Thoughts on God’s Will

Image - medieval illustration
Jeroboam sets up two calves for northern kingdom worship – all a part of God’s will, but still wrong as can be

Friends of mine have invoked the theme of God’s will to condemn the demonstrations that have occurred in the past several days in the wake of the recent election. I don’t know that they have Calvin’s doctrine of providence in mind when they say this; maybe they are just thinking about Romans 13:1-10, which counsels Christians to abide by the law and which concludes that the main thing anyone owes anyone is love. I, however, am reminded of Calvin’s doctrine of providence whenever I hear this invocation. So I can’t help having several related ideas in quick succession, something like this – only most of the time without the footnotes:

(1) Well, everything is always God’s will. Every aspect of a situation, every consequence of an action, could be described in that way. (According to Calvin, “God so attends to the regulation of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance.” (I.xvi.4) This idea will sooner or later take any thinking person to a heart-stopping place. Quickly then, before it does, I will note that all of the outcomes of the recent election in the United States, including the demonstrations that have taken place in various cities, the numerous conversations people have had with family members and friends, the specific public and confidential activities of the president-elect’s transition team, all of that, and everything yet to materialize, can be described as “God’s will” from the perspective of Calvin’s doctrine of providence.)

(2) But God’s will isn’t always immediately beneficial or pleasant for people. “… it strives to the end that God may reveal his concern for the whole human race” and “the final outcome” will show it to be best, but in the course of human events it includes all kinds of adverse circumstances that human beings experience as miseries, for all kinds of reasons – Calvin cites things like teaching patience, calling people to repentance, and arousing people from sluggishness, but acknowledges that the underlying reasons for things are often … inscrutable to us. (Calvin, Institutes, I.xvii.1)

(3) Cooperating with God’s will in this sense doesn’t guarantee that a person is behaving well. According to Calvin, and to Augustine before him, God uses people’s evil desires and actions to accomplish God’s purposes, but in such a way that what God does in love and justice, the people do in not-love-and-justice, but in opposition to God’s instruction. So, Calvin quotes Augustine, at length,

“Sometimes with a good will a man wills something which God does not will … For example, a good son wills that his father live, whom God wills to die. Again, it can happen that the same man wills with a bad will what God wills with a good will. For example, a bad son wills that his father die; God also wills this. That is, the former wills what God does not will; but the latter wills what God also wills. And yet the filial piety of the former, even though he wills something other than God wills, is more consonant with God’s good will than the impiety of the latter, who wills the same thing as God does. There is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God, and to what end the will of each is directed, so that it be either approved or disapproved. For through the bad wills of evil men God fulfills what he righteously wills.” (Augustine, Enchiridion xxvi. 100f. quoted in Calvin I.xviii.3)

In other words, the good son who loves his father and wants him to survive is doing what God approves – even though it’s not fully consistent with God’s will for the outcome of the situation. The bad son, who wishes his father would buy the farm already, is doing what God disapproves, despite the fact that both the ingrate son and God are willing the same outcome.

Calvin brings up the example of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 11, who gets encouragement from the prophet Ahijah to think about rebelling against Solomon’s son Rehoboam. It’s wrong for the people of the northern kingdom to secede. It’s wrong even though God plans to take some of Solomon’s kingdom away from his heir, which means the division outcome aligns with that secret plan. The secession is still a bad thing, from a human point of view, springing from motives a lot different from the wholehearted love of God. One implication of this, which gives me pause, is that being an agent of God’s will is no indication whatsoever of divine approbation. [I tend to think of the Babylonians, but that’s just me.]

(4) Worse yet, sometimes “keeping the commandments” entails opposing or resisting circumstances that are manifestly “God’s will” (see 1, above). “We must obey God rather than any human authority” said Peter and the apostles in Acts 5:29, and Christians have said that ever since (as in, “Jesus is Lord;” “grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone;” “the one Word of God which we must hear;” “we shall overcome”). Calvin prefaced the Institutes with a courteous address to King Francis, but ended with a long paragraph affirming that “obedience to man must not become disobedience to God,” in which he says

… in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted. And how absurd would it be that in satisfying men you should incur the displeasure of him for whose sake you obey men themselves!

In other words, he implies, Francis better read this book, and get with this program, because to the extent that he doesn’t and tries to get us Huguenots to go along with decrees and royal policies that clash with what we think God requires … well:

 … we are rendering that obedience which the Lord requires when we suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety. And that our courage may not grow faint, Paul pricks us with another goad: That we have been redeemed by Christ at so great a price as our redemption cost him, so that we should not enslave ourselves to the wicked desires of men – much less be subject to their impiety [1 Cor. 7:23]. (Calvin, IV.xx.32)

All in all, then, bringing up the point that the outcome of the election is God’s will seems like an appeal to authority that is bound to fail. Just because the outcome is God’s will doesn’t guarantee it any moral standing. God’s will has included the Babylonians and the Romans, hardly the “good guys” of ancient history. Patient confidence in every circumstance is always appropriate, but silent acceptance of all political authority is not.

The kind of people who consider the new president-elect so morally objectionable that they are motivated to exercise their 1st Amendment right peaceably to assemble for the purposes of calling attention to that moral objectionability and expressing their opposition to it and their commitment to a different set of values may not see God as having anything to do with elections in the US in the first place. But if they do, they seem likely to be the kind of people who will see their resistance as “obedience to God rather than human authority.” Agree with their interpretation or disagree with it, it’s hard for a white Christian to argue that what people really should do is what human authority demands, rather than what they understand God to demand. Who would accept that argument? I hope I wouldn’t.

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