How many 17-year-olds have walked away from a relationship with God because of a struggle to understand the idea of predestination?
I’m not sure, but I was one of them.
I write these words not to mount my spiritual high horse, but to note the irony of a faith journey come full circle: the doctrines of predestination and others are grains of sand that irritate my thoughts at the present.
I bring this up, because as a young Christian, I think it’s important to recognize the struggle to understand theology.
We all learn in different ways. Some Christians are content to study a topic with their church in a series. Some of us need to take it a step further, to get down in the weeds and grapple with the philosophical implications of the Bible.
Theology is simply “the study of the nature of God.” If we’re not actively trying to understand the God we follow, we do a disservice to him and to our own relationship with him. It’s healthy and necessary to seek a deeper understanding of the faith we have chosen to stake our lives on.
As someone my father once warned against being “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” I try to keep grounded in the practical consequences of faith. As the prophet Micah wrote,
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”Micah 6:8
If this is our call from God, it is one of both inward and outward devotion. How do we learn to act according to God’s justice, and to love his mercy? By studying his Word (Scripture) and better understanding his nature.
So where does doctrine come into play? If you read enough Scripture, inevitably, you have questions. I often pull out my laptop after reading a chapter to search for a reference, which leads me down a rabbit hole of more questions.
Lately, I’ve been coming back to the doctrine of election. This is the idea that God has chosen, or elected, certain people to be saved. In a larger sense, it means He is an independent actor, one who has already predestined those who will be saved for heaven.
There’s a historical difference in opinions, with the Calvinist school of thought advocating that God chooses who will be saved. The Arminians diverge, saying that while God chooses who will be saved, there is a free will component, i.e., it is the human’s choice to accept or reject that gift.
Typically, Methodists and Baptists subscribe to the second school of thought, while Presbyterians lean towards the Calvinist doctrine, although it varies from church to church.
When I was 17, I struggled mightily with the idea that God has predestined the outcome of all things. I couldn’t reconcile the negatives in the world with the idea that a good God would allow such evil events. I chose instead to believe that God was powerful, but frightening, a being I wanted nothing to do with. If someone asked me what I believed during this time, I’d say God existed, but I didn’t believe he was good.
How do you act towards a God of terrible power? You run away from any mention of him.
What changed, what convinced me that God was not just good, but the Ultimate Good? Believe it or not, reading the Stephen King novel Under the Dome was the impetus. It spurred so many questions about life after death and a higher power I could ignore no longer.
Soon after, I took a college course about the history of religion in the United States. It left me with more questions, and some answers. I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on a plane ride from Orange County to New York for my journalism residency. By the time we touched down at JFK, I was convinced: I had to give Christianity another shot.
For me, this meant reading the Bible, trying to attend church, and generally thinking about what being a Christian meant I could and could not do. I later learned it was more of a should and should not do.
I still hadn’t forgotten the question of predestination. I began to understand it in a different way; a God who knows the outcome of all things exists on a different plane from our own. He is literally so high above us, we cannot fathom the ramification of his decisions. God knowing what will happen doesn’t necessarily remove our capacity to be independent, free actors of our own accord.
Think of it like this: God could see a billion outcomes simultaneously, and know how each of our individual decisions would impact every possible scenario. I think of it as the craziest permutation imaginable.
That’s how I have come to reconcile my own free will with an all-powerful God, but I’m not done yet. I’m still trying to understand more, every day.
Once we grasp the basic tenets of salvation, it’s up to us to decide how to respond to it. If Jesus Christ really sacrificed his life on a cross so that we could be free from the smallest to the largest sins, then everything we do should be a response to that incredible, undeserved gift of grace.
How will you respond?