By Pastor Glenn Pease
A young man driving through the rich part of the city could not believe his eyes when he saw a sign on a Mercedes Benz that said, "For Sale $100.00. He pulled into the driveway and went to the door, and he asked if the sign was correct. The woman assured him that it was. He asked, "Is there something wrong with the car?" She told him that it ran perfectly. He whipped out his checkbook and bought it on the spot. As he stuck the title into his pocket he asked the lady, "Why are you selling this car so cheap?" She said, "Well, I'll tell you. My husband ran off with his secretary a few days ago, and he just wired me from Hawaii this morning asking me to sell his car and send him the check."
Nobody gets everything they ask for or hope for, and in cases like this we can say thank God. But the fact is, the good guys don't always get what they want either. Paul wanted all who heard him on Mars Hill to repent and become followers of Christ. But the text says that there were only a few who responded. This was no second Pentecost with three thousand coming to Christ. Only a handful came, and so we see that the best of evangelists with the best of skills, and sharing the best of messages, do not always achieve the best of success. Nobody gets what they want all the time-not even God.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem saying, "I would have gathered you as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you would not." Jesus wept for the rich young ruler because He loved him and wanted him to be a follower, but he turned and went away." If God always got what He wanted, there would be no disobedience to His will. If God got His will done in all lives, then His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, but we know this is not so, for there would be no need to pray for it if it was so.
If even a sovereign God, who has all power, does not get all he does desire, then it is obvious that he chooses this as a possibly. In other words, the only way an all powerful God could not get His will done is by a sovereign choice to let it be possible that His will not be done. If He chooses this, then even the not doing of His will is His will. If God says, "I do not want anyone to murder another human, but I will let men be free to defy my will and do it anyway," then you have God's will being done even in murder but lets keep in mind that we clearly have two levels of His will.
God's first priority is that nobody murder, for this is His command. His will, in the sense of what He wants to be, is that nobody murder another person. But He does not in His sovereign power do what He could do, and that is to make sure that by sheer force nobody ever breaks that command. What He does is permit men to do what He does not want. When they do this it is called His permissive will. His priority will is what He wants, and His permissive will is what He allows whether He wants it or not. These two wills are often opposites, for the priority will is always right and just, but the permissive will can be neutral or evil. If I eat an apple rather than an orange, that is God's permissive will. He leaves the choice to me. I do not please Him more by eating one or the other. But if I choose to steal an apple from the store, God will permit it, but I am out of His priority will, for I have broken His law. It is His will that I be free to do so, but it is not His will that I actually do so.
So what we have here is the fact that everything is God's will in some sense, but the sense may be radically different. It is God's priority will that I not steal, but it is His permissive will that makes me free to steal. To be in God's will means to be in His priority will, and that means to be doing what He wants me to do. The distinction of these two wills is vital to a biblical theology, for if one does not make this distinction it leads to fatalism. Fatalism is the belief that all events are determined by necessity or by fate, and so everything is God's will.
The Stoics that Paul is confronting on Mars Hill were fatalists. They taught that whatever will be will be. Man has no choice in the matter, for all is determined by the gods, and even the gods are determined by fate. There is no point in getting emotional about anything as if it might have been different. Whatever happens you just grin and bare it, for it had to be that way, and so just accept reality as it is, for it can be no other way. The Stoics were experts in self-control. They said that the only thing they have control of in life is their inner reaction to circumstances.
The stoic view of life does produce strong people who can be cool under very negative circumstances. There are times when all of us need to be somewhat stoic and not let our emotions run our lives. We need to accept reality of negative experiences and not go all to pieces, but as a philosophy o life fatalism is a copout. It denies personal responsibility for anything. Fate has already determined what will be, and so I am not to blame for anything I do or don't do. All is just as it has to be, and so blame God if you don't like it, and don't blame me. This is the ultimate copout, for it places all blame on God.
Much of the suffering of the world is due to this philosophy of life. H. B. Dehgani-Tafti, the first Persian Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Iran said, "One of the most unfortunate characteristics of us Iranian people is our lack of sense of responsibility for our destiny." They just wait for life to happen, for they feel no responsibility, and the result is that they are manipulated by all kinds of forces, and they suffer a great deal as a result. Mohammed taught that all is predetermined, and so all human effort is futile. He declared, "When God creates a servant for heaven, he causes him to go the way of heaven until he dies, after which He takes him to heaven, and when He creates a servant for the fires of hell, then He cause him to go in the way of those destined for the fires of hell until he dies, after which He takes him to hell." It is all cut and dried, and there is no point in wishing anything could be changed and made different.
Sophocles the ancient Greek wrote Oedipus Rex to illustrate the futility of trying out wit fate. The oracle said that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. To defeat this fate the king ordered his son to be exposed on the mountain side. The servant who was to carry out this gruesome task gave the child to passing pilgrims. They carried the child to a far country where he was adopted by another royal family. When he grew up he learned of what the oracle had said of his destiny. To avoid it he fled from the palace to a far country which he did not know was his homeland. There he fell in love with the Queen, and he killed the King to marry her, not knowing that the King was his father and the Queen was his mother. With all the efforts to avoid the decree of fate it all turned out just as it was determined. The modern writer put it in poetry:
All that is was ever bound to be,
Since grim eternal laws our beings bind;
And both the riddle and the answer find,
Both the pain and the peace decree
For, playing within the Book of Destiny,
Is written all the journey of mankind
Inexorably to the end, and blind
And helpless puppets playing parts are we.
