Thursday, 31 May 2012

Alternative plans

I thought of a joke the other day. It’s not particularly funny, I know, but it helps express something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to recently.

Question: What’s the difference between God and George Osborne?
Answer: God has a plan B.

This issue has arisen in several ways, through thinking about stories in the Bible, things which have happened recently in my role as minister, conversations with friends. A few days ago I was reading the story of 1 Samuel 15, where Saul is told by the prophet Samuel that he’s to lose the throne of Israel because of his disobedient act of sparing the life of the Amalekite King, Agag. At the end of the chapter we’re told that ‘the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.’

Fast forward another 3,000 years and we read about Peter, in Acts 10, on the roof of Cornelius’ house, seeing a vision of all manner of food and being told by God that he’s permitted to eat it all. And yet it’s not Peter who’s remembered as ‘Apostle to the Gentiles.’ Galatians 2 tells the story of how Peter ‘drew back and kept himself separate’ from Gentiles, an event which meant Paul had to assume the mantle of leading the sharing the Gospel with non-Jews.

All of which raises some difficult but important questions. When God first instructs Samuel to anoint Saul as king, does he know about the way the story will end, in eventual failure? How do we understand Saul’s prophecy of 1 Samuel 10? Does this show some evidence that Saul started out being the right man for the job, the best man available to God? Does God always foresee how people will change? When he revealed his vision of clean foods to Peter, could it be that, at the time, Peter seemed to be the best person for sharing the gospel to the Gentiles?

I talk to so many people who regret how things have worked out in their life, and who see this as a failure on their part, an inability to properly listen to God. I didn’t know how that person would turn out when I married them, I’d no idea the complications that there would be when I moved to that new job. There is often an added dimension of personal guilt for Christians when they try to make sense of these sorts of disappointments. I wonder how many people in Israel berated Samuel for picking the wrong king...

But what if God is inside time, alongside us? He knows everything there is to know, but that can’t include events in the future which are not fully settled. In that case, we could have been clearly hearing from God, who felt at that moment that for us that job, that home, that husband or wife was right. I realise this is a huge change in thinking for many of us, but I can’t help feeling it’s one which helps us make more sense of a lot of the struggles we face, and shows God not to be weak but rather loving and responsive, able to work powerfully and resourcefully even when things go wrong.


  1. Firstly Trevor, I have to say the last thing I expected to see on your blog was a picture of George Osborne! Secondly, I thought your joke was quite funny.

    Joking aside though, I think you raise some interesting thoughts. However I can't say that I agree with some of the things which you suggest...

    I'm not going to try to claim to even come close to understanding God, but I think your suggestion of God being inside time along with us is a step too far. If we pose the question "Is God inside time or outside time?" then we have two possible answers; yes or no. We can't say that God sometimes is and sometimes isn't inside time. If God is outside time then He knows the future and to choose to sometimes be inside time would imply some sort of wilful ignorance from God, which I don't believe is the case. So, I think we have to believe that God is either always inside time or always outside time.

    Personally I feel scripture weighs much more in favour of God always being outside time. One major reason for my belief in this is prophecy. When preparing for the service on 22nd April I came to the following understanding. God is outside time and can see all points in time. We as humans however can only see backwards in time (we have memories). Prophecy can therefore be understood as a sort of "memory of the future". God knows the future and can therefore see any point in the future, and God can choose to enable us as humans, through His Holy Spirit, to see this future as well, and that is what we call prophecy.

    There are many examples in scripture where God has enabled his servants to see the future in this way. Take prophecy about Jesus for example. God knew that Jesus would enter the world in the way He did and live, die and rise again in the way He did. And so God enabled prophets to see this future and make prophecies about it. If God were inside time then this would not have been possible.

    Then I think about the two examples you give; firstly King Saul. You pose the question, “When God first instructs Samuel to anoint Saul as king, does he know about the way the story will end, in eventual failure?” I think the answer to that is a resounding yes. In 1 Samuel 8:7-9 it is clear that God does not want Israel to have a King. God knows what the “king system” will do to Israel and He knows that it isn’t the best thing. However God allows Israel to make their choice and works within it. God gives us free will and so even though God knows that our choices may not always be the best ones He chooses to work with us within our choices. And as we grow closer to God we will find ourselves making choices more in line with what God knows is the best choice – and that is when some amazing things can happen (e.g. TLG?!).

