There can often be lots of fuzzy thinking on things such as God and the nations, the rise and fall of leaders and the like. Indeed, they encompass so many large mega-themes of the Bible, that unless one is prepared to do the hard yards of biblical and theological reflection and study, one can end up with rather unhelpful positions on these matters.
In fact, simply discussing things like God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human responsibility and accountability involves investigating all sorts of major biblical themes. Because such topics are so complex and nuanced, entire libraries have been filled just trying to get a handle on them.
This is clearly a place where a simplistic faith with simplistic answers is not very helpful. Yet I am often asked about such matters as if a one line response will do. Sorry, even a 2000-word article like this barely scratches the surface in introducing such issues.
Thus I am not all that thrilled when folks come my way, wanting to debate these things, and expecting that I can throw back a simple yes or no answer. It just does not work that way, and anyone with a bit of biblical and theological nous would not even go down that path.
Yet it happens all the time. For example I was recently asked on the social media a question along these lines: ‘If Trump does win the presidential election, will you accept that as God’s will?’ I of course refused to answer that since a one line response would have been less than helpful – even a one paragraph response as well.
So here I want to just lay out in broad brush fashion some of the big issues that are raised here. Indeed, it would be impossible to answer that particular question without first raising – and trying to answer – much broader questions. And they include many heavy duty questions such as:
-How are we to understand the will of God?
-Are there various types of God’s will as theologians so often suggest?
-How do we understand God’s sovereignty in relation to human choices?
-Does God’s will always take place?
-Can God’s will ever be frustrated?
-What role does Satan play in all this?
-Is everything that happens fully the will of God?
A dozen other such questions can easily be asked here. So to look at a particular question about a particular election is rather foolish, without first determining where one stands on these bigger questions. And of course our answers to these various questions will depend on where we stand theologically.
A committed Arminian for example will answer these questions quite differently than a committed Calvinist will. In fact, a committed hyper-Calvinist will answer these questions differently than a moderate Calvinist will. So there is plenty going on here, and numerous complex theological issues arise which require attention before we can proceed with more particular questions.
As to this issue, it again largely depends on where one sits on the theological spectrum. Some see God’s sovereignty as the final arbiter of all things, almost to the exclusion of human choice, while others so value human free will that they can almost undermine any understanding of divine sovereignty. And there would be many dozens of positions between these ends of the spectrum.
Let me pause here and just suggest one title worth perusing in this regard. In 2000 Terrance Tiessen penned the lengthy volume Providence & Prayer (IVF) in which he presented ten positions along a theological spectrum as to how God works in this world. These ranged from the “semi-Deist model” to the “fatalist model”. Simply examining and weighing up the pros and cons of just those ten positions shows how complex this entire debate is.
So to ask if a certain elected candidate is God’s will for us is rather a simplistic and unhelpful question to ask – at least without asking and answering many important prior questions first. One might as well ask if the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust was fully the will of God.
Yes and no is how one would answer that or any similar questions. We would have to take note of God’s permissive will as opposed to his decretive will, and so on. We would have to look at the accountability of humans, and the influence of Satan and demons.
All three factors are involved in most things in life. If I burned my toast this morning or ran out of petrol on the way to work, was this the perfect will of God? It could be, but we would also talk about my own shortcomings and mistakes (not keeping an eye on the toaster or the fuel gauge, eg.).
While God certainly works all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) that is a different matter than saying something is solely God’s will, or all my fault, or all due to satanic interference etc. But I have discussed these big three factors before and how they might be combined: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/08/14/god-satan-self/
I suppose one way to try to evaluate the impact of all three factors would be to simply enumerate how often each one is mentioned in Scripture. I don’t think this is all that helpful however. While Satan would easily take third tier here (he is clearly mentioned only around three times in the Old Testament, but much more in the New), there would be hundreds if not thousands of passages that we can appeal to about both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
Trying to pit them off against each other is not the biblical way to proceed. We accept both (indeed, all three) as being fully biblical. How they all fit together we will never fully know in this life. Yes at the end of the day God is sovereign and God’s will is going to be done, but even here we have to be much more nuanced.
