Sometime in late 1864, as the Civil War was nearing its completion and Lincoln was approaching his reelection, he penned a private note that was not discovered until some years after his death, which is called by historians “Meditation on the Divine Will.” Its short text reads as follows:
“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true—that God wills this contest and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
This meditation makes a very profound point about the ways in which divine will and human responsibility intersect. The same sort of struggle between recognizing the hand of God and the responsibility of man in our personal lives, regarding such issues at salvation, is seen in the understanding of a God who acts in history, yet through human actors. Mankind is responsible, and yet God is in control. The fact that we must all stand at the judgment seat and be held accountable for what we have thought, said, and done on this earth does not mean that our actions in any way can thwart the will of God. Nor does the fact that God’s will will prevail negate in any sense our own personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions.
In Romans 9, Paul makes a similar sort of mediation on the divine will with a subject that sorely troubled him to the same degree that the slaughter of the Civil War troubled Abraham Lincoln. Paul almost wishes himself to be damned so that his people, who had largely rejected Jesus Christ, could be saved. And yet, in his reflection on the will of God in providing a son to Abraham and Sarah in Isaac, and in showing his choice of Jacob as the chosen heir over his twin brother Esau, and in showing God’s hardening the heart of the pharaoh from whom Israel was delivered from slavery, comes to an understanding that the will of God is sure, and just, in that He shows mercy to those whom He chooses, and sets up vessels for wrath and vessels for mercy. That is, Paul understands the truth that men are responsible to God for what they do, but God is ultimately in control. Divine will and human action are not contradictory, but rather complementary.
This fact is not always easy to understand in our own human lives. Having struggled deeply and for a long time with the subject of divine providence, I sought to look in the Bible at occasions where God’s working in the lives of His people could be determined. Two examples stood out particularly to demonstrate how God chooses to act in the lives of His people—the story of the book of Ruth the Moabitess and that of Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners who through the providence of God were brought into the true faith of the God of Israel in ways that seemed the result of circumstance but in reality were controlled by God every step along the way. While both examples are too long to demonstrate in detail (my writing about the workings of divine providence in the story of Naaman the Syrian alone took some seventeen pages of single-spaced typing, and I am sure few people have the time or inclination to delve that much into the subject). Nonetheless, it is worth considering divine providence briefly in the example of Ruth.
Ruth was born into the land of Moab, and she was brought, it seems, into contact with Israel and God through a famine that drove a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his two frail sons Mahlon and Chilion from Bethlehem to Moab, ironically, in search of bread. As could be predicted from their names, Mahlon and Chilion died young, leaving Ruth and her sister-in-law Orpah young widows. Their fondness for Naomi (who must be one of the best mother-in-laws in recorded history) led both women to desire to return with her, even facing dire poverty as foreign widows in a strange land, but ultimately only Ruth returned after making a dramatic confession of faith. Ruth then, upon arriving in Bethlehem, finds work “by chance” in the field of Boaz, a decent (and probably much older) man who is immediately taken by Ruth and provides for her privately, without embarrassing her. At around the time of Pentecost, Ruth, at Naomi’s urging, proposes marriage to Boaz in accordance with the law of levirate marriage, and Boaz, without causing any harm to her reputation by even bringing up this proposal, manages to secure the agreement of the closer relative and both Ruth and Boaz figure prominently in the line of David and of Jesus Christ.
In fact, none of these things happened by chance at all, and the divine providence in this example was not only being shown to Ruth, but to Boaz as well. For the purposes of Ruth entering into the faith of the true God, any Israelite family would have done, but God chose a particular family, thanks (it would seem) to the faithfulness of both Naomi and Boaz. The famine that drove Elimelech and his family out of Bethlehem was the means of bringing Ruth, whom God desired to bring into His family, in contact with a particular Jewish family. The frailty of Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, was providential in that it made Ruth a young widow, for the benefit of Boaz, a faithful and unmarried (probably widowed) man in Bethlehem. In bringing Ruth and Naomi back to Bethlehem through the fact that bread had been restored to Judah, God brought Ruth into contact with His people. And then, by chance, Ruth, when seeking to help her widowed mother-in-law to survive by the difficult task of gleaning, came into Boaz’s field and into contact with a man determined to help out this young woman without shaming her. Furthermore, when Naomi sought to provide for Ruth by urging her to marry Boaz, she also helped provide for him too. The compassionate and generous nature of Boaz, and his desire to help and protect the reputation of the widow of his relative, led him into marriage with a wonderful young lady.
In the story of Ruth, therefore, we see the combination of human action and divine providence working together to accomplish the will of God. The otherwise unusual and frowned-upon marriage of a Jewish man to a Moabite young woman brought a godly widow into the family line of our Savior, and brought Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz as main characters in one of the Bible’s most touching books. God works His will through the actions of people who are often unaware at the time the will they are serving, but their acting “in character” as it were puts the will of God into action without removing any responsibility from those human actors. As it was in the book of Ruth, and it was in the horrors of the Civil War, so it is on our time.
God does not wish to make our choices for us, which would remove responsibility, nor does he allow human beings the autonomy to bring their own desires into fruition (unless they fit into God’s design), which would thwart His will. Therefore, the combination of divine providence and human responsibility means that human beings must act in the material world without knowing the path their steps will tread. What seem to us to be chance circumstances, even the sore trials and disasters that befall us, serve the purposes of a divine architect who engineers circumstances to fit His plans and designs, yet in ways that are served by people who act freely, without compulsion, according to their own plans and designs that are but imperfectly realized, and who often do not even remotely realize the ends to which their actions serve.
Like Abraham Lincoln, I am someone who ponders deeply on the divine will, seeking to find purpose and meaning for the circumstances of life, possessed of the deep need to find a reason for what has taken place, and for what is, and a hope for a better world yet to come. The will of God prevails, but not by fiat, but often through the actions of human beings who are unaware of (or even hostile to) God’s designs. And so we act, to the best of our knowledge and the best of our abilities, in the hope that they may serve the purposes of God ultimately to our own benefit as well, both here and for all eternity.