Professor, I have a question about general theology. How does God's sovereignty work? Please allow me to use my situation as an example: I have spent the past few months struggling with loss since I broke up with an immature boyfriend who would never commit to anything, and I am wondering – did I ruin God's plan for my life by making a choice? If so, how do I get back on track? More generally, how does God's sovereignty work amidst our choices? I'm just not sure how I am supposed to decide or how I am supposed to guarantee that I pick "God's path" for me. I never really thought decision-making could be hard if we are seeking God -- I always thought God meets us as we step out in faith, redirects us, and in unseen ways, leads us toward his best for our lives, but right now, considering how it looks like I've messed up, I'm just really unclear about how this works.
Your letter – I’ve shortened and anonymized it for this post, of course – doesn’t give any reason to think that you actually have made bad choices. After all, you did say the young man was immature and would never commit to anything. I also notice that you don’t ask whether you ruined God’s plan by making a bad choice – you ask whether you ruined God’s plan by making a choice. As the Old Testament book of Sirach says, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel." That is why He gave us rational minds that are unlike the minds of the beasts. Making choices is what He intends us to do; we would oppose His plans for us if we didn’t make choices.
The great thing to do, with His help, is make good and wise ones. Sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t, but it’s not unfaithful to think so. He doesn’t absolutely prevent us from doing foolish things. Learning to do wise ones required discipline and experience.
As to “getting back on track” -- that can be taken in three different ways.
If you ever find that you have acted contrary to God’s law, for instance by stealing or by acting unkindly, then, of course, the way to get back on track is to repent, confess, and make amends with the persons whom you wronged.
Suppose, on the other hand, that you choose to do something that is not in the least incompatible with God’s law, but is simply unwise. In that case, the way to get back on track depends on the nature of the unwise choice. Some unwise choices can simply be reversed -- for example, if you choose a career in accounting, but only then discover that you are no good at arithmetic, you can be retrained for a new career.
Other unwise choices can’t be reversed. Even then, though, you can make the best of them. Suppose, for example, that instead of breaking up with that immature man who wouldn’t commit to anything, you had married him. It would be wrong to try to “get back on track” by seeking a divorce, but there are at least three other things you could do. One would be to overcome the immaturity on your part that led you to marry such a man in the first place. The second would be to encourage him to become more mature himself – lovingly, not nastily, and not blaming yourself if he doesn’t respond. And of course you could offer your suffering to Christ, so that you could become more perfectly conformed to Him in what He suffered for us.
But getting back on track can also be taken as meaning getting back on track emotionally. How do we get off that track in the first place? One reason, of course, is that we suffer from bad decisions. A drug addict suffers because of the decisions that led him to become addicted. A young woman attached to a young man who has the Peter Pan syndrome because of her bad choice of boyfriend. If I am no good at acting, but give up everything and go to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star, I suffer needless failure and disappointment.
The other, more surprising reason for the need to get back on track emotionally is that sometimes we suffer even when we have made good and wise decisions. The drug addict will suffer dreadfully from withdrawal after giving up the drug, but he was right to give it up. The young woman may feel brokenhearted after breaking up with the unsuitable man, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong to break up with him. If I discover that I have no acting talent, and so give up my lifelong dream of being a movie star in order to do something better with my life, I might suffer just because the dream meant so much to me -- but that wouldn’t imply that I should have continued trying for a career I am not suited for. What it would imply is that I need to learn what kind of dreams to dream!
Since suffering can result from good decisions as well as from bad ones, it’s also important to avoid thinking that our decisions must have been bad just because we do feel wretched afterward. Shall we apply this to you? I suggest that you think more carefully about the reasons for your own present sadness. How often people go back even on good decisions just because afterward they are unhappy! And how often they experience far greater suffering by doing so! A wise decision made for good reasons does not become a bad decision just because flowers do not spring at our feet the next day.
