I was chatting with a friend, a professor of government late of Georgetown University, during our Wednesday night church dinner. He mentioned several Christian youth he had recently met who had lived a sheltered life of homeschooling and church activities, and his concern of how they would do when confronted with the belligerent anti-Christian staff and libertine lifestyles prevalent in most secular universities. As my oldest will be starting a state college this fall, I was intrigued by his observation. This educated and devoted man was certainly right to be concerned, and mentioned that he wanted his children to attend a Christian school when the time comes. There are many sad tales of students raised in Christian homes who are too unprepared intellectually and too undisciplined morally to resist the temptations of living on their own. How many make mistakes that haunt them for the rest of their lives?
At the same time, Jesus and His disciples lived and worked in Galilee, the most cosmopolitan place in Palestine. He clearly tells us to be in the world but not of the world (John 15:19, 17:14-16), and to be as salt (Matthew 5:13) to preserve and light (Matthew 5:14) to illuminate the fallen world. How does a faithful Christian know what to do in the face of such important principles?
On one hand, man has genuine freedom and the real responsibility to use that freedom for the glory of God. The Bible teaches that each of us is responsible for our own thoughts, words and actions (Exodus 18:20). We will be rewarded if we do well, and punished if we do poorly (Matthew 25:31-46). Salvation through Christ is given to people on the condition of their belief (John 3:16). Our work is important, as Paul teaches believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…(Philippians 2:12a).”
On the other hand, God is absolutely sovereign; everything that happens will work together in His perfect plan (Ecclesiastes 3:14, Ephesians 1:11). After his trials, Job wrote “I know that you (God) can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted (Job 42:2).” The Psalmist wrote that God “does whatever pleases Him (Psalm 115:3).” Even in matters of salvation, Scripture teaches that it depends on God (Romans 9:14-29). The second half of Philippians 2:12 concludes “for the Lord works within you to accomplish His good will and purpose.”
These statements about God seem mutually exclusive, and yet the Bible clearly teaches that both are true. We will make no attempt to reconcile them here, but need to remember that there are many things in life that seem mutually exclusive but are nonetheless true. For example, wave-particle duality, a key tenet in quantum physics, postulates that all things (such as light) exhibit both wave and particle properties. In another example, time and eternality seem to coexist, but if the universe is eternal, time could never have arrived. If the universe is not eternal, then nothing is eternal, and where did time come from? If pursued deeply enough, most questions in life end up as a paradox.
How do we live with such knowledge? Some people ignore the sovereignty of God and emphasize the responsibility of man, living as though everything depended upon them. Others ignore the responsibility of man and live as though nothing they do matters so they may as well do whatever they want.
Perhaps the best way for Christians to live today is to follow the example of saints who have gone before. Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate Civil War general famous for his skill and courage, was a man of action. Nonetheless he wrote “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to always be ready, no matter when it may overtake me.” The Apostle Paul, was unstoppable in spreading the gospel in the Roman Empire and brilliant in his words and works. Nonetheless, knowing that imprisonment and possibly death, stood before him on returning to Jerusalem (Acts 20, 21), Paul went anyway. The best example of all is Jesus. No man before or since has ever worked harder, worked smarter, and done everything right to accomplish His goals. Nonetheless, in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, He determined to continue to follow the will of the Father, knowing it would lead to His death (Matthew 26:39).
So what then? It is the role of man to do everything he can, as hard and smart as he can, to accomplish the will of the God who made him. My wife and I have done everything we know to do to raise our daughter in the best way we know how. She has always been safe, as Jackson was, in the hands of God. My Georgetown friend was right; the dangers are real, and the Lord’s people must stand strong against them. But ultimately God is sovereign, and He will bring all things together for good for those who love Him; those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).