Last Saturday my college, Michigan State, lost a painfully close football game when Nebraska scored a touchdown with six seconds to play. That score would not have possible apart from a referee’s flagrantly bad pass interference call in the end zone moments earlier. It was one of many bad calls during that game, going both ways.
I get pretty wrapped up in Spartan football. I had to get out of the house and go somewhere to calm down. I asked my son to drive; it was safer that way, and thankfully he wanted to go out with me anyway. “It’s only a game,” I kept telling myself. “It’s only a game.” Eventually I persuaded myself (again—I have to do it after every loss) it’s only a game.
Even as I was repeating that reminder to myself, though, I was thinking ahead to today’s contest at the polls. I am fervently praying it’s a clean election, so that there are no important “referee” calls to make, and especially that there are no bad calls that could possibly turn the outcome. It isn’t only a game. None of us are just spectators, either: we’re part of it.*
There is mystery here. I can illustrate it with something I saw on Facebook the other day: 1.6 million Americans will write in “Jesus Christ” on their ballots. The thinking behind that is as poor as any Christian could commit. Jesus isn’t running for President of the United States. He’s already King of all creation.
As King he is truly sovereign. He rules with knowledge: his intel is never faulty. He rules with power: his armies are never outgunned. He rules with wisdom: his counsel is never upended. He rules with goodness: his ways are never in error. He rules with authority: his intentions are never thwarted.
Still we vote for presidents and prime ministers.
It is both comforting and confusing. His rule is complete and it is good; but then why do elections matter? Why does anything we do make any difference?J.I. Packer wrote of this in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, describing it as an antinomy beyond the reach of human comprehension. An antinomy is like a paradox, wherein two contradictory things appear to be true at the same time. It’s different, though, in that paradoxes are resolvable by way of adding in new information or viewing them from other perspectives. Antinomies leave us stuck.
This is not just a theologian’s problem. Immanuel Kant offered a pretty fair proof in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that humans could not possibly have free will, and then he turned around and showed that we do. That was one of four antinomies of pure reason he demonstrated there (SparkNotes summarizes them nicely.)
Our world is wrapped up in mystery. It’s one of the best things about it, if you ask me. Take the one that’s in view here. On one side of it, we humans matter. We make decisions that make a difference. We can help or we can hurt, and the result is that others are genuinely aided or harmed. We are not powerless; we are not pawns either of natural law or of divine puppeteering.
On the other side of this mystery is God’s good and great reign over all, and the assurance that he will lead us all to the right ultimate outcomes. Justice, mercy, truth, and goodness are in process now and we will see them prevail.
I don’t understand how human freedom fits with perfect divine sovereignty. On one level that’s a disturbing intellectual problem for me. On another level it makes sense: if we could understand God’s ways fully, then he should be worshiping us rather than we be worshiping him. Let me rush to say that we are infinitely far away from that condition! And because we are, it is hardly any surprise that there are unsolvable enigmas for us in the way he works in the world.
The upshot of it all is that we Christians can take comfort in knowing God is at work for good ends no matter what—but what we do really, genuinely, matters. U.S. readers, your vote today really matters. This is your day to stand for the life of the unborn, for protection of religious freedom, for economic responsibility in this generation rather than impossible debts being imposed on the next, for true freedom and individual responsibility within the larger community.
*I am speaking to my readers who are U.S. voters, of course, with apologies to the rest. I’m sure you’ll be relieved when this is over.