How then does a person get back on track emotionally? Part of your own sadness will take care of itself, because people do get over failed relationships. Hard as that seems to believe while the heartbreak is going on, it is really true. The great thing is not to hang onto the sorrow. Don’t cherish it, don’t coddle it, and don’t make a pet of it. You should also remember that if God does intend that you marry – He may, after all, have something better in mind for you, such as the life of consecrated celibacy -- then in time, if you choose wisely, you will find a suitable husband.
I don’t mean that every kind of sadness “takes care of itself.” Some doesn’t. But you can do something about the various sadnesses that don’t take care of themselves too, so that they become manageable, and even so that they work to your good. Suppose, for example, that through no fault of your own, a beloved brother cuts off his relationship with you and the rest of your family. The first thing you can do is refuse to blame yourself for his bad own decision. The next thing you can do is pray for him. This prayer should include a plea to God that the door to reconciliation with your brother may some day open, and that when it does, you will recognize the opportunity and know what to do. Still another thing you can do is continue to intend kindness to your brother, even if he is no longer kind to you. And finally -- just as in the other cases, so in this one -- you can offer your sorrow about the rupture with your brother to Christ, so that, by His grace, it may be united with His suffering for us.
Now about Christian decision-making being so much harder than you expected.
You are not wrong to think that God meets us on the path, and that if we cooperate with Him, He leads us. But this does not mean that decision-making with God is easy. In fact, it is just as hard for us as it is for non-believers -- but in a different way.
Consider the story of Elijah’s grief in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings. I’m thinking of chapter 19. Elijah has just experienced his greatest victory over the prophets of the false god Ba’al. He has acted well, and God is pleased with him. Yet he is in utter misery. He thinks that his life has been a failure and that his work is at an end. Losing his nerve, he runs away into the wilderness, holes up in a cave, and complains to God, “"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." God doesn’t magically make Elijah happy. But He doesn’t leave him alone, either. He makes Elijah aware of His presence, gives him time to mourn, makes him go back, and gives him new work to do – not only for the present, but also to prepare for the future.
You ask about God’s sovereignty. His sovereignty means that He rules.
It doesn’t mean that He keeps us from doing stupid things. Yes, He assists us in learning from these mistakes, not just in the light of earthly prudence, but also, by His grace, in the light of eternal wisdom. But He doesn’t keep us from committing them.
It doesn’t mean that He will make all our decisions easy. Yes, He will always help. But there will times when we don’t recognize the help that He gives – at least not at the time that He is giving it, because sometimes it becomes clear to us only long afterward. You don’t have to feel his hand on your hand to walk with Him in obedience and faith.
And it doesn’t mean that He always makes us happy in this life. Although we bring much of our suffering upon ourselves, we will experience sorrow and real loss even when we are doing everything right. St. Paul says in Romans 8, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” When he writes these words, he doesn’t mean that our Lord and Master stops the freezing rain for us. What he means is that our Lord and Master, who rules everything, can use even the freezing rain for our ultimate good.
All of which is inconceivably wonderful. Not just in heaven. Now.
Some years ago I wrote a short dialogue for college age Christians trying to figure out God’s will for them: “Who’s Calling?” The original target audience was a little younger than you, but perhaps you will enjoy it. It’s a conversation between a young student and his mentor, an imaginary, idealized professor named Theophilus, who is much cooler than me.
The God of the Gaps
Atheist to theist: “You believe in a God only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the existence and properties of the universe.”
The Murderer of the Gaps
Atheist to forensic pathologist: “You believe in a murderer only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the bullet-shaped holes in the dead man’s back.”
The Thief of the Gaps
Atheist to policeman: “You believe in a thief only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of the cash from the strongbox.”
The Author of the Gaps
Atheist to editor: “You believe in an author only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the existence of the manuscript that came in the mail.”
The Sculptor of the Gaps
Atheist to anthropologist: “You believe in a sculptor only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the human-shaped chunk of marble you dug up in the ruins of the city.”
I personally find teleological arguments about sex compelling – the sort of arguments that identify the purposes of the sexual powers (procreation and the union of the procreative partners), and then draw the inference that we should behave in ways that cooperate with these purposes instead of, as you say, undermining them. On the other hand, so many people seem to be able to wave such arguments away. So do you think the arguments are really strong?