    In terms of your example of Peter, I’d again see it as God allowing Peter to make his own choices. God gave Peter a vision and that led to the first Gentile believer in Cornelius. However Peter had free will and he chose to separate himself from the Gentiles in the future.

    So then I suppose it comes back to a question of “why?” Why would God let us make decisions that lead to us doing things wrong, being hurt, hurting others etc? Again I think back to when I prepared for 22nd April. God loves us so much that He is actually patient enough to work with us! God has given us free will and works in this world through the decisions we make using our free will. But, like I said above, the closer we get to God the more aligned we are to God’s ideal for the way things should be and the more we will find ourselves making decisions in line with what God wants us to do as well.

    Continued on next post...

  2. Continued...

    So perhaps when bad things happen in our lives it is sometimes a result of us making decisions which weren’t in line with God’s ideal. But that shouldn’t lead us to a spiral of guilt. It should motivate us to grow closer to God and trust more in God. Also perhaps sometimes whatever choice we make will lead to hurt. We live in a broken world and so perhaps it is sometimes the case that no choice will lead to a pain free road? In this case God would still know the future, and the pain that it inevitably holds, but He would walk alongside us every step of the way that we choose to go, because He loves us.

    Let me know what you think about all that. If God is inside time then a lot of the above would not be possible, but then like I said, I’m not even close to understanding God. So maybe God works in completely different ways and these are just my feeble human musings?!

  3. Hi Carsten,

    Thanks for your comments and sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you.

    The debate on God being inside or outside time is so complex, and I’m constantly mindful of the need for care and humility in any suggestion I make on the topic.

    My own personal ‘stumbling block’ to seeing God as timeless concerns his eventual victory over all the powers of darkness. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes about how we live in the current age with the realities of sin and suffering, but the resurrection means it’s possible for us to hope: ‘for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’

    If God is timeless, does this mean he has already experienced this victory while we haven’t? Wouldn’t that mean God is enjoying the worship of a heaven in a sin free universe, but withholding that victory from those on earth who continue to suffer? Isn’t that sort of action hard to reconcile with God’s love?

    My other question concerns whether or not God actually has a past, present and future within his own life. It seems to me there are some passages where God looks back over Israel’s history with a sense of ruefulness (for example Ezekiel 16), and others where he warns them of the future consequences of not heeding his warnings, while still hoping they listen to him (e.g. Jeremiah 3). And what about relationships within the Trinity itself? Part of the early church’s testimony about Jesus is that he returns to heaven as one resurrected and honoured for his obedience and humility, to become exalted, at God’s right hand.

    Could it be that God doesn’t fully foresee the future (assuming the future is not wholly settled), but he does know us fully (as beautifully described in Psalm 139) and therefore is able to predict with confidence about how we will behave in certain circumstances? For example, if Emma and I were to go to a restaurant I don’t foreknow what she will order but I have a very good idea how she’ll respond when presented with certain options on the menu. It seems to me that quite a few of God’s statements about the future could be understood in this way. My morning bible readings recently took me to Deuteronomy 4:25-31, God’s ‘prediction’ of Israel’s future disobedience. Are his words based on complete knowledge of the future of complete knowledge of the human condition, and the inevitability of people becoming complacent?

    One of the most best books I’ve read on this topic is ‘Most Moved Mover’ by Clark Pinnock. I went back to the book this afternoon and found this section which I find very helpful:

    ‘God knows all there is to be known and the fact that some things cannot be known does not diminish the perfection of his knowledge. God knows the past, which is unalterable, the entire present, which is accessible, and a great deal about the future, so far as it can be foreseen, because he knows the constitutions, tendencies and powers of each person and has a full knowledge of his own purposes and how he plans to carry them out. History is not yet completely settled but is still being actualised. It has not been videotaped in advance.’