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Philip S. Powell

When the ‘unexpected’ happens

Because of the paradoxical relationship between God’s freedom and human freedom, Christians need a robust “theology of surprise”.

JUBILEE CENTRE AUTHOR Philip S. Powell 01 NOVEMBER 2016 09:05 h GMT+1
light bulb Photo: Armando Ascorve (Unsplash, CC)

Many Christians believe that there are no coincidences or accidents in the universe and everything that happens is divinely orchestrated by God. But what about believing that some things happen because of chance. Should Christians believe in luck? What I want to briefly explore in this blog is the nature of the relationship between God and outcomes that are unexpected.

Leicester City FC, who won the Premier League cup this year, had a 5,000-1 chance as outsiders for winning the title after almost being relegated the previous season becoming one of the greatest sporting stories of all time. The chances of this happening is akin to Simon Cowell becoming the UK Prime Minister or Kim Kardashian becoming US President. And yet this is exactly what happened when Leicester won the cup. For Leicester fans it was living a dream, the impossible becoming true.

Here are two examples from politics. When the Republican nomination for their Presidential candidate began last year nobody believed that someone like Donald Trump, a blond-haired maverick, had any chance of winning but that is exactly what happened, leaving party loyalist, including many Christians, feeling confused and angry. Here in the UK, when the leadership for the Labour party contest began, hardly anyone believed, an old-school Fabian socialist backbencher like Jeremy Corbyn had any chance of winning the leadership. Not only did he win the leadership contest but he did it again last week for the second time. Now pundits are predicting the Labour Party has a 0% chance of winning the next general election. Really? How can we know for sure?

So much commentary and what we read and hear on the news is based on certain hidden assumption about the relationship between past, present and future. But how can we know in advance what is going to happen in the future? To what extent is God involved in the details of what goes in history and how much of the future is determined by chance and luck.

What is God’s involvement and role in the affairs of man? How does he direct the course of history towards his divine ends? Does randomness have a place within God’s scheme for ordering and redeeming the world?

There are no simple answers and I cannot do justice to the subject matter, but I do want to suggest that there are two extreme positions we must avoid as Christians. On one hand we can have a view of divine providence that makes all human decision-making simply irrelevant. God is sovereign and what happens is only what he wills. If what he wills does not happen then God cannot by definition be God. This is a kind of divine fatalism. The other extreme to avoid is to make human free-will supreme and God’s role in human affairs becomes passive, even impotent. Both these extremes are not biblical.

God is the ultimate sovereign ruler, governing and preserving his creation, moving history towards the ends he has determined. At the same time human beings have real agency and freedom to make decisions and follow the inclinations of their heart. There is a biblical paradox at the heart of the relationship between God and his creation, and it cannot be resolved without erring on either side of the truth.

What does this mean for practical living? Because of the paradoxical relationship between God’s freedom and human freedom, Christians need a robust “theology of surprise”. By a theology of surprise I mean having an understanding of history that allows for an openness for unexpected things to happen. Human beings are not the masters of our own fate, and we will be constantly surprised by what the future brings.

Scripture reminds that the one thing we can be sure about the future is that it will surprise us (Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 13:27). Of course there are good surprises and bad surprises, but a theology of surprise allows for the possibility that God can do new and unexpected things in the future.

God has allowed for a certain degree of contingent freedom to operate in creation, which includes randomness and chance. So when unexpected things happen it does not mean God is not sovereign but that man is not sovereign.

God is so creative and great in his power that he has made it possible for creatures to make free choices, experience surprises and be affected by the randomness of events. But no matter what happens tomorrow or a hundred years from now, natural or human catastrophe, we can be sure that nothing catches God by surprise and ‘that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ – Romans 8:28.

Philip S. Powell manages the Learning Community of the Jubilee Centre. 

This article first appeared on the Jubilee Centre website and was republished with permission.




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