I do think consider teleological arguments strong – both valid and compelling. The significance of the fact that many people refuse to take them seriously is psychological, not logical. If they refused to take them seriously because there were actually something wrong with them, I would worry. But there seems to be nothing wrong with them. The problem lies in not wanting to be persuaded.
I am reminded of a student some years ago who had just heard an explanation of what counts as a valid argument. He asked, “But what if the premises are true and the reasoning is sound, but I just know the conclusion is wrong?” I answered, “Then you change your mind.”
Well, other arguments about sexuality are available. Then should you give up on this one and only use them? That would be silly; after all, people irrationally reject the other arguments too! Besides, even when the barrier to accepting a teleological argument does lie in the will rather than in the intellect, often something can be done to get past a person’s defenses and render the argument accessible to his mind.
Example: If I simply ask someone, “What is the natural purpose of the sexual powers?” he is likely to reply, “Pleasure.” This is a poor answer; if it were their natural purpose, then pleasure alone would be the criterion of right and wrong (and in fact that is how people think). But suppose, instead, I first warm up the other fellow’s power to think teleologically. Then he is likely to answer differently.
“What is the natural purpose of the eye?” I might ask. “Seeing,” comes the reply. “How about the purpose of the heart?” “Circulating blood.” “How about the respiratory powers?” “Oxygenating it.” “How about the thumb?” “Grasping.” “How about the power to become angry?” “Getting me ready to defend something.” Now if I ask “How about the sexual powers?” he is likely to reply “Procreation.”
Suppose he adds, “But isn’t pleasure a purpose too?” I comment, “All of the voluntary powers are pleasurable. It’s pleasurable to take a deep breath. It’s pleasurable to flex the muscles. It’s pleasurable to eat. Does that fact that eating is pleasurable make pleasure the natural purpose of eating?” He answers, “No, its purpose is nutrition.” “So pleasure isn’t the purpose of the power to eat?” “I guess not,” he might answer, and I agree.
He might protest, “Even so, I’m not happy that pleasure has been left out of the picture.” “It hasn’t been left out,” I respond. “Then where is it?” he asks. “Just because pleasure isn’t the purpose of eating,” I reply, “it doesn’t follow that the pleasure itself is useless. What purpose might it have?” “I suppose its purpose would be to encourage us to take in the nutrition we need.” “So pleasure isn’t the natural purpose of the power to eat, but only a motive for using it?” “Apparently so,” he replies.
“But in that case,” I might add, “we can draw an analogy. The purpose of the sexual powers isn’t pleasure, but procreative union. But the pleasure of the sexual powers has its own purpose, because it encourages us to seek procreative union.” Although my conversational partner may still dislike the conclusion, he now finds it more difficult to evade.
Suppose he asks, “But why should I care what the natural purposes of the sexual powers are? Using them in other ways doesn’t hurt anyone.” I might answer, “Are you so sure of that? When we use them in other ways, we disorder human life. For example, we produce offspring without giving them the assurance of being raised by their moms and dads.” He might reply, “So why shouldn’t we just worry about that consequence? Why drag in natural purposes?” I might reply, “Aren’t the two things connected? Even if you could avoid that particular undesired consequence, through drugs or something, you would still be missing the point of sexual union. You would be using the bonding power without intending a bond. You would be generating connections without commitments, connections that you may later tear apart. Besides, purposes are the flip side of meanings. It’s easy to say that sex doesn’t have to mean anything, but if use powers full of meaning without meaning anything by using them, we diminish ourselves. What a recipe for loneliness, alienation, and resentment!”
There is plenty to talk about right there. If the other fellow is willing to keep talking, though, I might bring up another consideration. “Suppose we are gluttons, who eat to the detriment of the nutritional purpose. Either we make ourselves enormous, or else, just to keep that from happening, we gorge, purge, and gorge again, keeping it up just as long as the pleasure of gorging lasts. What would you think of this sort of behavior?” Most people reply, “I would consider it disgusting.” I might answer, “Isn’t it curious that we are disgusted by the use of the eating powers against their natural purpose, but not by the misuse of the sexual powers against their natural purpose? If disgust is appropriate in one of those cases, then why not in both? Every previous generation saw the parallel.”
