I spent a good part of my formative theological years in Reformed, Calvinist circles. Yes, the stereotypes of Calvinists being argumentative, stubborn, and more than a bit tone-deaf are mostly true (I being the chief at fault there), but Calvinism itself was a safe haven for me.
I’ve always been keenly aware that what I most needed saving from was myself. First it was from the vile sins of a totally depraved heart, like getting frustrated when people were rude, or being a jerk of a big sister, or failing to read through the Bible in a year, or neglecting a robust prayer life. Then, as my faith started shifting, it was from my ignorance of my own ignorance — my people-pleasing, my fear, my brokenness, my humanness, the subconscious things that controlled what I believed and how I acted — things too subtle for me to even notice, much less combat.
I noticed how at the core of almost every (if not all) sin was hurt or human weakness. People lashed out in anger when they were bullied. Abusers were often once the abused. Kids shot their fellow students because they were misunderstood and ostracized.
If it were not for that hurt, compounded by human weakness, that turns into despair and then hate, what might this world look like?
And because these things are so subtle, many people are not even aware of when we grossly wrong another person or ourselves because of whatever lies we were taught or picked up or concluded due to our individual experiences.
My kindergartners constantly bullied and hit each other. I thought, at first, they just needed to learn to keep their hands to themselves. But that was not the issue. The issue was that their parents told them to fight when they were wronged. This was the inner city. Life or death might depend on being able to fight back. In a world of fear, hurt, and danger, violence, rather than peacemaking, made perfectly logical sense. It was my namby pamby rule of using words rather than violence that was stupid and immoral.
Due to our experiences, all of us get broken, wrong ideas implanted in our souls as perfectly logical and moral. Everyone is a good guy in their own ideology. Everyone is on the right side according to their view of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
I say that with all seriousness: Lord, have mercy, because we need some hands-on intervention into our brokenness.
This is why I never resonated with Christians’ exuberance over free will. “God is a gentleman. He never forces himself on anybody,” I heard frequently, as if that was the highest praise. “You are not insistent, You do not force me, You are not controlling,” Audrey Assad sings in her latest song “Deliverer.”
Of course, I understood the heart of these sentiments — we aren’t robots; true love comes from the opportunity to choose love freely. And all of those things I would come to believe and value in time.
But if I was honest with myself, both the past and present versions of me, I dislike the image of God the gentleman standing to the side as he watches the world burn; God the gentleman saying, “Depart from me; I never knew you,” when he could have stepped in and made himself known; God the gentleman creating free will in the first place when he knew it would cause us to suffer so much.
Embarrassingly, I resonate with John Donne’s shocking, violent depiction of God’s sovereignty:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Yes, batter me. Break, blow, and burn away all the ignorance and brokenness that drives us to hate and harm and choose all manner of evil in the name of good. We don’t know better, and you do, so do something.
Calvinism allows for a God who micromanages his elect, orchestrating their salvation, keeping them within the fold. I remember feeling such confidence, such an awash of grace, when I first learned the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Nothing, nothing, nothing — especially not my own ignorance or sin or weakness — could keep me from the love of God.
I was finally safe from my worst enemy — myself.
I love Calvinism for introducing me to a God like that — a Father so acutely aware of my limitations that he doesn’t just sit by as I obliviously wander into oncoming traffic; he runs and snatches me up; he doesn’t let me go even as I kick and scream and don’t understand. He loves me more than he loves my free will, which isn’t, in a world as broken as this, as free as we’d like to think.
This image of a fatherly, ever-loving, all-knowing, sovereign God is why I am ultimately no longer Calvinist.
The flipside of a God who chooses and keeps his elect is a God who chooses to damn the non-elect for no reason other than his pleasure — a vile departure from any notion of love. And because God chooses his elect willy nilly (i.e., according to his wise counsel), he’s not really saving us from ourselves as much as he is saving us from his capricious self.
Hence, most people, I discovered, hated Calvinism. It surprised me how much people hated Calvinism and the God revealed in Calvinism.
But this past year, I went through long periods of terror in the hands of an angry God. I felt like I couldn’t keep the faith; it was slipping away from me into agnosticism. I wanted so badly to stay Christian, but I wasn’t able to.
I felt damned.
And I knew from Calvinism that God was capable of saving the elect, that he would never leave me or forsake me, that the elect would persevere until the end. Since I wasn’t able to persevere until the end, since I was rapidly losing the faith, I was clearly the vessel he created for destruction.
No matter how much I railed at this ugly idea, that God damned his creation for his own glory, all I kept hearing was Paul heartlessly repeating, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
Once again, my humanness got in the way of my salvation. This time, there was no rescuer.
Ironically, it was this spiritual experience that leads me more than ever to rejoice in God’s sovereignty.
As I’ve stepped outside of the raging Arminian and Calvinist debate, I no longer see salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty pitted against human will. Ardent supporters of either theologies will insist that, as total sovereignty and total free will are opposites, I have to choose one or the other as the primary instigator of predestination.
But I don’t see them as opposites. I see them as paradoxes. What we’re dealing with here is not a logical thing, but a spiritual, experiential thing with too many facets for a systematic theology. And as such, I’ve gained more clarity about the issue from abandoning the labels and the debates and the attempts to stitch together my favorite clobber verses. I’ve paid more attention to the metaphor and the mystery of God’s love as experienced through human love — particularly through parental love.
The more I interact with children through gentle parenting/teaching methods, the more I understand how it’s possible for God to be sovereign — for God to have his way — and for God to respect, honor, and allow our free choices in a way that doesn’t ultimately harm us.
In gentle parenting, when a child throws a tantrum, the parent doesn’t leave the room, close the door, and let the child deal with the negative behavior he chose (the equivalent of the worst of Arminianism, in my mind). Nor does the parent bark orders, punish, or demand that “you better do what I say — or else!” (the equivalent of the worst of Calvinism, in my mind).
The gentle parent knows that her child is acting out of legitimate discomfort and ignorance about how to handle that discomfort — hunger, sleepiness, disappointment, embarrassment, pain.
Knowing this, she sits with her child until the tantrum ends. If the child lunges at her, she gently blocks the child’s hand and says, “I understand you’re angry, but I won’t let you hit me.” If the child starts running around the room and throwing things, she stays within reach to make sure the child doesn’t harm himself. If he can’t keep himself or others safe, sometimes she enfolds him in her arms gently and firmly, empathizing and repeating that she will not let him hurt himself or others.
She will not be moved by the worst of his moments. She will not punish, threaten, or coerce her child into doing what she wants. She is always near, always ready to jump up and protect, jump up and rescue, until her love is so evident and so unavoidable and so relentless that her child collapses into her arms.
Unavoidable, relentless love wins out every time — not because it batters its way through, but because we were made for love, we were made in the image of love. No matter how broken, hurt, twisted, and sinful we are, there’s always a part of a us that can and will respond to love, given enough time, given enough relentless patience.
While I would no longer describe God’s sovereignty as a rape, I wouldn’t describe him as a gentleman either, waiting around to see what our free will will choose. I would describe him as that patient mother. His sovereignty isn’t invasive; it’s intimate. His patience isn’t passive; it’s involved.
Will he get his way in the end, with all men being saved? Will love reach us where we are most broken and hardened? Oh, I hope so. If anybody could do it, this sovereign, patient God could.
Readers, to focus the discussion, let’s not argue within the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism about which side is “right.” I myself am still capable of giving a point by point proof of Calvinism in rebuttal to this article. I’m more interested in hearing how God’s sovereignty and our free will makes a difference in your spirituality, how you have grown in your understanding of how they work together, etc.