Is the path to marriage predestined or freewilled?
This isn’t a typical Boundless article. It grew out of an interview — (the long one we did with Dr. Stanley that resulted in the “Crossing the Line,” “The Boiling Pot” and “The Burning Bush” segments. This material might prove to be the most insightful of all the things he shared. For that reason (and because it was such a long, uninterrupted segment), we decided to present it as a stand-alone article.
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Many years ago, J.I. Packer wrote a book called Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. In it, he does the most beautiful job of any Christian book I’ve ever seen in dealing with the issue of freewill versus predestination. In the first few pages of the book Packer says both things are true, but our little minds can’t reconcile them. I can only go so far in trying to explain it, but it has a lot to do with the fact that we’re so time bound and can’t see beyond where we are in that sequence.
What Packer does that’s so beautiful in that book is he essentially says here’s the error that you’re going to be prone to in evangelism, if you’re just totally loaded up on one view or the other. If you’re a total sovereignty guy (like me, a Presbyterian) the error you’re likely to make is to be really passive and then not think you actually have to do much about it — to act, make a choice or actually go out and tell somebody about Christ. Because, hey, you know, they’re either chosen or not. What does it have to do with me? You know, it’s all up to God. And in fact, if you’re chosen and you’re sitting by me on the plane, I don’t even have to remotely be thinking God could be creating an opportunity here because God will make the opportunity.
Now, the error on the freewill side of evangelism, of course, is that — and I used to be a Baptist, so I can cover both prisms — they believe if we sing just 37 more refrains of “Just as I Am,” we’ll get that one last person sitting on the edge of their seat way up on the 87th row of the balcony, and they’re going to finally come down because we’ve convinced them to come over the edge. We did it. Our effort made it happen.
Packer shows that you just can’t do evangelism from either of those perspectives. You’re going to make errors. You’re going to think it’s too much about you and not enough about God, or you’re going to think you don’t have to do anything.
So let’s apply that reasoning to finding, selecting or landing on the right mate. To begin with, it’s possible for guys with either view to believe that there’s one right person out there for him. A guy with a high sovereignty view, however, can think, well, God will bring her to me, and I can just piddle around in the meantime because He can’t mess this up. He’s chosen it, so He’s got to like land her on my doorstep at some time and there’ll be a burning bush behind her somewhere and I’ll know.
The freewill person who believes there’s only one person would err by thinking I have to search and search and search. I better go to every town and to India and China as well because she maybe could be there. There are probably like three billion or so women on the planet right now. Because I’m a scriptural guy, I’ll exclude the ones that are already married. I’ll exclude the ones that are under the age of 17. Maybe that still gives me 1.5 billion women to evaluate.
Now let’s look at guys who think there’re all kinds of women that could be right for them. Well, I probably can’t even believe that if I’m a high sovereignty kind of guy. A sovereignty view seems to almost point you for sure in the direction that there’s at least one. That’s how it would seem to me.
But if I’m the freewill guy, then the error that I might make is that not only should I search and search and search, but God isn’t even that invested in who I make the choice about. It doesn’t matter a lot who I make the choice about. Because, you know, He’s not really thinking at that level of detail about my life. You know, He’s not sovereign over every little thing. He didn’t care where I parked today. So I might want to really look and look and look for my own benefit to make sure it’s the best choice. But I don’t necessarily need to be looking and looking and looking and thinking that God might really have a best choice for me in terms of who that would be and what we could do together in life.
Whereas, if you have a balanced view, whatever it is in there, you might think this is going to take a fair amount of effort on my part. And probably, at least, if I don’t want to believe in the one thing, the one woman, one mate idea, I at least should have a balanced view that it should take a fair amount of my effort and thought. I should be wise about this. There are things I should be paying attention to. And at the same time, I should believe a bit from the sovereignty perspective. This really matters to God not just because He’s hoping I really make the right choice, because it somehow fits into His big plan of what He’s trying to do. So a sovereign God has got a plan and somehow this relates to the plan, and I should be really thoughtful and careful about the choice and asking Him and other wise people along the way about how I’m doing about finding the right path.
There’s one other error of the high sovereignty view — well, the high sovereignty view would be, you know, God’s choosing and God’s got one person for me. One of the big errors that would come from that without enough of a sense my freewill and faithful efforts is there could be too much comfort in God’s sovereignty and believing that He wouldn’t possibly let me make the wrong choice. You know, just like I might neglect to even tell somebody about Christ or give any witness in my life; you know God will take care of it. Well, I can also believe that, well, you know, I’ve fallen in love with this woman who has no shred of similar faith to mine. But since I’ve fallen in love with her and I believe in a sovereign God, He couldn’t possibly have let me fall in love with the wrong woman. So she must be the right woman.
So it’s also possible that the sovereign view could really too easily talk you into sort of dating evangelism or marriage evangelism that, well, it’s not really important in my case to find somebody that has similar values and beliefs. Because God’s chosen me — I’m going to minister to this woman and she’s the right one, and God will take care of it.
I want to end by talking to that reader who looks at the disappointing direction their life has taken in the area of relationships and wonders where God is in it all and how they are to face the future. It’s so important to realize that God will take whatever path we’re on and get the maximum mileage out of us learning on it. But that doesn’t mean He chose us to be on that path.
And it could never be reasonably argued as a Christian — there is no perfect Christian. There’s a perfect man, Christ. But there’s no perfect Christian. So we have all been on the wrong paths. We’ve all at times chosen wrong paths that we knew were wrong, and other times we’re on the wrong path that we didn’t kind of figure out until later it was wrong.
But being on the wrong path doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to learn as much as we can about what God has defined as the right paths. Sometimes it’s clearly the right path versus the wrong path, and then other times it’s less clear in that way, but it’s more the best path versus the not-so-good path or a less good path. And a lot of our choices in life reflect those things.
Yeah, whatever path, anybody reading this could be on — I mean, they could be on a horrible path, and I would be totally convinced that God could take them right where they’re at and in fact, I think one of the best prayers that person can pray is something like this:
OK, look. I’m here. I’m where I’m at. And I maybe should never have been down this path, and now I’m paying for being on this path. While I’m here, help me to figure out how to get to the right path, and get the most mileage you can possibly get out of what You want to do in my life, taking me right where I’m at. Because even here where I’ve gotten to, You can work something out. You can figure something out. But help me to see how I can get from here to there.
Copyright 2007 Dr. Stanley. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Scott Stanley, Ph.D. is co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies and a research professor of psychology at the University of Denver. He has authored numerous research articles on relationships and is an expert on marital commitment. Scott co-authored the book A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage and authored the book The Power of Commitment. Additionally, he regularly contributes to print and broadcast media as an expert on marriage.