Some people will agree in identifying the purpose of the sexual powers as procreative union, but then balk, merely because a conditioned reflex kicks in. For many of us were drilled in the motto that “An is can’t imply an ought.” Although these days most philosophers consider the motto discredited, word hasn’t got around. Yet it is possible to get past this mantra too.
I might ask the objector, “So are you telling me that because an is can’t imply an ought, I shouldn’t derive normative conclusions from the natural purposes of things?” “Right, that’s what I’m saying.” “Fine. But think about it. Aren’t you deriving an ought from an is?” “How am I doing that?” “You’re telling me that that because it is the case that an is can’t imply an ought, we ought not make use of such inferences.” “I guess I am.” “So really you agree with me that an is can imply an ought.”
If he still balks, I might tell him a story. “You visit your ophthalmologist. He says, ‘You’re much more nearsighted than the last time I examined you.’ You reply, ‘Would new eyeglasses clear up my vision?’ He answers, ‘Yes, completely.’ You reply: ‘Could you make them for me?’ He answers, ‘Certainly.’ You reply, ‘Then I guess I ought to have you do it.’ Ophthalmologist (puzzled): ‘Why? After all, an is can’t imply an ought.’” I conclude the story with a question: “Wouldn't you look for a new ophthalmologist?”
And so the discussion might go. We humans are odd birds. Odd, because if rocks are dropped on our heads, we can expect them to make dents in our skulls – but if valid arguments are dropped on our minds, we can’t necessarily expect them to make dents in our understanding. The whole art of reasoning with someone who is confused about sex is to get him to see what is right in front of his eyes.
This sort of discussion has the greatest punch when it is developed in the context of a personal relationship, so that the other fellow is not so concerned about saving face. Little pieces of the argument may have to be presented many times, in many ways, on many occasions, before they all sink in. You have to discern carefully which valid lines of reasoning can get past the other fellow’s defenses and which can’t, and you have to listen closely to know when there is no point in talking and knock off. This isn't how they taught argument to us in graduate school. But it's how human beings are.
And we have to keep our eyes on the ball. The point of the discussion isn’t to have snappy comebacks for everything, but to elicit the lovely vision of what human beings are. We are unions of body and soul. The meanings and purposes of our biological powers are constitutive properties of our embodied personhood. They are inheritances, not encumbrances; enrichments, not impoverishments. They are not things to be struggled against, but things to be cherished as gifts.
Photo acknowledgement. The parody is original, but the Hitler photo itself is from Bundesarchiv Bild, colorized on Wikimedia Commons.
People are attracted to some awfully bad rules of life. Maybe you’ve noticed.
Since we are a rational species, and most people aren’t idiots, how do bad rules of life become so popular?
Case in point: The phenomenally successful Nike advertising slogan, "Just do it."
A marketing expert who writes that he was in on its coining opines that a slogan “must evoke transcendent qualities of human soulfulness. And to do that it has to express deep insight into its unique purpose in the world.”
Don’t expect clear speech from an advertiser. I translate that warm bath of self-congratulatory words as meaning, “The slogan must exploit powerful motives on the part of the consumer. And it has to connect these motives somehow with the product.”
We knew that already.
More interesting is how the originator of the slogan “Just do it” actually came up with it. When asked, he said he “took inspiration from the last words of a convicted murderer, Gary Gilmore, who said ‘Let’s do it.’”
But that still doesn’t explain why Nike thought the slogan would sell shoes.
To me the matter seems pretty simple.
We are attracted to a bad rule of life when it has two things going for it: First, there have to be certain isolated truths that make it superficially plausible. Second, we have to want to believe it.
So – part one -- what makes “Just do it” superficially plausible? The fact that in at least two kinds of situations, we really shouldn’t think too hard before acting.