As helpless puppets the fatalists just wait to see what will happen. They do not bother to try and change anything, for it is futile. Paul meets this fatalism head on with the message of faith. Faith is the opposite of fatalism. Faith says that freedom is real and that the future is not all determined. We can make choices that altar what will be. Paul says that God commands all people to repent. That is a call to change, and by changing their attitude toward God they can change their destiny. God has set a day for judgment, and He will hold men accountable for their response to His good news in Christ. He gave them proof by raising Jesus from the dead. By faith in the risen Christ all of life an eternity can be changed.
If Paul did not faith to believe, in the midst of all the idolatry of Athens, that men could still be persuaded to have faith in Christ, he never would have bothered to open his mouth. But Paul was a man of faith, and he believed that truth can bear fruit in any setting. He knew he could present the truth of the Gospel in a convincing enough way to persuade some, and that is what he did. Faith does not say I can get anything and everything I want, but it does say, "I have the freedom to make a difference."
Many today are taking the concept of faith to the opposite extreme of fatalism. Fatalism says you cannot change anything, but the fanatical faith people say that you can change everything and get everything by faith. Just believe and you can be in charge of life and control circumstances and your future. You can get the best of everything if you just have faith. This is just as far fetched as fatalism, and it leads people to delusions of grandeur, and the kind of pride that goes before a fall. When it is biblical and balanced faith simply says that God invited man to cooperate with His will for the future. We are free to say yes and see His will fulfilled, or to resist it and see His will hindered. We are not in charge, but we can cooperate or not do so. That is the point of the prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It is prayer of saying that I want to cooperate and make the future what God wills it to be in His priority will, for what He wants is what is best.
The fatalist does not pray, "Thy will be done," because it cannot not be done. Everything has to be God's will, and whatever is cannot be different than what it is. The Christian says that this is not so. The future can be radically different if we choose to cooperate with God in doing His will. Take earthquakes as an example. In nations where fatalism is the philosophy of life they say there is nothing you can do about them and their destructive results. And so they do nothing but rebuild the same way and wait to see what will happen. Those people die by the tens of thousands, and then say that it must be God's will. In contrast to that, those who have faith build with special design buildings and lives are saved because they know people can make choices that change what will be.
In the San Francisco quake of 1906 Dr. T. Nakamura, professor of Architecture of Tokyo University, was sent by the Japanese government to examine the city. In his report he said, "Dishonest mortar was responsible for nearly all the earthquake damage in San Francisco." Men have made choices sense then believing that what men could do could make a difference. They built with new principles and better materials, and those buildings stood saving lives and property. The fatalist will say it makes no difference what you do, for what will be will be. The person of faith will say, "Next time we will build even better and it will make a difference." Faith says it does matter what we do, and it does make a difference if we use our knowledge wisely. People do not die because God wills it, but because of man's ignorance and choices not be prevent it. The person of faith learns from his mistakes and stops making them.
America is Christian in its thinking in that we are a nation that says folly does not need to be repeated. We can learn from our mistakes and go on to change the future for the better and prevent tragedies that otherwise would be inevitable. For much of the world, life is like a movie. You can watch it over and over and the characters never learn from their mistakes. Each time you watch it they do the same thing no matter how stupid. They have no choice, for a movie is all predetermined. It is locked in and so are all the choices of the characters. There is no freedom to choose any deviation from what has been determined. That is fatalism. But faith says life is not pre-recorded. It is real, and we are free to choose, and our choices make a difference. Paul choose to relate to these pagan people in a positive way. He linked himself with them as one in verse 26. He acknowledged that all men have one origin. Then in verse 27 he says that God is near each of them and wants them to seek Him. Then in verse 28 he quotes one of their own poets that said we are his offspring.
Paul was not guilty of what Timmons, the well-known pastor in California, said that many evangelical churches are guilty of, which is stinken thinken. He says that many Christians feel that Christians have nothing in common with non-Christians. This has led to most American Christians being fatalists about winning people to Christ. It is all up to God, for we can do nothing. This is stinken thinken, for Paul says you can point out to non-Christians that we have much in common. We have the same origin; we loved by the same God, and we have intellects that see much truth in common. We could go on and on beyond Paul, and say we enjoy the same entertainment; endure the same mortgage payments, eat the same food; drive the same cars, and on and on.
It is a deliberate choice to focus on that which makes us different from the non-Christian. It is also a deliberate choice on Paul's part to point out the unity. We are free to choose how we will relate to others, and that choice will either be in God's priority will, or in His permissive will. He permits us to ignore and avoid unbelievers, and most of us choose that way. But His priority will is that we, like Paul, care enough to build a relationship with them. In a few minutes Paul changed lives for eternity. It was not a matter of fate, but a matter of faith, for Paul knew he could make choices that would change people's lives forever. May God help us make choices that are based on faith rather than fatalism.