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.