my third eBook — God’s Acts of Providence.  If you have an iOS device (i.e. an Apple device) then you can use this link to access.  If you do not use an iOS device, a PDF version can be found using this link.

Background

If God allows our wills freedom to operate then what happens when our corrupt wills collide with God’s eternal decrees?  It appears that God weaves His eternal purposes into the fabric of our willful acts.  That is, though we do indeed make decisions and take actions that are based upon our free wills, God is able to ensure that the accumulated result accomplishes His purposes.

The most notable Biblical story that reveals this dynamic is Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50).  Recall that Issac became the child of the fulfilled promise to Abraham and Sarah.  In turn Issac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob.  Although the younger, it was through Jacob’s line that God chose for the keeping of His promise.  Jacob had twelve sons, the second youngest of whom was Joseph.

Joseph’s Story

To call Jacob’s family dysfunctional may be an understatement.  Jacob showed extreme favoritism towards Joseph, who responded by becoming conceited and boastful.  Not surprisingly this situation created great resentfulness in his ten older brothers.  They eventually became so furious that they decided to sell Joseph into slavery and tell their father that he had been killed by a beast.

Joseph ended up in the Egyptian empire.  There he experienced great danger and suffering.  However, due to God’s gift of prophecy, Joseph miraculously ended up being the second most powerful man in Egypt, with only the Pharaoh above him.

Although the story centers on Joseph in Egypt for a long period of time, we are told that his brothers’ scheme crushed their father’s spirit.  One need no special gift of imagination to infer that their father’s grief coupled with the keeping of a shameful lie must have created gaping wounds in the family’s life.

None of the people in this story were originally attempting to cooperate with God’s providential purposes.  Quite the contrary, they were driven by pride, envy, greed, hatred and selfishness, among many other moral failings.  One would be hard pressed to create a family situation less supportive of God’s purposes.  In fact, their wills appear to have been aligned directly against God by tending to destroy the very family through which God sought to fulfill His promise!

And yet, in the end, it is God’s will that is done.  Not only does Jacob’s family survive, but it does so because of the sequence of sinful events willed by the human participants.  That is, because Joseph becomes powerful in Egypt he can offer his family salvation from a devastating famine.

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers

Joseph recognized by his brothers (1863, Leon Pierre Bourgeois).  Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him until long after they had been introduced to the second most powerful man in Egypt.

Far beyond mere physical survival, the experiences of Joseph and his brothers create in them softened hearts, humility and mercy that enable the family to reconcile.  This process only reaches completion upon the death of Jacob.  For, in spite of Joseph’s apparent kindness, his brothers yet fear that he is only waiting until Jacob’s death to take revenge.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died:  ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

Genesis 50:15-21

In Joseph’s astounding statement we find wondrous insight into God’s working of His providential purposes within context of human free will.  There is unambiguous clarity that Joseph’s brothers were willfully intending evil when they sold him into slavery.  However, there is also no doubt that God’s intentions were the exact opposite, and, were operating throughout.  How can these apparently contradictory statements be reconciled?

Meditation

Put another way, where in creation does God have the opportunity to inject His will so as to ensure a chosen outcome within context of human free will?  Here we enter the realm of conjecture.  However, it is conjecture illuminated by the entire Biblical story concerning God’s dealing with mankind.

One obvious place to look is the dimension of time.  We can easily recall numerous historical events when the difference of hours, or even minutes, had a controlling impact on the outcome.  For example, had the caravan to which Joseph was sold arrived hours later his brothers might have decided to kill him (Genesis 37:25-28).  Is it beyond God’s power to influence the sequence of events in time so as to cause a desired result?

Or consider the dimension of human character.  We all should be able to agree that each human being has a unique, multifaceted character that powerfully influences how they respond to ideas and events.  Is it beyond the power of God to imprint upon us character traits that will lead to our freely choosing one path over another?  Does not Scripture explicitly teach that this is indeed so?

For Scripture says of Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. Romans 9:17,18 (NIV)

Who are we to say just where and how this hardening of Pharaoh occurred?  Is it beyond God’s power to create particular character traits that will cause one person to freely respond in one way to a set of circumstances and another differently?  Can this not be an aspect of God’s action when we are being fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)?

These two possibilities are not intended to definitively explain how God’s acts of providence operate.  Rather, they are intended to expand the scope of our investigation to allow room for God’s acting within the simultaneous application of our free wills.

Perhaps a generalized statement of the above specific examples would be:

God, through various and sundry means that are independent of human will is able to ensure that the accumulated result of events will lead to the outcome that He has foreordained from eternity.

Of course, as we have seen in this work and throughout the Bible, none of this precludes God from directly intervening in creation as He deems fit.  However even on these occasions the dynamic is not that of a puppet master pulling strings, but rather of the infinite, eternal God engaging in relationship with frail flesh and blood.  That is, even within these direct invasions of the divine room is made for the operation of our wills.

Thus, the only issue excluded from influence of our wills is that of our salvation.  However, as we have seen, were God to here leave us to our own devices no one would be saved.  Thus our merciful God only overpowers our wills in the one place that they are utterly helpless.

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