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On the High Wire

by Tim O'Hearn

Why are we so fascinated? There he stands, thirty feet, three hundred feet, or even a thousand feet above the ground, on a wire barely three inches wide. Whether he is walking across a circus ring, Niagara Falls, or a New York thoroughfare, we marvel at the wire walker or tight-rope walker. Why? Because against all odds he keeps his balance. One mistake will send him plummeting; but he doesn’t make that mistake. And so we marvel.

And yet in so many ways we are that wire walker. We balance life and career, family and friends, children and sanity. Even in our Christian walk, we have to maintain that balance. We have to be careful about extremes. We have to balance a hatred of sin with love for people. We balance on the wire between temptation and self-righteousness. There is another balancing act that many people seem to fail at. That is the balancing act between free-will and God’s control.

The one extreme is that man has no free will, that everything is controlled by God. There are, of course, variations on this theme. Proponents of predestination vary from “our eventual outcome is predestined” to “God controls every event and aspect of your life.” Even some who believe in free will may constantly sing that “God is in control.” And it is true. God has an ultimate plan for man and “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) The question is whether this takes all control from man. The comfort of this doctrine is that everything will work out well, ultimately. The danger of this doctrine is that, if God is in control then man has no control, and therefore no responsibility. In the extreme, this says that if God controls every aspect and action of my life, then anything bad that happens is God’s fault. Rather than “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights,” (Jas 1:17) God becomes either both good and evil or neither good nor evil. The terms good and evil become meaningless. Instead of “whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (Jas 4:1), the answer is that they come from God. This relieves man of any guilt; this negates the doctrine of sin.

The other extreme is that God created man and then stepped out of the picture altogether. Some have said that the Deist philosophy was that God created the world as a great clock, then wound it up and walked away while it wound itself down. This is actually the God that many of the Founding Fathers of America believed in. God created, but then relinquished all control. This means that man is ultimately “the master of my fate; … the captain of my soul.” (Henley, in “Invictus”) The ultimate doctrine of this belief is that right and wrong are determined by man and circumstance. Then Hamlet is right that “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” If God has left control of my life up to me, then he cannot fault me for that control. Again, there is no sin.

If God is in control in the big picture, but not in the details, then is that control at all? Some Renaissance art is attributed to a master, but some of the backgrounds or smaller details were actually painted by apprentices. So who painted the work? Should it be attributed to Leonardo, or to the school of Leonardo? Is God like that, taking credit for the work of men? Actually, this may be the wire we walk. As somebody says, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is that you are stupid and make bad decisions.” God has a plan and a purpose, but he lets us make mistakes. Because he has expressed his will, then he has the right to punish those mistakes. Sin exists. But sin exists because God is in control, but not altogether in control.

How do we walk this tightrope? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we accept that God is in control, but we have free will. Maybe our job is just to surrender that free will to God’s control. We don’t have to understand it; we just have to do it.