Paul Prather

The great faith question: Is it free will or predestination? Yes it is

My granddaughter Hagan, 4, recently got into her older sister’s makeup and made a huge mess. Then she dragged a bunch of towels from a closet, making another mess.

Her dad, John, asked her why she’d done all that.

“God made me do it,” Hagan said.

“God wouldn’t make you do something you weren’t supposed to do,” John said.

“He did it with his magic wand,” Hagan said.

Hagan’s theology is a bit off-kilter.

Although atheists sometimes suggest we Christians believe in fairies, wizards and mythic sky men, we don’t believe that God uses a magic wand to hypnotize us into naughtiness.

Still, she didn’t realize it, but my little granddaughter’s excuse does point to a question that Christians have wrestled with for a couple of millennia. I’m not sure how other faiths, including Judaism or Islam, address this matter.

For a lot of Christians, though, there’s a tension between what we believe about the irresistibility of divine will and what we believe about the power of our own free will.

As Christians, we say that God has a specific, divine plan for each of us, and that he often intervenes to bring about his desired results.

Yet we also maintain that we’re masters of our own fates, that we freely choose what we do or don’t do.

This contradiction is imbedded deeply in the Christian faith. The same Bible tells us that every day of our lives was planned by God before we were born — and then it tells us in the next breath to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” as if the whole responsibility lies with us.

I want to shout at the silent pages, “So, which is it?!”

This isn’t just a religious debate, by the way.

Thirty years ago, as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, I encountered essentially the same arguments in the secular social sciences.

There was a school of social scientists who believed that nearly all behavior was biologically programmed into us by genes and chemicals. Biology was destiny. We would be smart or dumb, logical or irrational, violent or passive, based on our innate personal software.

Another school of social scientists believed that behavior was more malleable, that it was determined not by good or bad blood, so to speak, but by our social milieu, our companions, our opportunities and our personal choices.

This, of course, was the nature-nurture debate. For all I know, it might have shifted in the past three decades. But back then, it sounded quite similar to the longstanding Christian debate over predestination versus free will.

For Christians, the questions are: Does God spiritually program us from birth to do right or become rebels, believe in him or reject him, go to heaven or wind up in hell — or did God instead give us free will to choose our own paths and eternal destinations?

There are lesser variations on these ideas, too.

Four-year-olds aside, you’ll hear adults claim that they did this or that — sometimes even very mean things — “because God told me to.”

And if you’re of a certain vintage, you might remember TV comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine Jones, who used to cover her frequent bouts of poor judgment by claiming, “The devil made me do it!”

Do God and the devil actually whisper in our ears (or in our hearts) as we’re deciding whether to help a sightless person across the street or wrestling with the impulse to buy gaudy clothes we don’t need?

Where do God’s actions leave off and our own responsibilities begin?

I’ll confess, this is the kind of newspaper column my wife doesn’t like.

Sometimes when she reads one of my rough drafts, Liz will frown and say, “You raise a question but don’t answer it. Your job is to provide an answer. What’s your point?”

Usually, she’s right.

But occasionally, as here, the point is that there is no clear answer. Never has been. Spiritually, this is one of those perpetual mysteries people must work out for themselves.

We believe in a God who’s all-powerful. We believe in a God who knows the end from the beginning. We believe in a God who loves us and directs our paths.

But we also believe in ourselves. We believe that our actions are our own and that they have good or bad consequences, depending on how wisely we chose.

Parishioners ask me, “Well, is it free will or predestination?”

I shrug and say, “Yes.”

It’s one or the other. It’s possibly both.

It’s partly genes and partly environment.

It’s partly that God whispers irresistible directions in our ear — and it’s sometimes that we do whatever dad-gummed thing we want to, then blame our actions on him or the devil.

It’s partly that the grand, broad strokes of our lives are preordained, but also that we make the greater portion of our daily choices on our own.

Where the line lies between God’s responsibility and ours is anyone’s guess.

I try to make every decision as if the outcome depends on my deliberations — and pray that both the choice and the outcome ultimately are in God’s plans.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at