The first kind is the carpe diem situation: Don’t overanalyze, just hit the ball. Don’t obsess over whether you can win the race, just run. Seize the day! This is the kind of thought that Nike was trying to evoke.
The second kind is moral conduct under temptation: Don’t worry about what will happen if you don’t lie, just don’t. Don’t give thought to the next door lady’s charms, just be faithful to your wife. Do the right thing! I gravely doubt that Nike was even thinking about this one; in fact, the company would have preferred that consumers not think about it.
The problem about both situations is that usually we do have to think before acting. Before carping the diem, we have to know that the diem is really at hand; timing is everything. And given that we have to do the right thing, we often have to deliberate what the right thing is. So you have to deliberate even to know when to stop deliberating and act.
But from the testimonies some people post to the internet about how following the Nike slogan changed their lives, “just doing it” without deliberation solves every problem and applies to every life decision. Relationships. Travel. Finances. And, I guess, being executed.
Which is crazy.
So – part two -- what makes people want to believe in such a foolish rule of life? The fact that it provides a convenient excuse for doing things we want to do, shouldn’t do, and wouldn’t do if we did deliberate properly.
Another Nike advertisement said, “We are hedonists.” That was less successful, because it was less flattering. “Just do it” gives us an excuse to be hedonists by flattering us with the image of a high and lofty spirit.
Don’t worry that you’re already sloshed, just have another drink. Don’t think about whether you should be sleeping with strangers, just put the moves on her. Don’t obsess about whether you can afford the purchase, just swipe the damn card.
Don’t consider whether doing this is wise. Don’t worry about whether it’s right. Don’t fret about what you will think of yourself for having done it.
Just do it. Just do it.
Advertisers and pimps understand these things.
Most young Christians are unfamiliar with their own intellectual traditions. They are disconcerted when persons of an unserious disposition taunt them with questions like “If God exists, then why is there evil in the world?” or “If God made everything, then who made God?”
It isn’t that these are bad questions, but that we have been answering them for centuries, and persons of the taunting sort aren’t listening. I would rather have a real conversation than a conversation-stopper.
But if that is the game, it doesn’t hurt to point out that two can play it. Perhaps it will give young persons a little break from the taunters while they are taking the time to acquire those traditions they ought to have.
If God is a being who can’t not be, then why does He need to have been made?
If God doesn’t exist, then why is there good in the world?
If good and evil are illusions, then why do we have them in the first place?
If ethics is just a trick our genes play on us to get us to cooperate, then why not skip the trick and just have a gene to cooperate?
If morality is just an instinct, then why does it sometimes tell us to resist our other instincts?
If we are nothing but evolved mud, adapted to its environment, then why don’t we feel at home in this world?
If every possible desire is for something in this life, then why, when we get what we wanted, do we ask “Is this all there is?”
If there is no meaning, then considering that seeking nonexistent things is maladaptive, why do we seek meaning?
If the only reason for intelligence is that it helped our ancestors find mates, catch food, and escape from things that might eat them, then why do we also compose fugues and concertos?
If using our minds to answer the question doesn’t count, so the only reason people believe in God is that they want Him to exist, then wouldn’t we also have to say that the only reason people disbelieve in God is that they don’t want Him to exist?
If everything is about survival, then why don’t we just kill the old, sick, helpless, and all others who cost resources?
Oh, I forgot. Perhaps you think we should.
How much do we read? I suppose the answer depend on what one means by reading. Much of what we call by that name is barely the same activity. We say we have no time for real reading. But we seem to have plenty of time for snack prose.
Unlike the older forms of prose, which encourage patience and thoughtfulness, snack prose encourages hastiness in thought and expression. It also promotes a higher emotional temperature and lower ideational content. No wonder there are so many insults on Twitter: The median tweet is 34 characters. That’s enough for what is flatteringly termed a “thought,” but not for an argument.
Interestingly, snack prose begins to set the style of prose in general. Smaller bites. Shorter paragraphs. Gnomic sentences.
Just look at the ones in this post.
At the personal level, there is a solution, for anyone who cares enough to implement it: Read more.
And turn all that other junk off.