As but one example, what exactly did Jesus mean when he told us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Presumably if God’s will was always and perfectly being done on earth, there would be no need for us to pray this. Yet this is a major component of the Lord’s Prayer, so however we are to understand it, it is quite important, and we should pray for it.
The simple fact that there are hundreds of imperatives (commands, orders) found in the New Testament alone mean that we all have a vital role to play. And we see all the time that our actions or inactions can make a difference. For example when some demons were cast out by Jesus, but not by his disciples, he explained it this way: “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).
But again, this is not the place to even begin to try to unravel the mysteries and perplexities of this sort of debate. Scripture often simply tells us that certain things happen by God’s divine will AND because of human choices. Just a few obvious verses can come into play here:
-Matthew 18:7 “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”
-Luke 22:22 “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.”
-John 6:70 Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”
-Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
-Acts 4:27-28 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
And along with this, we do have numerous passages about how God sets up rulers and deposes rulers. But again, it is one thing to say God can use someone for his purposes, but it is quite another thing to say that God is happy or pleased with such individuals. God can even use Balaam’s ass, so of course he can use a pagan king to accomplish his purposes.
But that does not mean they are not accountable or responsible for their actions. An evil nation like Assyria can be used by God to judge sinful Israel, but then God turns around and judges Assyria (see Isaiah 10). So when folks foolishly go on about how God can use pagan kings, and that Trump is a modern-day Cyrus or David or Elijah, etc, I just groan inside when I see that.
As I just wrote yesterday, of course he can use anyone (or anything) – he is God, he is sovereign, and so he uses whomever or whatever he wishes for his purposes. But it depends greatly on how someone is being used. God fully used Judas for his divine purposes. Yet I don’t know of anyone who wants to be in his shoes.
Judas played his role, then killed himself, and went off to a lost eternity. This “son of perdition” (John 17:12) was used by God, but he is no role model. He is certainly not someone we should endorse, enthuse over, promote, put on a pedestal, or seek to have leading the masses.
So to say that the election of Hitler or Kennedy or Thatcher or Trudeau (father or son) or Trump or Clinton (Bill or Hillary) is the will of God is really not saying anything very helpful. Based on what I have just said above, we would have to answer yes and no, but then go on to say much more.
God certainly allows things to happen, and he even uses evil to accomplish his purposes. Think of Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” There is a mysterious interplay between human choices, satanic opposition, and God’s will being done.
Thus such simplistic questions are not all that helpful, as they tend to result in simplistic answers. The biblical data on all this is vast, complex, often hard to fathom, and quite nuanced. Thus with this important US election – or anything else for that matter – all I can do is go back to the words of Jesus and pray that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The simple truth is I do not know what God’s perfect will always is, other than what is specifically revealed in Scripture. Whereas we had inspired prophets in OT times to tell us what God’s actions were all about, we don’t really have that today. Instead of divine inspiration we mostly have human perspiration.
Thus God’s people work hard and pray hard for everything, be it growing a church, selecting a life partner, or electing a national leader. We prayerfully and carefully seek to do that which is right, based on biblical principles and a clear conscience, but we must leave the results up to God, and admit that we do not yet know as we ought to know – we still see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Tomorrow we should learn which one of these two terrible choices becomes the 45th President of the United States of America. In one sense, whoever gets in will not thwart the perfect will of God, and he will continue to work out his divine purposes as he sees fit. Whether he is pleased or happy with either of the two is another matter.
I have been saying all along that this miserable choice between Ahab and Jezebel is best explained as being part of God’s just judgment on an evil and immoral America – the church included. So in that sense, yes it may well be God’s will with either of these two individuals getting in – but perhaps only in the sense of judging the US for its many sins and great evil.
But they too will one day face the divine music for what they have done. God is on the throne, and he is accomplishing his purposes. How that all works out with fallen individuals and satanic interference is too much of a mystery for now. Likely in the next life we will get much more clarity on all this.
But by then we may not care so much about these questions, being too preoccupied with worshipping and adoring our glorious God and Saviour.