By Audrey Stallsmith
“It must just have been his time to go.” We’ve all heard that statement in reference to a person who has died unexpectedly. But it’s beginning to irk me because it smacks of fatalism. It implies that each one of us has a certain destiny already mapped out for us, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. It also, of course, reeks of predestination.
I don’t mean to offend all you Calvinists out there, but predestination has always struck me as an evil doctrine. G. K. Chesterton agrees, writing bluntly in one of his columns of “that ancient heathen fatalism, which in the seventeenth century had taken the hardly less heathen form of Calvinism.” The idea that God decides in advance who will be saved and who will be damned basically denies the Christian doctrine of free will, and returns man to the status of a puppet.
George MacDonald warns “Do not try to believe anything that affects thee as darkness.” He goes on to advise, in Creation in Christ, “Say either the thing is not what it seems, or God never said or did it. But, of all evils, to misinterpret what God does, and then say the thing as interpreted must be right because God does it, is of the devil.”
So, did Calvin misinterpret what God said? Charles Williams seems to think so. In Descent of the Dove, he writes that Redemption’s choice “is (beyond human thought) inextricably mingled with each man’s own choice. It wills what he wills because it has freedom to do so.” In other words, if God has pre-chosen in any sense, He has chosen all those who will choose Him.
After all, Jesus was constantly advising people to ask, to have faith, and to “strive to enter in.” Why would He have bothered if their fate had been determined in advance? The belief that the future is already established causes, on the contrary, a “what’s the use?” attitude.
As Soren Kierkegaard notes in Fear & Trembling “The determinist or the fatalist is in despair. . .because for him everything is necessary. . .The worship of the fatalist. . .is dumb submission. . .The fact that God’s will is the possible makes it possible for me to pray; if God’s will is only the necessary, man is essentially as speechless as the brutes.”
Of course, Calvinism isn’t the only fatalistic religion out there. Buddhism, a form of stoicism, teaches its followers to give in to fate instead of struggling against it. In other words, if a person’s desires are getting him in trouble, instead of disciplining them, he should simply give up desiring altogether. It sounds like a very lackluster life-style to me!
Although I don’t think many people hold to either extreme Calvinism or extreme Buddhism, there is a new scientific idea that harks dangerously back to those earlier forms of fatalism. Chesterton writes of “the oldest of all the Demons whose name is Doom. . .And when modern science said, ‘Heredity,’ the old fiend stirred.”
Genes get blamed these days for everything from alcoholism to homosexuality. But each person who says, “I can’t help it; I was born this way,” is calling him or herself a slave. A slave, as Chesterton pointed out, “is always talking about what he must do; the true civilized man is a free man and is always talking about what he may do.” G. K. concludes testily that “the old civilization talked about the sin of gluttony or excess. We talk about the Problem of Drink. . .In a little while we shall have them calling the practice of wife-beating the Problem of Pain.”
Granted, we have all been dealt a certain hand of cards. And some things, like height, eye color, and personality, we can’t change. But, frankly, those things are few compared to the vast number about which we do have a choice. (In fact, these days you can even temporarily alter your eye color with tinted contacts, if you like!)
And, yes, as a result of the Fall, most of us are probably born with a tendency towards certain moral as well as physical weaknesses. Judging by our politicians, it seems that many of the men imbued with a thirst for power also have an inclination toward promiscuity as well! That does not, however, excuse them—or us--for giving in to our besetting sins. C. S. Lewis points out in Christian Behavior that God doesn’t judge a person on the raw material he was born with, “but on what he has done with it.”
Dorothy Sayers agrees, noting in Begin Here “that man is dominated by his psychological make-up, but only in the sense that an artist is dominated by his material. Everything of real significance in man’s life,” she concludes, “is done by the conscious.” In other words, is a choice.
“Nothing but itself,” as George MacDonald points out, “can enslave a soul.” In Creation in Christ, he resolves to “be in no slavery to my body, or my ancestry, or my prejudices, or any impulse whatsoever.”
God doesn’t enslave us either. Those of us who constantly worry about finding His will for our lives often seem to believe that there is some master plan out there that has every turn we should take clearly marked. And we can’t understand why the Almighty doesn’t simply hand over the map. But that is laziness on our part.
As Doug Manning observes in With God on Your Side, “God does not give specific instructions, but He gives enough insight for my mind to work with in order to figure out the answer.” Helmut Thielicke agrees, adding in The Freedom of the Christian Man that, “instead of being presented with the clear will of God, we must seek for it and venture to do it.”
I doubt that there is a single, set-in-stone plan for anyone’s life. Most of us possess more talents than we have time to use, after all. So we usually select the one that is most important to us as our occupation or vocation. If I had chosen art rather than writing, would God have been seriously displeased with me? I don't think so, because art can also be used in his service.
And, rather than there being just one ideal soul mate available, there are plenty of potential spouses with whom you could be happy. If there were only one, the chances of you actually meeting that one among millions would be pretty slim anyhow!
God, like any good Father, leaves most such choices up to us. As long as we’re abiding by the moral principles He’s taught us, and attempting to put His family first, He will—I suspect—support us in whatever path we choose.
But, in those unusual circumstances where we do sense a definite “No,” from Him, we mustn’t forget that He can see much farther than we can. We’re like mountain climbers attempting to ascend a series of ridges. We can look back on the place from which we’ve come, but not over the next rise. God, on the other hand, is on top of the mountain, and can view the whole thing—including the wildcat or landslide that may be waiting at a tricky place in the trail. He’s in a much better position to judge what’s right for us.
But, just because God sometimes warns of dire consequences, it doesn’t mean that those consequences are inevitable. In the book of Jonah, for example, the people of Nineveh avoided disaster by repenting.
Chesterton spoke once of the “Marxian notion that everything is inevitable” being “defeated by the Christian notion that nothing is inevitable. . .” Not even our own salvation. It’s the mountain climber who becomes overly confident, after all, who is most likely to make a mistake that can land him, badly injured, back where he started.
But, even in that instance, the only fatal decision is to give up. I watched a documentary a while back about a climber who broke his leg on a descent. The friend who was attempting to lower him to safety eventually had to cut the rope. The injured climber thereupon fell into a deep crevasse.
Rather than resigning himself to it being his time, as any fatalistic person would have done at that point, he lowered himself to the bottom of the fissure and managed to find a way out. Even then, he had to bind up his injured leg and stagger and crawl several excruciating miles back to camp.
If a man who had no faith could manage that, simply because he wanted to live, we too should be able to pick ourselves up from any spiritual fall with God’s help. But it must be our decision. In Letters to a Diminished Church Dorothy Sayers regrets that “Judas committed the final, the fatal, the most pitiful error of all; for he despaired of God and himself, and never waited to see the Resurrection.”