I’ve always enjoyed thought experiments, riddles that cause you to stop and consider life in a new way. My Grandad and I once spent a long car ride reasoning out the age-old “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument. You know, ‘cause on the one hand, who would have sat on that first egg but on the other, how could a chicken just appear? Deep thoughts.
After making a decision to follow Jesus as a college student, the question of whether humans have total free will or if God acts sovereignly in a way that makes the outcome of our lives predetermined was one of these thought experiments. It was fun to turn around in my head, interesting to consider how Scripture could be used to support both arguments, but at the end of the day, it seemed an unanswerable question and one that didn’t affect my everyday life very deeply.
The thing I didn’t fully understand was that the Christian ministries and churches I was a part of were squarely in the first camp, holding tightly to the idea that the total responsibility for our salvation rests with us, that we must exert our free wills to respond to God lest we miss His grace. In my own heart, this belief system resulted in a deep uncertainty about my worthiness. Had I repented of sin enough to receive God’s mercy? Was I as faithful as I should be with my gifts and talents or would Jesus find my efforts lacking when my life was over? Would someone I knew go to hell because I hadn’t told them about God?
I lived with these quiet questions constantly, even as I worked in full-time ministry and assured other people of the gracious welcome of a loving God. Because I had implicitly accepted the idea that our salvation is based on our response, I never felt truly certain of God’s love for me.
One fall, a well-known theologian and seminary professor came to a nearby church to give a two-day seminar on the Old Testament. I had heard him preach on a podcast and appreciated his way of making academic theological knowledge understandable. I was in the middle of a dry season spiritually, wrestling with doubt and wondering if ministry was the right place for me.
In four sessions over two days, he told stories from Old Testament heroes like Moses and David. I saw these passages afresh, gaining new insight about my own walk with God. But more than anything else, as I listened I began to feel warm waves of grace wash over me. For in his telling, I heard, perhaps for the first time, a theology grounded in the idea that God is sovereign, that it is He who calls and saves and keeps, that He upholds us even when we falter and fail. This wasn’t pre-destination as a cop-out for bad behavior, this was a serious view that God acts to redeem and sustain the creation He loves, regardless of our sinfulness.
It was a transformative weekend for me, an offer of an easy yoke. I had been keeping a record of my own wrongs in my head, always wondering if I was one sin away from losing God’s favor. Though I loved my ministry work and the people in my church and Christian community, my faith was always coupled with fear. After eight hours of theology seminars, I found myself crying tears of gratitude that, as He had done for the greats of Biblical history like Abraham and Daniel, God chose me. He picked me, He called me, and He loves me because He has already redeemed me and made me his own.
I think the answer to the question of whether the world is ordered according to human free-will or God’s sovereignty is likely a both/and. Either extreme misses something important about the nature of God and humanity. And yet, in wrestling, in taking steps toward an answer and hearing new perspectives, there is the opportunity to know God in new ways.
For me, that new way of seeing God brought both healing and change. It was part of what lead me to leave full-time ministry. As I started over in a new city, I found a church that emphasizes God’s sovereignty, even as I continue to believe that we play an important role in our own faith stories. I haven’t stopped believing my choices matter. As a wife and parent, in many respects it feels like my choices matter more than ever. It’s just that finally, totally, completely, I believe that Paul’s assertion in Romans 8:
I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.
Lindsey Smallwood is a former pastor and teacher who is currently working, writing and raising her babies in Boulder, Colorado. She hopes to leave a legacy of good relationships and bad dancing. Read more by Lindsey at her blog or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.